Gardening: Grow basil, reap culinary rewards

Growing the herb basil, reseeding bare spots in lawns, and mulching walkways are some of the gardening activities for this month.
Basil is the best known of the Italian herbs and, with parsley, the most grown herb. Sweet or Genovese is the most popular species, grown for its large leaves used in sandwiches, pizzas and pesto making. Another warm season favorite use is in a simple, Italian caprese salad consisting of slices of tomato and mozzarella, topped with basil leaves and a vinaigrette or Italian dressing.
When buying sweet basil plants, or seeds to start, look for ones resistant to fusarium disease such as Aroma 2, Nufar, Plenty or ProEasy. Similar to Aroma 2 is the new Prospera, which also has resistance to downy mildew disease, as does Pesto Party. If you don’t find such disease resistant cultivars, just make sure to plant basil plants right after the last frost (they’re quite cold sensitive), so that you can harvest leaves prior to any diseases appearing.
There are other variations on basil, such as Mrs. Burns lemon basil with a piquant lemon flavor —  unusual in basil, Thai lemon basil, or lime basil. Cinnamon or Mexican basil has an aroma as its name indicates. There are purple-leaved cultivars (cultivated varieties) such as Dark Opal and Purple Ruffles — good used as ornamental foliage plants. There is even a variegated cultivar — Pesto Perpetuo — with thin, white leaf margins. Other basils are globe shaped or short — about one foot tall — so grow well in containers. Boxwood, Spicy Globe, Dolce Fresca, and Minette are examples of these compact basils.
When you transplant annual flowers and veggies from cell-packs or small containers, loosen the roots (often called “root balls”) if they are quite root-bound — often the case.
If roots form a solid mass and are tightly interwoven, either tease them apart gently with a fork or similar tool, or make a couple slits in the sides. Cutting through these roots will cause them to branch and grow new ones. If you don’t loosen such root masses, they may never grow out into surrounding soil, keeping the plants stunted, and you’ll find the roots in the same shape in fall.
Before reseeding bare spots in the lawn, spread 1 to 2 inches of compost over the areas and firm it down. Then sow grass seed. Sprinkle a thin layer of compost on top of the seed, cover with straw and keep it moist. This is a case where light, frequent (at least daily) watering is good. If you have pets, to deter them encircle the spots with stakes string or mesh netting.
Reduce the weeds in walkways in your garden by covering the soil with some type of mulch. Some people like to use several sheets of moistened newspaper topped with straw (not hay, as it often has weed seeds), especially if you move your planting areas around a bit from year to year. Try to avoid tilling to remove weeds because the process brings up weed seeds from deeper in the soil and exposes them to the light they need to grow. If you have permanent paths, such as between raised beds, you can use a weed fabric material under mulch.
There are so many other garden activities for this month, such as putting hummingbird feeders out early in the month, waiting until after the last frost and soils warm to plant warm-season crops such as melons and squash and cucumbers, and having frost protection handy for tomatoes. While it is good to shop early for the best selection of annual flowers, particular new ones, wait to plant them until after the last usual frost date — often the end of May.
Leonard Perry is a UVM Horticulturist and Charlie Nardozzi is a Garden Consultant.

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