A sweet surprise

There’s a footnote to add to my recent posts on the raised beds… Not so long ago, I bemoaned the fact that we don’t have any sweet basil. This is an oversight on my part of unimaginable consequence: For us, as a family, to have to eat our pasta senza basilico is a most terrible deprivation. It feels like an absolute howler to offer anyone spaghetti, penne or fusilli without the addition of that most aromatic and beautiful of summer herbs straight from the beds outside.

Then: “Ecco!” As I removed some bedraggled chicory (Italian, as it happens!) there emerged a small, jewel-like plant, slightly nibbled by snails but nonetheless -incontrovertibly – a baby sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum.

Sweet basil 6.17I pressed a leaf gently between finger and thumb just to be sure – but the look of those lovely, slightly glossy and distinctively fresh, green leaves gave it away before I had smelled the oils.

I breathed a profound sigh of relief: We may yet be able to rescue our pasta dishes this summer.

What has happened with our basil plants is an interesting exercise in nature taking over. It’s not as if we don’t have the plants in the garden, most of them propagated from cuttings from one or two plants I bought at local nurseries. These are not O. basilicum in its sweet form, although they may be varieties of the species that I can’t identify. Some may be different species, possibly O. tenuiflorum, or holy basil, although I have my doubts about that.

In the raised beds, the basil should be the direct descendants of plants grown from seeds of sweet basil brought from the UK. But evidently all the plants – except for this one – have cross-bred. As a result, this year’s seedlings have lost the sweetness and emerged in much more pungent form, with a touch of anise. Not what we want on our pasta!

A similar thing has happened with our oregano (Origanum vulgare). It appears to have hybridised with locally-sourced  O. majorana, so the delicately flavoured herb I once had in RB4 has become O. x majoricum with a more strident taste.

All this variety in herbs makes for fascinating experimentation in the field, unscientific as it is (i.e. uncontrolled). It goes like this, kind of:

flowers + bees = new plant varieties, every season.

Meanwhile, my tastebuds are revelling in tulsi tea, made from the leaves of yet more basil plants. Very popular in India, where O. tenuiflorum/sanctum is called holy tulsi, this tea comes not from the raised beds but from the Pukka company, and is obtainable in London. As if to underline the astonishing variety in the basil world, the tea comprises Green Rama and purple Krishna tulsi, with a splash of lemon Vana tulsi, thereby also showing the illustrious nature of the herb in the Indian tradition. It’s a real tonic to the health.

For more on holy basil, see also:  Basil’s hidden secrets

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Assessing the garden produce

In temperatures easily reaching 40C, sometimes well above that, the plants in the raised beds have to a large extent survived, seemingly against the odds. To give credit where it is due, I think this is largely owing to the Engineer overhauling the irrigation system in April – after which he disappeared for two months! Benign neglect while we were away in May-June seems to have done the plants no harm either. This all puts me in my place, I rather think.

Raised bed 4 has been a triumph of our experiment in hugelkultur. Formerly overwatered and depleted, the soil in two-thirds of the bed was dug out, the trench filled with dead wood and dry composting materials, and then topped off with mixed sand and soil plus a thin dressing of compost and horse manure. The cherry tomatoes, capsicums, sweet basil, beans and mange tout were all young plants when we left on holiday. On our return, the tomato vines had grown like topsy and were laden with a heavy crop of fruit; likewise, the capsicums had produced a plentiful supply of fine, tender peppers, while the basil bushes were glowing with health. Only the beans and mange tout had been well and truly fried by the sun.

Cherry tomatoes bed 4   6.16
Swinging into action last Saturday, the Engineer and assistant rigged up a rather peculiar frame for the tomatoes using bits of wood from around the garage to raise the tomatoes off the bed. Just picked, the little fruit burst on the palate like a summer’s day: sweet, flavourful and warm from the sun!
Bed 3, partially renovated along hugelkultur lines but with less dried material as we were running low at that point, has done correspondingly less well. The soil seems dried out and is retaining less water, I assume. Tomatoes and capsicums are not cropping as well, but we do have a welcome little patch of self-seeded rocket, some straggly beetroot, and a whole lot of flat leaf parsley and coriander in seed.
Harvest 6.16
Bed 2, rather neglected in the early summer, was filled with drying out chard, celeriac that had grown like topsy but refused utterly to form a decent root, two-year old red carrots that had grown likewise, and a sprinkling of herbs including a very healthy sage bush acquired at the Spring Flower Show at El-Urman Gardens.


The gardeners cleared the bed and began preparing the soil for a sowing of molokhiya, a mallow plant grown in Egypt since pharaonic times. The leaves are used to make a rich and quite heavy soup; I am not sure that we really want to grow it – or eat it! – but I’m willing to have a go.
We found the chard in bed 1 in need of trimming but otherwise still producing healthy new growth. Again, not my favourite but it can be used as a spinach substitute and it’s very handy for stir-fries and mixed vegetable soups. Dill and flat leaf parsley had gone to seed, celeriac was misbehaving again, and the mint was threatening to take the bed over. So the gardeners cleaned the bed and we plan to re-plant with herbs and rocket next week.
Raised bed 1  6.16
Lastly, the herb bed: I don’t often write about the diamond shaped bed in the middle but in some ways it has been an unsung star of the garden. The herbs – thyme, chives, marjoram – just get on with the job of growing. Rosemary rises to gigantic proportions elsewhere in the garden. I never give them supplementary food (no nitrates!) or water but leave them to their own devices: as a result they are filled with essential oils, giving off a wondrous perfume if you simply brush against them and filling the dishes we prepare in the kitchen with the most delicious, beneficial flavours.