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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Suddenly, Pesto

Sunday, August 21, 2016


PHOTO: Leonard Moorehead

Basil deserves its sobriquet, “King of Herbs”. Space conscious gardeners reserve a pot or more for a handful of kitchen herbs. Essential on my list is Basil. Homage is easy enough, our tribute to basil is ancient. The slightest hot summer breeze evokes awe, few garden herbs are as pungent as basil. There are plenty of reasons to incorporate basil within the garden. 

Fresh culinary herbs produce abundant harvests from small spaces. Basil has few demands. Plenty of sunshine is premier. Moderate fertility and good drainage are important. Basil thrives in larger pots. Savvy gardeners plant culinary herbs close to the kitchen door. Dash outside for chives, parsley, basil, tarragon, thyme, sage or lemon verbena. Carry sharp scissors and groom herbs, gently place a in a soaked straw basket, a fresh napkin on the bottom. Snip growing tips, flowers, or leaves, discard all but the best onto the mulch, rinse with the hose. In pots? Water and give the pot a quarter twist. Run back to the kitchen, frittata cooks fast.

Consider the cuisine or experiment with basil. The king of herbs is a basic ingredient in Mediterranean, Mid-eastern, Indian, South Asian and Chinse cuisine. Plain leaf Italian basil is a signature flavor in Italian dishes. Varieties available to the urban gardener are easy to find as young transplants, Thai basil has small leafs of delicate, almost sweet flavor. Purple basil adds visual appeal along with robust flavor. Lemon flavored basil has a citrus tang ideal for sweet and sour dishes. All respond with vigorous growth to dish by dish clipping. Few gardeners suffer dejection with the basils, basil plants are fast growers, Snip off flower stems but do not discard. Save for vinaigrettes, chop for sauces. 

Basil’s volatile flavors ask the herb be the last ingredient in long simmering marinara sauces, best added towards the end of cooking. Basil and tomatoes mature in August in my region, both are delicious served together, as companion plants, they thrive together. Basil is a versatile herb, pesto has nearly as many recipes as cooks, and home gardeners enjoy the luxury of customizing pesto to suit individual taste. Basil retains its color and flavor in oils and vinegars. Dried or frozen basil are second choices. 

Most pesto is very simple, lots of basil, finest quality olive oil, garlic and aged cheese of choice. Garlic is a dominant common flavor, emphasize basil’s August flavors and hold back on rivals. Exercise your taste to suit, no one has yet to ask others to eat basil for communal breath. Pesto has great keeping qualities in refrigerated closed jars. The goal is make a thick paste and maybe one of those rare times the kitchen calls for mortar and pedestal. Mash the leaves and oil per dish or make up a larger batch for keeping. 

Parsley is essential to the culinary gardener. Recall this bright green herb from its exile to decorate a slice of packaged meat. Garden grown parsley is nearly an independent food group. Nothing quite matches its robust flavor straight from the garden. This biennial herb sends long tap roots into compacted soils. While gardeners and friends enjoy food around the picnic table, parsley gently tills beneath the soil, carrying trace nutrients from beneath the root zone of most plants to the surface. Never pull up parsley, plant as an annual, although reliable from seed, parsley is very slow to germinate. Most purchase transplants of curly leaf and plain leave. Each has its partisans, plain leaf claims more flavor, no one can dispute curly leaf parsley’s lovely pronounced green. 

Sun beaten gardens often a bit neglected while gardeners vacation or devote free time to the cooler beaches. Parsley is stalwart, one returns to the garden and is happy to see bright green foliage. A short plant, parsley needs no beds, rather as an edging plant or set out in prime numbered patches of 3, 5, 7, 11, etc., parsley accents adjacent, taller plants. Very hardy, parsley quietly accepts thick winter mulches tucked close to its crown. Parsley thrives in sunlight and has few pests. As with so many plants, move parsley locations around from year to year. Should a woody flower stem emerge and offer a white umbrella bloom, allow to mature and save the miniscule seeds for planting. 

Start parsley in the cold frame. Although August is the epitome of summer glory, August is also the time to start thinking of the equally productive fall growing season. Consider sunny sites for a cold frame. Rummage through the seed box and pull out kale, broccoli, peas, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and left over lettuces. Spaces in the garden may be threadbare. Pile grass clippings or other organic materials onto the bare spots. Much gardening is like an iceberg, only the tip shows. Fresh grass clippings decompose rapidly especially when moist and in the sun. Moisture is kept much as if within a sponge within and beneath mulches. 

Drought is prevalent throughout my region. I rarely water. Containers require constant supervision for dryness, some of us give up or yield to despair as fuchsias once dried do not revive. Ask a friend to come by and water. Likewise, beware of irony. Many gardeners place pots within pots to conserve water or encourage those, like begonias or decorative coleus, who thrive with wet feet. Do not be mystified if geraniums or petunias drown in over watered pots. Still water kills off important micro flora, earthworms, and is oxygen poor. Drain overfull containers or remove the larger catch pot altogether for the last 8 or 9 weeks of frost free weather. Tough geraniums are likely to recover enough for winter storage. 

An early spring cold snap virtually eliminated peaches and apricots this year in New England. Pears were a bit luckier. Comb through the pears and cull misshapen, or runt fruit. Asian pears often set fruit in triplets, remove the smaller and closest fruit. Dig deep for the courage and have faith, the isolated remaining fruit will benefit from the additional space and nutrients. The isolated examples will become splendid examples of their kind. Snip, do not pull, the culls. The wrong tug may break off all when we truly seek one. 

As warm weather appeals eternal, it is not. Tropical storm systems are likely to swirl up the seaboard and topple trellises, pole beans, and the sequoia like sunflowers. Do remove plants gone to seed, especially grasses, lamb’s quarters and other common weeds. Reach into the memory, perhaps arugula and mustard has self-sown. Weed through the salad patches, cultivate lightly, perhaps a fall crop is ready to flourish. If you’re a little shaky on memory, or cannot identify immature plants, sow. So-called green manure crops utilize full garden potential. The root systems and foliage may be turned under when cold weather grips the garden. Their mass is greater than the sum of their parts, requires no transport, and retains nutrients on site. No garden should have exposed soil at any time of the year. 

But then, what about the pesto? Stretch, breath deep. Our gardens have many mansions, from every aspect gardeners are healthy folk, those nourished not only under the sun and at the table. Sniff the pesto. Within a breath, a summer’s day is manifest. Splurge and buy baker’s bread, the kind that goes stale in a day. Dip into the pesto, savor. Basil is the king of herbs. Kneel gardener, rise up a knight. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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