Good garden therapy: Stop and smell the basil


Spring is here. I know this, because my garden projects are going awry.

The Rototiller, which just had a tune-up, refuses to start. So I decided instead to trim the apple tree, and nearly pruned my left arm off at the elbow. Tree tar stopped the bleeding.

Undaunted, I chose to plant some early vegetables, until I found that I had forgotten to label my broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage seedlings, all of which look exactly alike. In other words, they are all mixed up, and I have no idea what I'm planting.

And now a fat squirrel we call NORM! has just bellied up to the bird feeder, where he has eaten $2 worth of sunflower seed since this sentence began.

Am I upset? You bet. That's why I fled to the basement. I go there often in early spring, when overwhelmed by bungled projects. I run to the cellar to rejuvenate my gardening spirit.

It's not what you think. I get nothing to drink from a Mason jar. I merely lean over my seed-starting trays, pinch the leaf of a tiny basil plant and inhale. Ahhhhhh. The scent is sweet, fresh and cleansing. No matter if the basil is only a tiny seedling. Its perfume still packs one heckuva punch.

One whiff of this aromatic herb strengthens my soul. Instantlymy earlier disasters become minor setbacks, and I burst back into the sunlight, only to find it is snowing.

No matter. I have been reborn, horticulturally speaking.

I highly recommend this garden therapy. When all seems lost in the backyard, just scratch and sniff some basil. Or sage. Or thyme. It'll fix you right up.

For that matter, you can stop and smell the rosemary. Any of the kitchen herbs are OK. But remember to use live plants. Sniffing bottled basil won't do.

The best thing about fresh herbs is that they taste as good as they smell. Many supermarkets now sell fresh herbs in small quantities, but the plants are remarkably easy to grow. Most herbs are native to the Mediterranean with its poor, rocky soil. However, good garden loam is recommended for best growth, says Cyrus Hyde, of Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, N.J.

"One theory is that starving the plants produces the best-tasting herbs. But all you really get are scroungy little plants that hardly grow," says Mr. Hyde. He suggests working manure or other organic matter into the new herb bed.

"We don't feed our herb plants, we feed our soil," he says.

Well-Sweep Herb Farm (317 Mount Bethel Road, Port Murray, N.J. 07865) which opened 24 years ago during the back-to-nature movement of the 1960s, ships plants all over the world. A catalog costs $2.

On a 5- 1/2 acre plot, Mr. Hyde grows more varieties of herbs than most people thought existed: 20 different basils, 40 rosemarys, 30 sages and 75 thymes.

Besides the generic kitchen herbs, Mr. Hyde grows and sells unusual and exotic types such as "Cuban" basil, a newly discovered variety which tolerates light frost; "Orange Balsam" thyme, which smells of eucalyptus; and "Indian" basil, a plant to which Hindus pray.

Many people grind their own pepper, but how many can also grow it? Here, one can purchase the black pepper plant, "Piper Nigra," a vine that is best grown as a houseplant.

Presently, Mr. Hyde is trying to acquire a bizarre herb from Chilcalled "Saline" basil for the salt it produces on its leaves.

"Each day, the dew drying on the plant's leaves produces crystals of a non-sodium salt," he says. "Each plant produces about 1/4 ounce of salt a day. The leaves are used to flavor black bean soup."

However, most of Mr. Hyde's customers opt for basic herb plants. For beginners, he suggests parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. "As the song goes," he says.

(Parsley is easily grown from seed as an annual. The others are available at most garden centers, or from Carroll Gardens in Westminster.)

Also, Mr. Hyde recommends lovage, a celery-flavored herb that is much easier to grow than that vegetable.

"Once you put lovage in potato salad, you'll never be without it," he says.

Not only do home-grown herbs smell and taste good, they are also pleasing to the eye. Mr. Hyde was stunned to find an 80-year-old woman visitor laying on the floor of his shop, gazing up at the dried herbs hanging from the rafters.

"This is the only way you can appreciate them," the woman said. "It looks like a Persian rug on the ceiling."

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