Most seasons, I like to prepare for winter by growing and drying my own herbs.
Over the years, I've managed to collect various containers with air-tight lids for storage. In the fall, the dehydrator comes out of its storage closet and sits nearly constantly on the counter. The house is always fragrant with something, oregano, sage, tarragon and lots and lots of my favorite, basil.
Sweet basil is my herb of choice. I prefer it in tomato sauce and always add it to salad dressings. In fact, there isn't much that can be compared, flavor-wise, to the combination of basil and tomato. They were meant for each other.
I built my first herb garden nearly 30 years ago. To unwind after work, I spent many hours digging in the soil. I started with a mental plan to build four separate herb beds with a criss-cross walkway.
Since my birthday is in the spring, I asked for a truckload of pavers. My husband and son obliged and surprised me by leaving clues throughout the house, written in haiku verse, that led me on a search for my gift, which was in the driveway the entire time. Hundreds of red paving bricks for my garden were stacked in the bed of the truck. I was ecstatic.
I worked on the garden several hours a day and often into the night. I began digging in March, sometimes having to take breaks for late winter snow. On those days I poured over books about herbs, plotting what I would grow and how I would use it. When the weather broke for good, I visited herb farms, buying as much as I could fit into those small raised beds.
There was no Internet or Facebook to keep me glued to a chair. There was only the garden. It was on my mind while I was at work. When I woke up every morning, it was the first place I visited with my morning tea.
The raised bed garden is no more. It was created on impulse not far from the base of a maple tree. The tree, which wasn't large enough to cause problems then, has since grown so large it completely shades the area of that first herb garden. The pavers still exist as parts of other walkways in other gardens. It makes me happy to see them there. Now I grow herbs all over the place, including mixing them in the perennial beds and in the vegetable garden.
The vegetable garden is the home of the basil varieties and these days I can't seem to get enough. With more than 60 varieties to choose from, I spend quite a bit of time browsing catalogs and looking over garden centers to see what's new and what I haven't grown.
Cinnamon basil has purple leaves and pink flowers. Like its namesake, it contains the same chemical that gives real cinnamon its scent. It is said to keep aphids away from garden plants, although I've never grown it for that reason. I just like its scent.
Citrus-scented basils, such as lime and lemon, are fun to grow as well. They are very fragrant and have the flavor of the citrus as well. I like both of these plants in summer salads with a light vinaigrette dressing.
Thai basil has longer leaves than the other varieties and its fragrance is similar to licorice or mint. There are three main varieties of Thai basil, horapa, lemon and Holy Basil. The most common horapa Thai basil variety is ''Queen of Siam.'' All are used in Thai cooking.
There are plenty of red or purple varieties as well, from the common 'Purple Ruffles' to 'Red Rubin.' I like to use the purple varieties to make basil vinegars because it colors the vinegar a lovely mauve shade.
I wasn't impressed with 'Spicy Globe' basil. This variety is more of a miniature and grows in a tight, round ball on a stiff stem. Although the fragrance was stronger and spicer than other basils, it was difficult to use, and after all, aren't herbs ''the useful plant?''
Always my favorite and the one I grow by the row is the old fashioned Genovese, or Sweet Basil. No matter how many other varieties I play with, I use this one the most. Common sweet basil fills my dehydrator several times in the fall and fills several of those air tight containers all winter long.