Basil Wars

March 16, 2012

Here is a piece that actually got published in a genuine Newspaper. It is called…


Ever since I first tasted and then devoured my first Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella salad, splashed with olive oil and a thimbleful of vinegar, I have tried to grow at least the first two ingredients in my own yard. More competent and confident growers will say with pride “my garden”. It is not through any misplaced sense of agricultural modesty that I eschew the word, more a realization that my ignorance of things growing will always exceed my tiny knowledge; and the real area under cultivation is an always an otherwise weedy corner haphazardly laid out. Harvests, however pleasing or bountiful, surprise me. Perhaps I should rejoice that I can still wonder that the shriveled up fragments I buried in the cold earth long ago could cause this mass of green.

My first tomato harvest in New Jersey in 1977 was a revelation. I had never grown anything but juvenile outbreaks until that time, and when I weighed one of the red darlings at over one and a half pounds I was damned for ever to be an irregular grower. And that is what I have remained. I really don’t think I have learned very much about growing tomatoes in the intervening years and harvests. I did have lot of fun.

It wasn’t until 1984 that I grew my first Basil down the side of the garage of my second house in New Jersey. It did not seem to need much attention; it grew easily and full, even on the East side of the building. No pests seemed to worry it, and my capricious watering habits only seemed to encourage growth. The memory of the marvelous pleasure of my first homegrown Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella salad can never pall.

It took me year to find out how different things are here in Oregon. I was deceived by the summer of ’94. In May of that bright year I set out my usual messy mix of Beefsteaks, Roma, Better Boys, and Early Girls on the clay bound soil of my new home. The Sun shone with gorgeous continuity all summer; I watered and watched. And just as before nature returned in full measure and more my disordered effort. My new freezer became stuffed with the prize of my diligence in rich red puree. It was then that I remembered with a sudden feeling of loss those halcyon salads, and determined that next year I would enjoy that pleasure once more.

With a lovely and misplaced sense of anticipation I bought six heavily fragrant Basil seedlings and set them out in a moderately sunny spot next to the Oregano, Mint and Lemon Balm.  I suppose I must have thought that the cheers I heard were from some local sporting event instead of from the United Gastropod Local 52 (Herb Committee) who had been wondering up until that time when was I going to set out something for them to destroy. Now I was restoring their faith in Humans who had, as they believed, always set out such a smorgasbord of plant delicacies around this time of year that Local 52 always referred to May as Christmas. They set to with their usual efficiency and diligence, and within forty-eight hours had rid my yard of nearly half of my delicate Basil plants.

My sense of betrayal was not softened in any way by their eschewing the Mint and Oregano. Out of the very soil that feeds the fragrant delight of Basil comes this treacherous bag of goo to suckle. Bait I bought in big bags. To no avail. Surrounding my precious green darlings with a cordon of death from Home Depot Garden Dept. seemed only to arouse a terrifying esprit de corps amongst the slugs, and they flung themselves in ever-increasing numbers at the barrier in a gastropodic parody of King Henry’s assault on the French at Harfleur, when he appeals, according to Will Shakespeare, to his weary and desperate soldiery…” Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our one footed dead!” New battalions slid up over the silvery glistening remains of their dissolved brothers. I began to see my fondly remembered salad as King Arthur beheld the Holy Grail; very distantly.

With the wounds of ’95 still fresh in my memory I set out to make, in 1996, a more calculated defense of the precious Basil. Once more I bought the tender and aromatic seedlings. But this year I planted them not next to the Mint and Lemon Balm, growing wildly thank you, but in long planters in the warmth and security of my own laundry room.

Reassuringly the tiny green leaves grew with succulent good health under my un-ironed shirts, next to the three months supply of Graham Crackers and Woolite. My anguish on the morning when once more I found the undeniable evidence of the predations of a basil munching goo bag, was a low, low point in my horticultural life. How, I wondered, had a slug become so charged with sense of purpose that it had dared to enter my house to fulfill its revolting and heartbreaking digestive mission? As before I put out bait and waited. Further raids were made, and I began to despair. I saw myself actually buying bunches of Basil in a supermarket, carefully hiding then under my cereal and cold cuts, blushing violently with shame when the clerk yells out for a “price check on Basil!”

It was not until the day after the next that mounting the stairs from my basement office to prepare lunch that I spied my enemy doing the same. Just as I was on my way to the refrigerator from the basement, this mucilaginous murderer was on it’s way from a container of seemingly inert potting soil, crossing the Formica desert, to the Basil Buffet by the window. Even as I drew near and watched with fascination the monster gripped the base of the planter and waving its knobby antenna as if asking for a no-smoking seat, set off toward the luscious green leaves. Speechless with a mixture of horror and admiration I gazed on, hypnotized by the grim determination shown by this slick black envelope. In a dog or a horse it would have brought cheers and tears. In this case a quick grab with the pasta tongs, a short step to the powder room and …that’s what good plumbing is for folks…my nemesis temporarily defeated.

But are we safe? If our potting soil is contaminated can the end of civilization be too far behind? And when will I taste again the glory of a Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Salad?

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