Bountiful Basil

Bountiful basil brightens Hank Will’s year, as he saves seeds to develop a healthy local cultivar to season pesto, tomatoes, and heirloom foods.


Dove-and-Hank
Photo by Joanne Will

Several years ago, we had a significant mildew issue with our basil. We pulled off a small crop, but since we depend on basil to brighten our entire year, we set out to select for mildew-resistant lines. I wrote about this in the December 2017/January 2018 issue, and I’ve had quite a few requests and letters since then asking me to report on the outcome of those experiments. In a nutshell, that blighty year, we saved seed from the least-affected individuals and later mixed it with seed of several cultivars we obtained from various commercial sources — hoping for the highest genetic variability we could readily obtain. The following year, we scattered that seed in various raised beds, in containers, and on worked ground. To say we had a bounty of basil that year would be an understatement. We had some mildew, but not as pronounced as the year prior.

Having had our fill of various types of basils that year, we again saved seed by gathering mature fruiting stalks, bunching them, and hanging them upside-down from a light fixture in the dining room near the woodstove. The following spring, we took those bunches and whacked them on the surface of flats that we set under grow lights, and later, we whacked them right onto the soil in the beds where we planned to grow basil. What we experienced was an explosion of incredible diversity. Some plants resembled the cultivars we started with, but most were obviously crosses among the types, with lovely colors and a full gradient of basil flavors, from sweet to spicy. We saw no blight or mildew or any disease in the basil that year.

Fast-forward a couple of seasons of repeating the seed collecting and replanting strategy. Today, what we have are beds literally choked with a hardy, robust, and rank-growing melting pot of basils that survive cold, rainy springs; hot, dry summers; hot, humid summers — you name it. Even seasons where the tomatoes and peppers refuse to thrive, this basil, although far from a pure type, excels. Our basil even self-sows — we find it growing among the beneficial weeds, such as lambsquarters and wild sunflowers. The native bees and honeybees love it too.

We’ve used genetic diversity and mass selection to good local advantage with heirloom corns, hair sheep, jalapeños, and chickens. Our mutt approach delivers plants and animals that perform without a great deal of intervention on our part. I’m grateful for the folks who maintain the purebred lines so we can choose seed stock from many different sources to create diverse genetic mixes that thrive under our conditions and management strategies. I love the flavor of a ripe ‘Black Krim’ tomato, but I’m a food gardener first, and great performance with benign neglect is what we need to be able to feed ourselves while maintaining the farm and all the side hustles that go with it.



If you’ve used genetic diversity to good advantage at your place, I’d love to hear about it; email me at HWill@MotherEarthNews.com, and send along some photos too, if you have them.

See you in December,






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