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Eating and growing plants

April 1, 2011
By JOYCE COMINGORE, Garden Club of Cape Coral


It is my theory that gardeners love to eat, as well as create visually pleasing surroundings. I attended a meeting this week that offered small plants of herbs to each of us. I chose Thai basil. Now I need to research its potential and growing habits.

Summer is not a good time to start herbs here, but these were herbs that do well in the heat and summer. I found that Thai basil is not like sweet basil, the basil that I love on crackers with sliced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese hors d'oeuvres. My research led me to Thai cooking. The visions of all that food made me hungry, so I had to go fix lunch.

There are many plants that enjoy our hot, muggy summers, even though the best time for things we love to eat is the fall planting season. I really consider "Florida Gardening" magazine to be one of the most authoritative magazines around for Florida growing, and in the Garden Almanac April/May section, Stephen Brown, Lee County Extension Agent, who is, effective this week, the new Interim extension director, writes the column on specific gardening for South Florida. Because master gardeners have been preaching that fall is the best time to plant your gardens, I was puzzled when he wrote, "This is an exciting time for gardeners and their insatiable appetite for plants. Nurseries are loaded with colorful plants that scream, 'buy me, buy me.'" Then, he qualifies it by telling us to make wise choices because some are coming into season for the summer, some are always in season and then there are those that are flat out intolerant of the summer heat and humidity. If you have the time and the availability of the magazine, read it for his suggestions of what to buy and what to reject. He also does topical items on our local gardening for the Saturday News-Press.

If you do Italian cooking, regular sweet basil does well in the summertime, as do all basils - purple, lemon, holy and Thai basil. A perennial, Thai basil has smaller, deep green leaves that are not as round as regular basil, and is bushier. Its stems are purplish and produce reddish purple flower buds that are as edible as their leaves. Their fragrance mixes the regular basil fragrance with that of anise and licorice, so it is sometimes called anise, licorice, Oriental or Asian basil.

Plentiful in Thailand, it is eaten as a vegetable, and used in stir-fries, soups, curries. There are two other types of Thai basil - holy and lemon - that have softer leaves and smell like clove. Licorice basil is known at the Asian markets as horapha, the Ocimum basilicum var.thyrsiflora species, a member of the mint family. It actually originated in India where it is used in their many curries.

Basil was first introduced to Europe in the 16th century. India believed that it would ward off misfortune and planted it among their Temple gardens. Early in its history, it was used as a funeral herb and was planted or scattered on their graves. Many cultures considered it in a love/hate relationship, some even thought it was poisonous. Then England, in the 16th century, denoted it as a favorable herb, using it in scented waters and nosegays.

Thai basil and rosemary plants make excellent companion plants, with the same basic needs in fertilizer, well-drained soils and sunlight. Sunlight is the key to growing healthy and tasty herbs. Remember, we are in Florida and full sun can be a deterrent, 4 to 6 hours is plenty. Keep them watered, but, not overwatered. Fertilizer isn't needed if grown in organic soil, unless it is in sandy, infertile soil and guess what, that's us. Allow soil to dry out between watering. Growing up to 2 and a half feet high and wide, give it room to expand. Their woody stems often grow in a twisted or gnarled form. Harvest early in the morning when it retains most of its flavor. Rinse cut leaves in cool water and pat dry. The plant should be organically fertilized after each major harvest. Use the blooms in salads for their great aromatic flavor. Basil is one of the least successful herbs to dry and store, but they do well frozen into ice cubes.

Now that I've finished my lunch and satisfied my hunger, I now need to turn my attention to producing a design for our Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council's Flower Show, Saturday, April 2, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Covenant Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, 2439 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers. Titled "DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?', it has two sections, horticulture (lots of plants, potted and cut) and designs. Designs are not arrangements, but a constructed design of flowers and containers. They are to be judged on 8 Elements of Design-light, pattern, form, color, space, line, texture and size, - and 6 principles of design - balance, rhythm, contrast, dominance, proportion and scale. My design had to be in by Friday morning to be judged by Friday afternoon.

Come today, and see if you agree with the Judges and find out how they arrived at their conclusions.

In the meantime, thank a tree for your life giving oxygen.

Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, national director of the American Hibiscus Society, a board member of the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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