While organizing leftover Christmas wrapping, tissue paper, and miscellaneous gift bags in our junk closet earlier this year, I stumbled upon a basil plant starter kit. I had bought a bunch of these charming seed kits from West Elm as housewarming gifts for friends, and it seemed like a good idea to keep this last one for myself. On this cold January day, the thought of having fresh basil growing in my window brought to mind visions of the warmer days to come, and with them, summer recipes.
I could use my harvest of basil sprinkled atop fresh buffalo mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Next, I would make yellow corn salad with the delicious mix of tangy apple cider vinegar finished with fresh basil to balance out the sweet fruit with savory herbs. My mouth watering, I promptly aborted my organizing mission and took the box into our kitchen downstairs to plant my seeds. After about twenty minutes, I had planted the stam queen, lemon, and sweet basil seeds and placed their small, galvanized tin planter in my window with a great sense of accomplishment. I felt as if I had just become a true farmer, right there in my kitchen.
And yet, if I were a real farmer, I would have known that growing takes a lot of waiting. The directions indicated that after 2–4 weeks, the seedlings would germinate and start to peek their stems above the soil. With great care, I watched the soil every day and gently watered the dry surface in hopes of nurturing my seeds to life.
I had flashbacks of a first-grade science experiment where we dutifully observed the glacial growth of our bean seeds germinating in clear plastic Solo cups. As a six year old, it was magical to come to class one day and peer through my clear cup to discover that my little bean seed had sprouted a single root. We watched the roots as they multiplied throughout the dirt, and after waiting for what felt like an eternity, a plant sprouted out through the top.
Twenty-five years later, I was doing the same experiment and had no more patience than the six-year-old version of myself as I waited for the fruits of my labor. Yet this time, unlike the clear Solo cup, my galvanized tin planter prevented me from seeing any progress going on below the surface. I watched and waited.
“In a more general sense, germination can be simply anything expanding into greater being from a small existence” (source).
Following my elementary school experiments with gardening, I took a botany class during college. Chemistry and physics were out of the question, and rumor had it that this was the easiest science credit for humanities students. The truth is, I don’t remember much from that class except the goofy professor with wild white hair, but growing basil re-ignited my interest in the subject, so I researched germination a bit. I was struck by the parallels between what was happening below the surface in the seeds and what was happening below the surface in my soul. Like the basil seeds safely tucked below the surface, nurtured by the darkness of the soil as they waited to sprout new life, so was my own life in a season of germination.
In many ways, last year was one of the best years of my life. I married Mike, went on a fabulous honeymoon to Maui, and spent the following six months completely renovating a 1926 Tudor to become our dream home. Amid these peaks were deep valleys as I dealt with the trauma of my sister being assaulted in her home, the death of my dear grandfather, and the painful realization that personal burnout necessitated leaving the non-profit I had started three and a half years prior. At the end of this very full year, after much prayer and planning, I stepped down as Executive Director of Art House Dallas and began an extended sabbatical. I walked into a season of a smaller existence.
“Most seeds go through a period of dormancy where there is no active growth; during this time the seed can be safely transported to a new location and/or survive adverse climate conditions until circumstances are favorable for growth.” (source).
For the first time in my life, I did not know what was next. I only knew that it was time to lay low, rest, and wait. I was dried up inside and felt like I had very little to offer anyone around me. As it turns out, for the first three weeks of the year, I really didn’t have anything to offer as I was sick with a cold the whole time. I thought that I was going to start my sabbatical by doing all those things you never have time to do when you are working, like crafts and cooking and working out in the middle of the day. Nevertheless, my body was screaming at me to stop doing and start being. So I slept. A lot. I would go to bed early and sleep well past when Mike would leave for work in the morning. I had envisioned long sessions of reading my Bible and journaling, and for weeks I avoided both. I distanced myself from just about everyone but my husband, my family, and a couple of very old friends who didn’t expect anything from me other than just hanging out and being myself.
At the end of January, I tagged along with Mike to a conference in San Francisco, and we tacked on a couple days to go wine tasting in Sonoma. It was perfect timing as I was almost over my cold and ready for some warmer weather. I was thrilled to get out of the house, and even more thrilled to get out of Dallas and have a change of scenery. Traveling has always been life-giving to me, and this trip was no exception as we experienced beauty, ate amazing meals, and sipped on wines we had never tried before.
Considering it was January and the grapevines were barren of leaves, everything looked like it was dead. It certainly wasn’t the ideal time to visit Sonoma, but we didn’t let this stop us from exploring some of the vineyards and learning from the winemakers. They were passionate about the process of making wine and loved answering our questions, not only about the wine we were tasting but also sharing with us some of the different factors that go into creating the ideal vintage. It was particularly interesting to learn how important these winter months were in the winemaking process. From the outside it looks as if everything is dead, but this post-harvest period is the most important part of preparing the vines for the next growing season.
In winter months, the vines go through the deep stage of dormancy, also referred to as the winter rest. Though it appears as if there is no active growth above the surface, the roots of the vine below the surface are taking up the nutrients and storing energy required for developing in the early spring. If the farmers artificially try to break the dormancy in hopes of starting the growth sooner, it can result in uneven budding on the vines and affect future harvests. I found all of this fascinating and carried these insights back to Dallas along with a couple bottles of delicious wine.
“Scarification mimics natural processes that weaken the seed coat before germination. In nature, some seeds require particular conditions to germinate, such as the heat of a fire or soaking in a body of water for a long period of time to allow the seedling to emerge.” (source).
The trip to California was wonderfully refreshing, and yet upon returning back to Dallas I was forced to face the unknown path ahead. Mike went back to the intensity of his job in the pediatric ICU, and I tried to embrace my new identity of homemaker and support him in his crazy schedule. For so long we had navigated two crazy schedules, and it was wonderful to be available to him when he came home from work, to cook nutritious meals, and to work on decorating our newly renovated home. In many ways, it was a dream come true to have so much down time and continue to establish our new marriage. But the truth is that I had entered into unfamiliar territory. I had lost my old self — the hardworking executive — and was thrown into a new world of laundry and dishes and fabric swatches.
I thought that stepping into this new identity was all I wanted, and that it would be the solution to many of the challenges I had faced in the prior year. Yet with all this time on my hands I was finally able to process emotions that had long been shoved down for lack of time to deal with my heart. After experiencing a good amount of anxiety, coupled with some pretty rough nightmares connected to my sister’s attack, I realized that it was probably a good idea to visit with a counselor. Despite having a positive view of therapy since my father is a counselor, I had to reach a pretty high pain threshold before I finally went and talked to someone other than a family member or close friend.
I thought I was going into counseling to deal with fear, but I ended up processing through many other deeper matters of the heart. It was painful to peer into parts of my soul that were so easy to ignore before, and three weeks in, I felt weaker than when I had begun. I had a love/hate relationship with sitting in the hot seat at the counselor’s office, yet it was life-giving to have a place where I could be completely honest and not worry about the impact of my words on our relationship. Scars from the past no longer carried the same power. Slowly by slowly, I was softening, letting fear give way to confidence; anxieties give way to peace.
“It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:7, The Message).
One sunny afternoon, I came home to find that my basil seeds had been through a process of their own. Staring up at me were the first signs of growth, magnificent little seedlings pushing their way through the dirt and reaching for sunlight. We had made it through the winter! Considering how long it took them to make their appearance above surface, I was surprised by how quickly they started growing leaves. The instructions suggested introducing the seedlings to heat and longer periods of sunlight outside in order to strengthen the stems for extreme summertime temperatures. As I continued to expose the basil to more heat, it grew stronger. The basil grew so high this spring that I had to take it out of its little window box and move it to the outdoor planter where it now lives.
One of the greatest joys of this summer has been going out to my herb garden and clipping off basil leaves for whatever dish I’m cooking. Whether I’m throwing it on top of homemade pizzas or heirloom tomatoes, mixing it into tomato sauce or garnishing corn salad, it makes everything more delicious. In my small backyard in Dallas, kneeling next to my humble herb garden, I can’t help but stop and inhale the sweet smell of basil in my hands. As I pull off the largest leaves to allow for the smaller ones to keep on growing, I smile thinking of how far these little seeds have come, and how far I have come right along with them.
Fresh Corn Salad
(Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa recipe)
6 ears of corn, shucked
1/3 cup finely diced red onion
1/4 cup finely diced shallot
1 cup cucumber, peeled and diced (1/2 medium cucumber)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup julienned fresh basil leaves
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the corn for 3–4 minutes, until the starchiness is just gone. I like to pull a kernel off the bottom as a taste test for texture at about 3 minutes. While you are waiting for the corn to cook, prepare an ice bath next to the sink. Drain the corn and immerse in in the ice bath to stop the cooking and set the color.
When the corn is cool to the touch, cut the kernels off the cob in 4 even cuts from the tip to the base, making sure to cut close to the cob. Toss the kernels in a large bowl with the red onions, shallots, cucumbers, vinegars, oil, salt and pepper. Refrigerate for up to an hour, and just before serving, toss in the fresh basil. Taste for seasonings and serve cold or at room temperature.
Jenny White Green is wife to a kind doctor and mom to an endearing Golden Retriever named Finn. She is actively embracing her new title of homemaker as her work over the last year has transitioned from the Art House to the Green House, their 1920s Tudor in East Dallas. With her newfound free time, she loves cooking, hosting gatherings, hand-building ceramics, taking Instagrams, volunteering, reading food memoirs, and growing herbs, especially basil.