Year of the Basil

Can you imagine a garden without basil? Impossible! Its familiar fragrance, easy care, and many uses make it indispensable in herb, ornamental, and container gardens—and, of course, in the kitchen.

A Sense of History

Basil has been known and grown since ancient times. According to Gerard in his Herbal published in England in the 1600s, the smell of basil was “good for the heart and for the head.” The seeds “cureth the infirmities of the heart and taketh away the sorrow which commeth with melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad.” Gerard also advised that the juice of the plant was good against headaches, if it were drunk with wine, and was useful in clearing up diseases of the eye.

Back in the first century AD, however, the Greek physician Dioscorides believed basil dulled the sight and produced “wind.” Others claimed it bred scorpions and that scorpions would be found beneath a pot where basil grew—a belief that arose, perhaps, from the prevalence of scorpions in some of the tropical regions of Asia and Africa, where basil originated, and their predilection for warm, dark places. Gerard wrote that those who were stung by a scorpion would feel no pain if they had eaten basil. Culpepper, a contemporary of Gerard, suggested in his Herbal that basil would draw out the poison of venomous beasts, wasps or hornets. Today, herbalists claim it helps to ease flatulence and abdominal pains if taken as an infusion.

Basil made its way to Europe by the Middle Ages and to England and America in the mid-17th century, where it was used mainly medicinally. It was not until the 19th century that basil became the ever-present component of herb gardens that it is today. Basil is also very important in Asia and Asian cuisines.

The range of basils available is the result of the variability of the species, basilicum. The species contains a natural diversity of fragrances and colors; plant breeders have selected for and improved on these different traits.

What’s In A Name?

A member of the mint family (Labiatae), as so many herbs are, basils have the familiar four-sided stems and whorled flowers of that family; they are not, however, in the least invasive, as mints can be. The genus name of sweet basil, Ocimum, is from a Greek verb that means “to be fragrant.” The species name, basilicum, comes from the Greek basileus, which means “king or prince.” Basil is often referred to as the “king of herbs,” and no wonder—it is one of the most useful, and most used, of all herbs.

In frost-free climates, sweet basil may act as a perennial, but in most areas of the country, it is an annual, dying at the first touch of frost. There are more than 30 different species of basil, but the most commonly grown are O. basilicum and its subspecies.

Holy basil, O. sanctum (also known as O. tenuiflorum) is a sacred herb in India, where it is used in religious ceremonies and planted around Hindu temples; with its pinkish purple flowers, it is most often planted as an ornamental.

The four basic types of garden basils are the familiar sweet green basil, dwarf green basil, purple-leaved basil, and scented leaf basil. Sweet basil (O. basilicum) grows about 2 feet tall. It has rather large leaves, 2-3 inches long, and produces white flower spikes. It is the most widely grown. Its “cousins” include lettuce-leaf and Genovese basils—varieties with much larger leaves—as well as the spicy Thai basil, ‘Siam Queen’ (1997 All-America Selections winner), an improved tropical basil with an intense fragrance and flavor.

Dwarf basil (O. b. ‘Minimum’) is also known as bush or fine green basil. Its compact growth reaches 10-12 inches high. The leaves are small, about 1/2 inch long, and flowers are white. ‘Spicy Globe’ and ‘Green Bouquet’ are well-known dwarf types; the former is aptly named because the plants grow naturally into rounded, globe shapes.

Purple-leaved basils (O. b. purpurescens) are very ornamental. ‘Dark Opal’ (1962 All-America Selections winner), ‘Purple Ruffles’ (1987 AAS winner) and ‘Red Rubin’ (with solid purple leaves, an improved strain of ‘Dark Opal’) are three of the most popular varieties. These basils tend to have ruffled, frilled, or deeply cut leaves, which are very pungent; they produce deep pink to lavender-purple flowers.

Scented-leaf basils bring additional aromas to the basic clove-anise of sweet basil. Lemon basil (O. americanum, O. basilicum var. citriodorum) has a very distinct lemon flavor, especially in the newest ‘Sweet Dani’ (1998 AAS winner). The leaves are grayish green, the flowers white. The leaves of cinnamon basil have a spicy cinnamon flavor; flowers are deep pink with purple bracts. Anise basil has a flavor similar to licorice; its flowers are slightly purplish.

Growing From Seed

Whether you sow seeds indoors or out, remember that basil does not like cold, or even cool, weather. Sow the seeds outdoors when day and night temperatures reach about 55 to 60 degrees. When sown or transplanted at the right time, basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow successfully.

Starting Basil Indoors
Plan to sow seeds 4 to 6 weeks before the date of your average last frost in spring. Basils do not need a long time to grow large enough to transplant to the garden.

* Fill a shallow container, or flat, or individual 2- to 21/4-inch pots with a commercial seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix and let it drain.
* Sow the seeds in rows in a flat or two to three seeds per pot. Cover the seeds with about 1/4 inch of the mix. Press the mix down lightly and spritz the surface with water to moisten it and settle the seeds.
* To keep the mix from drying out while the seeds are germinating, cover the containers with sheets of clear plastic wrap, or place each in a plastic bag and close it with a twist-tie.
* Set the containers in a warm location; the growing medium should be at about 70-75 degrees F (21-23 degrees C). Seedlings will emerge in 4 to 7 days. When they do, remove the plastic covering and place the containers in bright light or direct sun in a south-facing window or a fluorescent light garden. Give the containers a quarter turn every few days so the plants grow straight instead of leaning towards the light source.
* Keep the mix evenly moist by watering from the bottom: Set the containers in a sink filled with a couple of inches of water until beads of moisture appear on the surface. A liquid fertilizer at one half the recommended rate can be given to seedlings to promote healthy plants.
* When the seedlings are about 2 inches tall and have at least two pairs of true leaves, transplant those in flats to individual pots. Thin those started in small pots to one per pot by snipping off all but the strongest looking one with a scissors. It is not necessary to transplant purple-leaved basils, such as ‘Dark Opal’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’, if you sow them about 1/2-1 inch apart.
* If young plants become tall and spindly, the growing tip can be pinched to encourage branching and compact growth. Some of the smaller basils, such as ‘Spicy Globe’, have a naturally branching habit and do not need to be pinched.

Sowing Directly in the Garden.

Sow seeds in the garden when the soil has warmed up to about 55 to 60 degrees day and night temperatures. Sow the seeds about 1/2 inch deep in good garden soil; if you cover the seeds with less soil, they may float to the surface after a heavy rain. Basil germinates readily, therefore you do not need to sow thickly. You can sow the seeds in rows or in groups; drop two to three seeds in each hole for the latter. Keep the seedbed moist until germination occurs. When the seedlings have at least two pairs of true leaves and are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin them to stand 10 to 30 inches apart, depending on the species or cultivar. Begin pinching out the growing tips for compact growth when the seedlings are 3 to 4 inches tall.

To have an uninterrupted supply of fresh basil, most gardeners sow basil seed several times during the growing season. The National Garden Bureau recommends sowing basil seed every 3 to 4 weeks to harvest fresh leaves for culinary uses.

Selecting Bedding Plants

Basil is so popular that you can readily purchase plants at garden centers or nurseries in addition to growing it from seed. The plants may be sold in individual pots, six-packs or flats. Look for young, compact plants. Avoid tall, leggy plants—even though you can correct their growth habit somewhat by cutting them back after you have planted them at home.

The leaves of sweet basil should be a clear deep green; spots on the leaves may indicate they have been exposed to the cold. Pass up plants that have obvious pests, such as aphids, on stems or leaves.
If you can’t plant the herbs the day you bring them home, set them in a protected area away from the drying effects of direct sun and wind until you can put them in the ground or in containers.

Out In The Garden

Select a Site. Basil grows best in a location that receives full sun—at least six hours (or more) of direct sun daily. With less sun, the plants have a tendency to get “leggy.” Plants in containers require the same exposure.

Prepare the Soil. Although herbs are not very fussy, they do need a light, fertile soil with good drainage. Amend what you have by digging in about a 2-inch layer of peat moss and compost before planting. This is particularly important if your soil is mostly clay.
Transplant. Choose a cloudy, calm day or late afternoon to transplant your basils to give them a chance to settle in before they have to contend with the drying effects of sun and wind. It is very important to plant at the right time, which means not too early in the season. The slightest cold will set them back. Set the plants in the ground at the same depth they were growing in the pots. If you bought six-packs or flats of basil plants, water them first; then carefully lift each plant out of its cell or separate them from each other in the flat, keeping as much soil around the roots as possible to minimize moisture loss. If they don’t come out easily and you need to handle the plants, do so by their leaves, not their stems (plants replace leaves more readily than stems). If you started plants in peat pots, set the pots below the soil line—they have a tendency to dry out quickly when exposed to the air.

Space plants 10-12 inches apart; dwarf basils, 8-10 inches apart; larger basils, such as ‘Sweet Dani’, up to 20 inches apart.
Water the plants immediately after setting them in the ground.

Garden Uses

Basil is as ornamental as it is edible. Put it in a traditional herb garden, in the vegetable plot in the center of a bed of red- and green-leaf lettuces or edging a bed of tomatoes.

Use both the green- and purple-leaved varieties in borders; the latter are especially beautiful with perennials such as coral bells (Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’), Sedum ‘Vera Jameson’, fountain grass (Pennisetum), dusty miller, and blue Salvia farinacea. Both combine well with annuals, such as dwarf or medium-height snapdragons, nicotiana, French marigolds, and petunias.

With its natural round shape, the dwarf basil ‘Spicy Globe’ makes a wonderful edging for any type of garden: perennial, rose, or herb.
Try the old-fashioned technique of keeping flies away by planting basils around a patio or in containers on a deck.

Taking Care of Basil

Like most herbs, basils do not require much maintenance. In sandy or infertile soil, fertilize basil plants for continuous growth. If you amended the soil with organic matter, you may not need to fertilize basil. Basil plants need about an inch of water a week. Water, if rain does not provide for the plant’s needs.

Although the flower spikes are attractive, it is recommended to cut them off as they deplete the plants’ energy resulting in fewer leaves.
The leaves have the best flavor—the most essential oils—when they are harvested before the plants flower. Cut whole stems rather than individual leaves, especially if you want to use the leaves as a garnish because they bruise easily. Cutting whole stems is a tasty way of creating a bushy, compact plant: Cut just above a pair of lower leaves; the plant will produce new shoots at that point.

Growing in Containers

Basils are excellent herbs to grow in containers because they add such attractive colors and textures to the plantings. They look good in pots or window boxes in full sun. A container of basil by the back door or on a deck provides easy access for harvesting!

The container should have drainage holes in the bottom or sides. Fill it with a soilless mix, which is more lightweight than garden soil and is also free of diseases and weed seeds. It is easy to provide nutrients all season by incorporating a controlled-release fertilizer in the mix before planting.

With mixed plantings, place most basils near the center of containers or at the ends of window boxes. Use dwarf basils to edge a container planting or on their own in smaller, 8-inch pots, and place the pots around a larger planter, marching up steps, or along a walk. Basils combine well with other herbs and with annuals.

Plant basils at the same level as, or just slightly deeper than, they were growing in their original pots. Water the container well after planting. Keep the plants evenly moist through the growing season; the roots of any plants in a container cannot reach down or out in search of available moisture. Smaller containers will require more frequent watering than large ones. If you plant in a window box, remember that overhanging eaves may prevent rain from reaching the plants.

From Garden to Kitchen

Basil complements many kinds of dishes and combines well with other herbs, whether used fresh or dried. The flavor and appearance of the leaves are best fresh. Many gardeners are unable to eat their fresh, homegrown tomatoes without fresh basil and a dash of premium olive oil. Freshly harvested basil leaves added to mesclun or lettuce salads liven up the flavors. Pesto is another favorite use for basil. Create the classic pesto sauce, a combination of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Whip up basil butter. Cream together one stick of unsalted butter and 1-3 tablespoons of dried, crushed basil or 2-6 tablespoons of fresh, minced basil. Place in a covered container or roll into a cylinder-shape and refrigerate for at least an hour before using.
Make basil vinegar to use in salad dressings. Heat vinegar (any type) in an enamel pan; pour it into a bottle and add several sprigs of basil. Let set for 2 weeks before using.

If you have any basil left at the end of the growing season consider drying the leaves. To dry basil, cut the entire plant and hang on a string in a well ventilated room. When dry, just pluck the leaves from the stems and store in airtight jars out of direct light.

Windowsill Plants

It is easy to bring container-grown plants inside, but you can also pot up a few plants from the garden. Cut them back rather severely—to about 3-4 inches tall—so they will put out new growth when they become acclimated to the indoor environment.

Grow them on the sunniest windowsill you have, preferably with a southern exposure, or put them in a light-garden. Keep the soil evenly moist and fertilize them once a month.

Because basils are so easy to grow from seed, however, the National Garden Bureau recommends it is just as simple to sow fresh seed indoors at the end of the outdoor growing season. Pot the seedlings into individual 4- to 6-inch containers and enjoy fresh basil all winter harvested from your windowsill.

Pests and Diseases

You may find a few aphids or Japanese beetles that like your basil as much as you do. To circumvent aphids, wash them off the plants with a strong spray of water from the garden hose. Pick or knock Japanese beetles off into a jar of soapy water and discard.

Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungus that causes yellowing of foliage, discoloration of the stems, reduced height and eventual wilting of the entire plant. If you plant basil in the same garden place year after year this could be a problem. Seed companies have addressed this problem by selling Fusarium free seed. Be sure to check the seed packet for Fusarium tested seed. The best cure is prevention. Because it can overwinter in the soil, don’t plant basil in the same location every year. Avoid excessive watering and provide proper drainage that will reduce the spread of Fusarium wilt. The only variety resistant to Fusarium wilt is ‘Nufar.’ Researchers are working towards breeding Fusarium resistance into many of the common basil varieties on the market.

The National garden Bureau recognizes Eleanore Lewis as the author of this fact sheet. We wish to thank the two Basil experts who reviewed our text before publication. Renee Shepherd, Renee’s Garden and James Simon, Rutgers University greatly assisted our efforts to provide accurate information. The logo drawing was created by Nola Nielsen. Johanna McCormick designed this fact sheet.

The ‘Year of the Basil’ is provided as a service from the National Garden Bureau. The use of this information is unrestricted. Please credit the National Garden Bureau as the source. We offer slides or black and white prints to journalists for illustrations. Please use the enclosed post card to inform us of your photo requests.

Slide set for libraries or lectures. The ‘Year of the Basil and Centaurea’ are available as a 14-piece slide set with scripts for lectures. Please send a check, bank or postal money order for $12.00. We will mail you the slide set and scripts upon receipt of your payment.

The National Garden Bureau is a non-profit organization and recognizes the seed company members that generously donate funds for this educational program. For 2002, it will be the ‘Year of the Vinca and Spinach.’

For more information contact:
National Garden Bureau
1311 Butterfield Rd Ste 310
Downers Grove, IL 60515
Phone: (630) 963-0770 FAX (630) 963-8864

The Origin Diet

Scientific evidence reveals that in prehistoric times — before the low-carb diet, before the all-protein diet, even before calories were counted — obesity and chronic disease rates were dramatically lower. In The Origin Diet, Elizabeth Somer, one of America’s most popular and respected nutritionists, helps us get back to these beginnings. This book will give you a simple but specific daily program guaranteed to improve your health and help you lose weight-quickly and easily.

Somer does not suggest that we should live in caves, but she does advise painless changes in the way we eat — such as incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into our diet — to help align the body with its evolutionary needs. Based on the results of hundreds of scientific studies, The Origin Diet will show you how to

reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis, cataracts, memory loss, and even depression
reverse the damage of atherosclerosis and bone loss
lose those extra pounds — and keep them off
use the Origin Pyramid as a guide in planning and preparing easy, nutritious meals
have more energy and enjoy life more
Adopt just a few of the suggestions in The Origin Diet and you will notice changes in your weight and risk of disease, such as the lowering of blood cholesterol levels. Take on the whole program and you’ll experience significant improvement in how you feel, think, and live.

The Origin Diet offers a tempting, healthful array of recipes and menus, including such delicious dishes as Sweet Potato Chowder, Ginger Barbecued Salmon, and Spicy Turkey Stew. You’ll also discover great tips for making exercise a part of your daily life, as well as helpful idea s for reducing stress.

The process is tried and true. People who have followed the Origin Diet have lost weight, lowered their cholesterol levels, experienced more energy, slept better, and cut back on their medications. By simply following the Five Stone Age Secrets found in this book, you too can regain the lean, fit, healthy body nature intended.

ELIZABETH SOMER, M.A., R.D., is a nationally recognized nutrition expert and award-winning writer. She is a former consultant to Good Morning America, a contributing editor to both Shape and Eating Well magazines, and the author of six books. She lives with her family in Salem, Oregon. Her Web site can be found at

“Brimming with solid research and sound advice, The Origin Diet will bring you back to your dietary roots by revealing why you must eat like your ancestors to maintain health and how you can easily and successfully do it in today’s fast-food world. All you have to do is open this book, and you’ll be opening up endless possibilities for a healthy, long, and vital life.”
–Debra Waterhouse, M.P.H., R.D., author of Outsmarting the Female Fat Cell and Outsmarting Fatigue

“Elizabeth Somer’s writing is always a treat. The Origin Diet is not a gimmick or a quick fix — it gives us many compelling reasons to seek out fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. After reading Somer’s well-researched argument for returning to the habits of our ancestors, you will be eager to incorporate her many tips, strategies, and recipes into your daily life.”
–Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., professor and Guthrie chair in nutrition, Penn State University

The following is an excerpt from the book The Origin Diet: How Eating Like Your Stone Age Ancestors Will Help You Live Longer, Feel Healthier, and Lose Weight
by Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D.
Published by Henry Holt; January 2001; $23.00US; 0805063358;
Copyright © 2001 Elizabeth Somer

You Were Born to Be Healthy, Lean, and to Live Long

Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.

Finally, it all made sense. I leaned back after reading an article on evolutionary nutrition and sighed in relief. My mind was racing with possibilities. So, before you bite into your next double cheeseburger or quench your thirst with a cola, I’d like a moment of your time. What I have to say will change your life!
I’m a research junkie. I read hundreds of studies every month and have done so for more than twenty years. As editor-in-chief of the newsletter Nutrition Alert, contributing editor to Shape magazine, and frequent correspondent for national news media, I pride myself on presenting accurate, timely nutrition information. From my thirty-two file drawers brimming with research, I can pull reams of studies that show vegetables lower cancer risk, saturated fat causes heart disease, fiber curbs appetite, calcium strengthens bones, or any other topic you desire. I have read the reports that obesity is on the rise and can describe in detail every theory to explain this epidemic. My files are jammed with research on how frailty associated with aging has more to do with sedentary living than with getting older, and that belonging to a support group can lower disease risks. I know the studies that formed the basis for the dietary guidelines and the Food Guide Pyramid. But, up until that one article, I had understood only the whats of nutrition. I was filled with a thousand whys:

Why do vegetables lower cancer risk?
Why does saturated fat accumulate in arteries, blocking blood flow, and leading to heart disease, while fish oils lower our risk?
Why do our bodies absorb only 10 percent of the iron in our diets (which places up to 80 percent of women during the childbearing years at risk for iron deficiency), but up to 95 percent of the fat?
Why does our risk for many diseases, from cancer to cataracts, increase as we age?
Why do we gain weight when our bodies are so perfectly designed to be fit?
The article on evolutionary nutrition explained the whys simply and clearly. It was an “Ah-ha” moment when decades of research fell into place. It began my quest to know more. The end result is this book.

Hello Grandpa!

Still haven’t touched that cheeseburger or cola? Good. Now stop for a moment and think back. I mean way back. Neither of these foods, or any processed food for that matter, ever graced the lips of even one of our ancient ancestors, dating back tens of thousands of generations.

For 99 percent of the time humans have been on earth, our ancestors ate and evolved on diets of plants and very lean wild game. These diets served our ancestors well. In fact, our Paleolithic grandparents lived free of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, cataracts, and other modern diseases. They also remained lean and strong throughout life. The most fit, the smartest, and the strongest lived to pass on their genes from one generation to the next like an unbroken chain. Today, that nutritional legacy lives in us.

Agriculture developed about ten thousand years ago, followed later by the Industrial Revolution. These two events brought cataclysmic changes to our dining habits, converting us from hunters and gatherers to farmers, then to drivers of cars with automatic gears and power steering. These last few thousand years are only a minute in evolutionary time, accounting for little or no change in our biological makeup.

Therein lies the problem. It takes tens of thousands of years for the body to adapt to even small changes in the environment. Our biochemistry and physiology remain fine-tuned to diets and activity levels that existed tens of thousands of years ago. Escalating obesity and disease rates are just some of the results when genetics collides with lifestyle. In essence, we remain cave dwellers dressed in designer jeans, genetically programmed to thrive on a diet of nuts, seeds, leaves, honey, and wild game, but gorging on doughnuts, cheese puffs, domesticated beef, soda pop . . . well, you get the picture.

The more I researched the anthropological and archeological data, the more my years of nutrition research fell into place. We don’t need vegetables just because they’re good for us. It’s when we don’t supply the body with the fuels and building blocks it needs that the system breaks down, just as our cars would stall if we were to pour sand or grease into their fuel tanks. Our diets today are killing us because they are as alien to our bodies as breathing in carbon monoxide! Suddenly, it all made sense. If we returned to our dietary roots (and tubers) and ate in balance with our evolutionary makeup, we’d live in harmony with our bodies, experience an extraordinary state of good health, and sidestep just about every chronic disease, as well as maintain a healthy weight and live longer!

My Six Promises

My background in nutrition gave me the edge when reading the hundreds of studies on archeology and anthropology that went into researching this book. I know how to decipher this information in light of today’s nutritional needs and lifestyles. I also knew how to glean the best research that would give the most thorough and accurate account of what our bodies need, both in light of evolution as well as in today’s modern world. What I learned was:

When we eat and move in balance with the way our bodies evolved, we do much more than just avoid disease. We achieve a level of health and vitality that many of us have never before experienced. That level of health is not only possible, it’s embedded in our cells. It’s our inherent biological right.
Don’t worry. You don’t have to live in a cave, hunt woolly mammoths, or eat only wild greens and roots to achieve these goals. You can still have your favorite recipes, eat in restaurants, and order takeout. On the other hand, the Origin Diet in this book will ask you to consider giving up (or at least cutting back on) foods like bacon, soda pop, and cream (not common items on a Stone Age plate!).

The rewards are worth it. Adopt even a few suggestions in the Origin Diet and I guarantee you’ll feel better within weeks. Practice most of the guidelines and you will see noticeable changes in your weight and disease risk, such as lowering of blood cholesterol levels. Take on the entire program and you’ll experience significant improvements in how you feel, think, and live. You might even reverse the damage already done by past poor eating habits, turning back the clock on numerous diseases, such as atherosclerosis and bone loss. All because you’ll be fueling your body with the foods on which it thrives.

This is much more than a hope. It is a promise. Live by the Five Stone Age Secrets and follow the advice in the Original Dozen discussed in this book, and I promise

you will reduce your risk for all major age-related diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis, cataracts, and even depression;
you will think more clearly, including having better memory throughout life;
you will stack the deck in favor of living longer and spending those extra years healthier;
you will lose weight and keep the weight off;
you will have more energy; and
you will enjoy life more.
A Tried-and-True Plan

Those aren’t empty promises. Many people have taken me up on the challenge and found that the results are even better than they imagined. People who have adopted the Origin Diet and Workout Program in this book have lost weight (up to thirty pounds in fifteen weeks!), lowered their risks for heart disease (including dramatic reductions in blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure), increased their energy, found they slept better, had fewer cravings for sweets, experienced improvements in mood, and even reduced medications. It makes sense. Reconnect with your body’s ancient heritage, fuel your body in harmony with your evolutionary roots, and you will maximize your health, energy, and mental ability.

We influence our destinies by the foods we eat. You can sidestep disease, boost your energy, maintain your mental clarity, lose unwanted extra pounds, live longer, and enjoy life more if you return to a style of eating more closely attuned to the natural needs of your body. You’ll find out how in the following chapters. Enjoy your journey back to the future!

Copyright © 2001 Elizabeth Somer

Quick & Easy Germination Test

If the holidays have pretty much wiped you out, here is a simple activity that will not only save you money but will help organize your garden for the upcoming year.

Like many gardeners, my stash of seeds has accumulated over the years to the extent that I often forget what varieties I’ve bought. Some of these seed packets date back several years so before I take a chance, basing my whole crop of sweet corn on that package from 1997, I do a germination test. A test can be done on as few as 5 seeds but a more accurate prediction of germination percentage requires at least 20 seeds.

I use a very low-tech method of germinating seed: damp paper towels and plastic bags. Moisten one towel and arrange your seed on the sheet. If the seed is large (peas, beans, corn), apply another moist towel on top and roll the 2 sheets together into a tube. If the seed is small, the sheet can be folded over and then rolled onto itself. Once rolled, the paper towel should be placed inside a plastic bag or Ziploc to keep it from drying out. Finally, place the plastic bag in a warm spot (on top of the VCR, in the kitchen, on top of the fridge).

Before rolling the sheets, make sure the seeds are not too close to each other. Seeds that don’t germinate can begin to mould and this mould will infect nearby seeds if they’re too close or touching.

After about 2 days, check the paper towel at least once a day to see if the seeds have started to germinate. If the towels have started to dry out, re-moisten them with a couple of drops of water. Most seeds will germinate within 5 days at room temperature.

The majority of vegetable seeds will keep for at least 3 years if they’ve been kept cool & dry. The types of seed that don’t store well include sweet corn, parsnips, Swiss chard, spinach, and members of the Allium family (onions, leeks, scallions, chives).

The percentage of seed that do germinate in the towel will give you a pretty good idea of how they’ll do in the garden. If only 50% of the seeds germinated in the towel, you may want to consider planting the seed closer together to compensate for the seeds that don’t emerge. Alternatively, you may want to peruse your favourite seed catalogue and replace that seed package.

Finally, being the frugal gardener that I am, I hate to see a germinated seed go to waste. I pot-up whatever I can and keep them growing under lights. In the case of root crops, I plant the pre-germinated seed directly in the garden. I get a much better stand by doing this, especially if the soil is still slightly cold and would have caused un-germinated seed to rot.

Arzeena Hamir is an agronomist and President of Terra Viva Organics. When she’s not planting peas or picking zucchini, she answers questions about organic gardening at: You can also read her gardening articles on Vegetable Gardening at