Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Seed Saving

I got a lime basil plant for free when I ordered my peppers and other plants from Lazy Ox Farm. At the start of summer, I used the lime basil to make sun tea quite frequently. But as the season went on, the plant bolted pretty early and I kinda stopped tending to it, aside from watering it regularly.

The other day, I noticed many tiny little seedlings sprouting up around the established plant in the container. These weren't weeds, they were baby basils. The plant had not only gone to seed, it had self-seeded.

That's when I got the obvious light bulb. I could save the seeds (the ones that hadn't fallen to the ground) for next season. And, once the sweet basil was ready, I could do the same with that.

Saving basil seeds is very easy. That plant wants to put out a flower. Most gardeners pick off the flowers, which gets tiring, especially if there is a lot of basil. Instead of picking the flowers off, let them be. They're pretty and they attract bees. Keep in mind that there's a give and take. Once you let the basil flower, the leaves lose flavor. If there's plenty of time left in the season, continue the battle against the flowers. But once fall rolls around, it's time for saving seed.

After a length of time, the small petals will fall off and the flower spike will turn brown and dry out. It won't be pretty any more, but it will finally be useful to you. Trim the spikes, then spread them on a paper towel or paper plate. Let them sit for a few days or a week. To remove the mature seeds, shake the spikes or even rub them. A messier option is to put the spikes in a paper bag and give it a good shake. The seeds will collect in the bottom of the bag, but you'll also have to deal with a lot of chaff.

Basil seeds that have reached maturity are tiny and black. Store them in an envelope for the winter, then plant next spring.

One quick note about cross-pollination. Basil does cross-pollinate, and I don't have the scientific data to give percentages or whatever. But if you grew multiple varieties, keep in mind that there's a risk for cross-pollination and unusual basil plants the next year.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Hello, Fall

I spent nearly the entire day in the garden, getting it ready for fall. The entire day wasn't meant to be devoted to gardening, but once I dived in and got going, time flew by and the work piled up. The day's work involved harvesting herbs to be dried, frozen or turned into pesto. It also involved cutting the flowers/seed pods off of the lime basil in an attempt to save seeds. In hopes of getting some more veggies before the frost hits, I planted a few cold-weather crops, including peas.

The parsley plant has done pretty well this summer. I don't know why I was hesitant to grow it for so long. As far as herbs go, it was almost no work at all. I'd trim it a few times to use the leaves and stems in cooking, but that was the extent of my efforts aside from watering. It didn't have any pests or disease troubles.

Parsley has long had a connection to death, which stems from both myth and botany. I found this fun article that discussed how parsley was considered the herb of death by the ancient Greeks. Apparently, they believed that parsley first grew in the blood of Archemorus, which means "forerunner of death." From a botanical standpoint, the seed of parsley contains furamocoumarins, which prevent weeds from growing. Unfortunately, those compounds also sometimes keep the plants from germinating too. Furamocoumarins might also keep pests away from parsley.

My goal is to over-winter the parsley plant by tucking its pot in a corner of the backyard, near the house, where it is warmest. It's a biennial plant, so it should return next year for a spell. My hope is that I can trick it into producing leaves for as long as possible by trimming away the flower stem. We'll see. For now, I've cut down the leaves and have tossed them whole, but washed and dried, in the freezer. Freezing parsley means I can use it in stocks and other cooked recipes throughout the winter. The frozen parsley probably won't be suitable for use raw or as a garnish.

At the start of the growing season, I got obsessed with the idea of growing citrus scented and flavored herbs. I ended up with lemon thyme, lime basil and lemon verbena in the garden. My original thought was to grow lemon balm, but I wasn't impressed with the lemon balm plants on offer. Then, I found lemon verbena online.

The plant is native to Chile and Argentina and is a tender perennial, meaning it probably won't survive a winter outside in zone 7b. My plan is to bring it inside for the cold months. The plant has narrow, pointy leaves that are slightly sticky and smell sweetly of lemon. When brewed in sun tea, it has a light lemon flavor that's a very herbal or green tasting.

I harvested several stems of the plant today, and have hung them up to dry in a dark spare room. They've been hanging for only a few hours so far and the leaves are already drying out. I figure they will hang there for a few more days, then I will store them in a jar and use them to make tea or to flavor scones and pastries. I've also got a few sprigs of sage drying there on the left, just for the fun of it.

The summer was a rough one and I'm reluctantly glad that fall has arrived. Let's hope the garden keeps on going until the frost hits in late November/early December.