One of our summer rituals is harvesting vast quantities of sweet basil and converting it into pesto, with the intention of freezing sufficient quantities of that summer sunshine to keep things bright all winter. And while our basil crop thrived for most of the season, by the end of September it became infected with basil downy mildew. Once thought to be more or less extinct, this pathogen popped up in Florida more than a decade ago, and then spread north and now west. I know that some of our neighboring states have the fungal presence and it certainly isn’t new to Kansas, but it is new to our garden. My first concern was how we’d get all the pesto made. Then I recalled a time many years ago when I could no longer afford domestic pinyon nuts, and, rather than forego altogether, we made pesto using different types of nuts. We adapted the recipe to suit our conditions. This time, I might go after the basil.
I have no delusions that I can outdo the hugely funded sweet basil breeding programs in play at Cornell University and elsewhere — that isn’t my goal. I’m not interested in rendering popular commercial cultivars resistant. I’m more interested in understanding whether I might develop a basil landrace that grows well and tastes great under the conditions specific to my garden. As I think this through, I’d likely plant many cultivars of sweet basil (and relatives), harvest seed from the best-tasting survivors, and continue for a few generations of mass selection with the hope of isolating a mildew-resistant yet tasty basil that’s specifically adapted to my local conditions. It might be a complete bust, but in any event, the exercise would be both enjoyable and useful. Our lemon basil appears to be immune to the fungus so far, so you can bet that I’ll add some of it to my grow-out list.
Whether fighting a new-to-you pest or selecting for more heat-tolerant peppers, I’d love to know how you and your gardening practices adapt to change. If you’re moved to share your ideas, successes, and even failures, please send me an email at HWill@MotherEarthNews.com — send photos too, if you can — and and we may be able to get some of your adaptations in a future issue.
See you in February,