How to save basil seed

P1050316The aromatic leaves of the basil plant are one of the richest sources of pleasure to a gardener; just brushing past them releases that pungent and evocative fragrance. That pleasure in this wonderful herb extends to the kitchen table, where basil pesto – ground basil leaves mixed with olive oil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and garlic – adds piquancy to meat and pasta dishes. So popular is basil in our household that I grow it in ‘basil hedges’ – basil plants planted in long rows to enable the gardener to provide a steady supply of leaves to the kitchen for much of summer and autumn.

P1040330Basil produces a bountiful quantity of seed at the end of each growing season. The flowers are produced on long stalks that spring out of the top of the plants, providing a popular spot for visiting bees – their favoured insect pollinators. Flowering marks the end of the production of new leaves so some plants are allowed to go to seed while other are kept in production by pinching off these flower heads when they first appear.

P1050378Finally though, the inevitable decline of these (mostly) annual plants with the coming of winter marks the time for collection of seed for the following spring. The seeds mature from the bottom to the top of the flower with each capsule containing typically four seeds. These can be collected directly in the garden - when the complete stalk has been dried to a brown crisp - simply by pulling it through the fingers and into the palm. The old Italian chap over the road used to chop the whole plant off at ground level and then hang it upside down in the shed to dry out completely – a method I’ve adopted when space allows. Even then the smell of basil pervades the shed despite the complete desiccation of the plant.

P1050379Collecting the seed is a simple as stripping the stems (as mentioned previously) then rubbing the seed capsules gently over a clean flat surface to release the seed. Seed can be separated from remnant vegetation by sieving with a fine sieve. The resultant dry seed is stored and labelled in the usual way in an air-tight tin or bottle until needed the following year.


Winter gifts from the garden

One of the few barometers a garden has is the ability to deliver ‘on demand’.

P1050354And so it was this weekend – the first since planting-out finished a week ago – when fate conspired to boost social demands upon cook and gardener just as gardening demands finally began to wind down.

“A fortieth birthday party – we’re invited!” says cook to gardener.

So the gardener forages about while the cook delivers on her promise to join the ladies in Pilates/stretching/yoga to start the birthday off.

Without driving anywhere the gardener does his own stretching, bending, kneeling, cutting, lifting and produces a gift basket containing

  1. carrots
  2. garlic
  3. sunflower blooms and decorative chilli sprigs
  4. curly-leafed parsley
  5. grapefruit
  6. chocolate capsicums
  7. oranges
  8. lemons
  9. sunflower seeds
  10. Royal oak-leaf lettuce
  11. spring onions
  12. celery
  13. broad-bean seed
  14. butternut pumpkin
  15. basil and
  16. assorted chillies


Winter planting ends…

After more than nine months of continuous sowing and planting out the seed table is finally empty.


This doesn’t sound like anything dramatic or out-of-the-ordinary, yet it underlines the continuity of a gardener’s life; season follows season and, in southern Australia at least, winter crops follow summer crops with an unstoppable rhythm that the gardener must follow.

P1050334Bulbs such as garlic and larger seeds such as peas have also been direct sown. Peas along the fence line will produce a crop for the freezer but, more importantly, they will also capture nitrogen from the air and store it back in the soil via their root systems to be available to the summer crops of beans and cucumbers. The soil is replenished.

P1050339Avocados raised from seed are also planted into soil after spending several weeks outside (in the original pot) to ‘harden up’. Avocados need to be sown onto raised beds so that their roots don’t become water-logged over winter.


P1050324Onions – about 500 of them – are easily enough to sow out but only after weeks of effort to clear out the last of the summer crops.

Beetroot and turnips join them in among hold-over crops of basil, silverbeet, chilli and capsicums.

And all those flower seedlings? ‘Clump planted’ in the front yard to enchant visitors as they walk down the garden path…












Weird things in a winter garden

P1050284Winter is upon us in southern Australia, yet there is no let-up in the effort required in the garden. If anything, pressures are building back up again as I try to make space for onions, beetroot and spring flowers (still in the seed trays) while trying to keep the rain-fed chaos of self-seeded pathways under control.

P1050285I’ve given up even pretending to be on top of things. But I’ve found a few odd moments to catalogue some of the winter wonders springing up all over the place…




Adding some winter colour to the verdant green of the overflowing beds, my chilli collection is starting to ripen and will be used to refresh my seed collection as they mature.



P1050286And what are the names of all these chillies? Sadly, I forget. Some are spherical, some are small pointy multi-coloured ones with an upright characteristic, others are deep purple and some are the regular long skinny droopy ones alongside a different variety having a bell-lantern shape.

There is beauty in vegetable gardens if one looks closely.

P1050250Among the rogue salad collection are the Italian bitter lettuces that I know I grew on purpose, didn’t eat much of, but then let the plants go naturally to seed because of their pretty blue flowers, so unlike the thistle-type flowers of all other lettuces.

P1050256Now they are all over the dirt pathways, and we find ourselves making long detours to allow them their own space rather than treading them underfoot.



P1050269In the orchard, one of the peach trees is still suffering from the after-effects of the massive 2013 peach harvest and is now under attack from bracket fungi where limbs had to be removed and the bark on the main trunk started to split.






P1050290The tomato crops and their bamboo frames have had to be pulled out to make way for the onions. All the old mulch and new weeds have had to be hoed out and thrown onto the pathways for natural composting. This soil and weed mix will soon be covered with new barley straw to over-winter and break down under the scratching of the hens and the softening effects of the winter rains. This ‘path composting’ process will deliver soft mulch and fresh organic matter to garden soil as it accumulates year after year.

P1050300All the necessary hoeing turns up plenty of earthworms; the chooks follow my work closely and enjoy the fresh protein. Every meter or so I turn up some soil-borne grubs that I believe (without any evidence) to be ‘mole cricket larvae’; these are a special delicacy to the hens. I pick them out of the trenches and throw them in front of the flock where they are snatched up.

Ah well, that’s my fun for the day. Now its back to planting out all those onions…


Pumpkin-pickin’ Saturday

Pumpkins (squash) are usually picked in autumn after more than four months soaking up the sun. But this year it came right down to the wire; pumpkin-picking happened on the very last day of the Australian autumn, on Saturday the 31st May.

P1050201Warm weather and family pressures didn’t help the business of getting underway but that’s not a problem for pumpkins; after the fruit has formed the tough skin makes them fairly impermeable to attack from birds, insects, rats and disease while they lie about on the ground. The vines have all but disappeared and the stalks have withered, hardened and browned off so that the pumpkins can just be picked up from the ground or gently broken away from the remains of the vine.

P1050191Nevertheless, I need to get the onion crop into that bed and there’s all the usual preliminary work still to be done of pulling the bigger weeds and turning the chicken flock in to clean up insect pressures.

I’ve grown the usual small sweet Butternut pumpkins but ‘something new that’s old’ as well; Triambles. This three-lobed old heirloom variety of pumpkin has all but disappeared from the greengrocer’s shelves since I was a lad and I’d had to shop around to find seeds.

P1050202The results have been poor; poor germination and poor fruiting. In fact, I’m not convinced that three of the five ‘blue pumpkins’ that resulted aren’t in fact ‘Queensland Blues’. So I will save seed from the two that have the distinctive ‘three-lobes’ and try again next year.

In the meantime I need to store the barrow-load of pumpkins just harvested somewhere where they will be dry, out of the sun with good air circulation and out of the way of rats and mice. Fortunately there's plenty of fruit tree netting around at this time of the year and I can use that to envelop the crop on a shelf in the shed where the cook can get them at her ease.