Hartley Magazine

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Basil in the Heat

In the summer after finishing horticultural college I worked on a new herb garden on a hilltop near Sienna. Sounds gorgeous, eh? But the trouble with a new garden is the trees have not yet grown, and the trouble with Italy in the summer is it is really quite hot. No shade, on a parched hilltop garden, in a hot Italian summer. We worked from 7 til 11am in order to avoid the worst of the heat but by 9.30am it was too hot to work, and each day I limped pathetically through to the 11am cut off, giving the head gardener imploring, increasingly desperate looks to let me off early: a limp rag of an English girl, running with sweat under a vast hat, and utterly unsuited to the job at hand. In the garden grounds I had a dark, cool apartment with marble floors and would lie spread-eagled just inside the door for a full 15 minutes after dragging myself home, loving the cool. A fish out of water.

First thing in the morning was the loveliest time though, when the herbs were just starting to release their scents and the ground was still cool. Being newly planted everything had to be soaked to its roots so I would wander from plant to plant with a hosepipe and the heat only just starting to prickle at my skin. Everything was soaked, that is, except the basil. Despite the unrelenting heat we were under strict instructions to hold the rose over each basil plant for three seconds. No more. The head gardener would even stand over us and count.
Despite all that Italian heat, basil was still being a diva. The careful watering did the trick though and is the only time in my life I have successfully grown basil in abundance: I have certainly never managed the great handfuls we produced on that hillside on my own allotment. In cool, damp Britain basil must feel as detached from its element as I did in hot, parched Italy, and it is as unwilling to perform as I was to do an extra half hour’s digging at the end of the morning.
But if there is a trick to growing basil, it is to wait. Everything else I put into the greenhouse as early as possible, to extend the season, but basil doesn’t play that game. I did try some in March on the heated mat in the mini greenhouse. No dice. A few germinated, then quickly keeled over. The rest sulked and presumably rotted. What basil wants is warmth, and not the fickle, unconvincing warmth of a heat mat in a Bristolian March either. The enveloping, all-embracing, slightly soupy warmth of a late May heat wave – when the nights are hot and close and the poor darlings do not have to suffer a drop in temperature – may just do it, and so I have seized this sweaty moment and sown not one but two whole trays of basil, one sweet basil, one a purple called ‘Crimson King’. I am even switching the heat mat on each night, in case this heat wave isn’t quite hot enough for them. If they do what I want – just germinate and grow, I dont ask much – they will live out their entire lives in the greenhouse, cosseted and mollycoddled like the heat-loving divas they are, and always, always watered for precisely three seconds.