Selecting Basil

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Coco cat with flowering basil, October 2

I have grown many varieties of basil over the years, from the tall Genovese to lemon and purple basils. However I began to notice that the larger basils deteriorated at the slightest hint of cool weather and shorter days in September. If I still needed to make and freeze pesto, I had to search for enough good leaves. I always grew Greek bush basil too, but considered them a novelty, until I read a chef’s five star review of the bush basils over all others, because of their more intense spicy flavor. As well as the flavor, I had noticed that the bush basils seemed more rugged, easier to grow, and lasted later in the fall. The next year, I decided to grow only the bush basils and was able to put in a dozen because of their small size.

That year, I noticed some seedling variations that were quite amazing. One was much bigger than the others, more vigorous, and much later to go to seed. After watching it last and last into October before finally biting the dust, I realized it would be worth propagating (oops, too late!). The next year, 2015, I again planted a dozen or so bush basils from the same seed packet (I save them in the freezer). They were called “Basil, Greek Yevani” organic seed from Botanical Interests, hoping more such variations would turn up. Luckily, there were again a couple of great ones. This time, I rooted 5 cuttings in water in September, to winter over in the house.

But keeping the warmth loving basils alive all winter in our cool Michigan house seemed doubtful. I figured my only chance was to use my seed starting mat which maintains about an 86 degree temperature. I also put them near a south facing window, as if south meant anything in the dead of winter. But I did everything I could think of. I also used some additional light from a bulb in a desk lamp called Sun Blaster 26 watt 6400 K  I found on Amazon. Toward spring, I lost 2, but 3 survived. I planted them out in late May and they took off in a hurry forming huge, not so diminutive, bush basil plants. I planted tomatoes on their south side, which soon grew to 6 feet, shading them from August onward. That didn’t seem to faze them. We  love the pesto they make. My husband is not normally a pesto fan, but raved about this. I did use pine nuts (Trader Joe’s), and I like the recipe called “I Am Graceful Hemp Seed Pesto” from my tried and true “I Am Grateful” book by Terces Engelhart with Orchid from Cafe Gratitude.

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Selected basils on October 2

 

I am now back to taking cuttings from these and rooting them in water for next summer. I’ll use the same system again, but may add my new and improved foliar feed with sea-90, BioAg’s Ful-Power (fulvic acid), General Organic’s BioWeed and BioMarine. Just to make sure the science (we know about) is there, I’ll also now use BioAg’s VAM to inoculate the roots with mycorrhizae. I’m hoping all five make it, (but do I really need 5?).

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‘Wonderful’ selected basil on left with unselected basil ‘Slim Pickins’ on right

Oceanic Skullcap

Picture of skullcap growing in our gardenI have always loved the colors, textures, sculptural forms and under-seascapes of coral reefs. One of the reasons I love gardens is that they remind me of the lush exuberant whirling dervish atmosphere of underwater life. I like the thought of bringing this primordial template onto land –  so if a plant reminds me of a sea anemone or sea urchin, I’m likely to plant it. So when Rico Cech  of  Horizon Herbs described the purple flowers of Baical Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) as  “schools of dolphins breaking through green waves in a summer sea”, there was hardly a choice but to order seed and add to my seascape vision.shot of skull cap blossoms in the garden

The seeds germinated well and I grew the small plants in pots most of the summer. In September, I put them in the ground. At that point there wasn’t much oceanic about them. This spring, I strained to see something – anything –  emerging, and finally there were some tiny but determined looking shoots.  Since they are native to Mongolia and Siberia I need not have been concerned. Our West Michigan winter only went down to zero this year. Over the summer they grew by leaps and bounds – maybe of those dolphins – surprising me at every turn.

I haven’t tested out their lauded medicinal qualities yet – harvest of the roots is the second year – but I plan to next year. Mr. Cech asserts that the roots cure dysentery (rare here is West Michigan) and avian flu (not so rare). He says “there is really no better anti-infection agent in herbalism, to my knowledge”.

With such ringing endorsements of its medicinal prowess, it may seem an afterthought that the flowers make beautiful short bouquets, perfect for a tabletop where you must be able to see the person across from you (well not “must”, in some cases a bouquet of sunflowers would be preferable). But if beauty itself has  any healing power, then skullcap is healing from top to bottom. Bees and hummingbirds are also Baical Skullcap enthusiasts. Between the Nicotiana (in the background) and the Cosmos (over yonder), the hummingbirds seem to be thrilled.

Now these gardens are a little closer to that uninterrupted, flowing, oceanic, mysterious quality I am cultivating.

Native Plant Lecture and Plant Sale

Good view of the bermed design of Cedar Creek building

Good view of the bermed design of Cedar Creek building

Because I love the bermed architecture of the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute Main Cedar Creek building from the southeast and because I can’t resist a plant sale, we dropped urgent gardening tasks and drove out to investigate. I had diminished expectations of any lecture on native plants. Hoopla abounds in the breeding of more and more dazzling and talented plants, so it seemed that native plants would only be  poor, deprived, pitiful cousins in need of some type of genetic infusion. However, I had gone so far as to become enchanted by bumblebees in the dead of winter and had a list of nine wild plants which are loved by them. The website Xerces.com sells a kit of the plants, but tracking them down seemed more interesting.

Entrance to main Cedar Creek Institute Building

Cedar Creek entrance and plants for sale

Upon arriving, one from my list (which of course I forgot), jumped out – Wild Bergamot.  Another one just looked powerful:  Great Blue Lobelia. Lobelia was the herb raved about by the herbalist Jethro Kloss in his book Back To Eden, the first herbal I ever read. Everyone but Mr. Kloss had a deep fear and dread of lobelia instilled by powerful war volleys put forth by the makers of the War On Nature. But Mr. Kloss could cure just about anything with this potent herb (including suspended animation). So I bought that one too. What bee wouldn’t want to revel in this herb?

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Native plants I bought, from left: Columbine, Bottle Gentian, Great Blue Lobelia, Little Bluestem, Wild Bergamot

We sat in the back at the lecture in case a quick exit was necessitated out of boredom. But I was shocked to have been immediately gripped by a new fever for the pristine, the unadorned, and the utterly natural world of native plants. The earnest and learned lecturer, Vern Stephens from Designs by Nature, began by explaining the advantageous nutritional value of native seeds and berries for the birds. Similar plants hybridized for other characteristics such as color or hardiness don’t have the high quality amino acids and proteins possessed by native plants. Birds who eat them often cannot fly fast enough to escape predators or lay fewer eggs. Some birds will not even eat non-native seeds and fruits. Native plants  have a crucial position in the woven tapestry of interdependence between plants, insects, and birds.

Seeing myself as at least somewhat bird-like, I couldn’t help but think about my human diet as well – that perhaps I am lacking in wild native foods too. Aside from Chaga mushrooms, I am not eating that many wild foods. I think I am surviving – but surviving may be more than walking and talking. Perhaps unbeknownst to us, we are all still in a game of survival. We have crude “foodstuffs” but do we have foods that can help us to survive on a higher human level……was the question. We perceive that we are safe, but what about higher human functions – the idea that never emerged, the mental retreat, the smile that never found its way from our brain to our face?

Since humans ideally bridge the gap between the physical and the spiritual, I suddenly found myself engrossed in the idea of spiritual ecology. Could there be foods that can help us break barriers between physical and spiritual realms, that can help us fly away to a safer place? The idea that our gardens and yards can help us survive on a higher level seemed worth exploring. Gardening always leads me to see relationships I never knew existed, and this lecture sparked new avenues and threads I’ll fly off to……if I can find the right amino acids.