MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Holy Basil


By Jim Bishop.

While I’ve mostly been written in this column about the ornamental landscaping of my home in Encinitas, I also had a vegetable garden. It was located on the slope of the side yard just outside the kitchen. When I first landscaped the garden in 1984, I used railroad ties to create 2 levels of raised beds that stepped up the hillside. The first was the height of one railroad tie, about 10 inches, and ran parallel to the sidewalk from the garage to the backyard. The next level was up about 2 feet higher with upended 3 foot railroad ties used to terrace the hill. At the top of that bed ran another set of horizontal railroad ties that separated the garden from the iceplant and shrubbery that grew above it. I built steps out of railroad ties at one end so that that upper level could be easily accessed. Between the steps and beds 5 foot long railroad ties were upended to create a compost bin that would hold about 2 cubic yards of material.


Vegetable Garden on the side yard in Encinitas

The first year I planted many of the same things I had grown in my college garden in Austin – broccoli, spinach, carrots, onions and lettuce in the winter – beans, summer squash, cantaloupe and tomatoes in the summer. I also planted bare root raspberries and strawberries. However, I found out quickly that it was not hot enough in the summer for cantaloupe and barely hot enough to ripen eggplants and peppers. The squash quickly got mildew and squash bugs. However, the strawberries did well for a few years and raspberries did very well for many years. Given the amount of time, labor and water that maintaining a vegetable garden requires, I decided that I should only grow things that taste best fresh from the garden and/or were either rare or expensive at the market. So, I quickly settled in on many different varieties of sugar peas, lettuce and winter greens in the fall through spring and many varieties of tomatoes and raspberries in the summer. I also was inspired by the large asparagus fields in Irvine and ordered some expensive male hybrid asparagus roots that were specifically bred for mild winter conditions and lack of seed production. I dug a deep trough per the instructions and covered them with a rich mixture of compost and top soil. However, I must have done something wrong, since only a couple of the plants produced shoots and even those died within a year.

I had much better luck with tomatoes. This was before the current rage for heirloom tomatoes, so I tried many different varieties of hybrids. I found that for production, taste and lack of diseases that my favorites were Better Boy, Early Girl, Sweet One Million and Sweet 100. I would experiment each year with a few different varieties, but always came back to these. I’m still not much of a fan of growing heirloom tomatoes. I want plants that are disease free and produce lots of fruit with minimal effort.

Somewhere I learned about basil. Somehow, I had never seen, tasted nor grown basil until I was almost 30. However, once I tried it I was smitten. One year I ordered every type of basil seed available from the Burpee catalogue. Soon I was putting it in everything and looking for more recipes. I found that I liked the lettuce leaf basil for replacing lettuce in sandwiches. Sweet basil was great for cooking and also making pesto. Cinnamon basil worked well with grilled peaches. Lemon basil seemed to be made for grilled fish. The purple basils added color and flavor to salads. The bush basils were cute, but I found them too difficult to work with. I started making batches of Sweet 100 tomatoes mixed with basil, pepper, fresh garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar. I bought a food processor that sounded like a small airplane engine and started making different types of pesto. I especially liked using lemon basil in pesto for its bright green color and tartness. I’d use it with pasta and as a spread on pizzas or sandwiches. In the fall, I’d spend an entire day in the kitchen and make enough pesto to fill the freezer for the winter. My co-workers all said they knew when I was eating lunch and that I smelled like an Italian restaurant. They also avoided me on Mondays for fear I’d give them another big bag of tomatoes.

Somewhere I came across a basil plant that was different than the rest with one inch long fuzzy leaves and a very fruity aroma and needed less water. It became my favorite with fresh fruit or just to sniff. It even had pretty pink flower spikes. Since I couldn’t find it in seed catalogues or at the nursery, I’d let it go to seed in the fall and save the seeds for the next growing season. Even the envelope with the seeds took on a heavenly aroma. However over the years it has all died out and I hope to find it again someday---does anyone know where?

Over the years, I created mountains of compost by running the cuttings from the garden through a 3 horsepower shredder. To add nitrogen to speed up the composting, I took the bags of grass clipping that neighbors put out for trash pickup each week and mixed them in. I’d add more compost to the garden each year. One year to increase yields and save water, I used the French intensive gardening method and double-dug the garden. I started at one end of the garden and removed a couple wheelbarrows of soil. I then dug down another spade depth where I just removed the soil and added in more compost and fertilizer and turned the next section over on top. I worked my way through the garden until everything had been dug down and turned 18 inches deep. The next year, you could easily plunge your hand into the soil up to your elbow without much effort. The basil and tomatoes were better than ever!


  

Our Mission  To inspire and educate the people of San Diego County to grow and enjoy plants, and to create beautiful, environmentally responsible gardens and landscapes.

 

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