Where Even Novices Can Get to First Basil

In a sudden Italianate frenzy the other night, I decided to whip up a batch of nice, healthy, low-fat, non-cholesterol tomato-basil pasta sauce. I had all the requisite ingredients at hand: good olive oil, garlic, onions, a couple of big red tomatoes. There was no fresh basil, but that was OK, I figured. The dried stuff smelled fairly basil-like.

It all ended up tasting like pink Maalox.

I conducted a post-mortem. It revealed that at least two of the ingredients, taken individually, tasted terrible: the tomatoes and the basil, which pretty much takes the steam out of tomato-basil sauce.

A pinch of the dried basil tasted like so much floor sweepings, and the tomatoes--well, have you ever eaten Styrofoam? They were red on the outside, the palest pink on the inside and had about as much flavor as freeze-dried mice.

My cooking technique wasn't wrong. This sauce is about as tough to assemble as a bowl of Wheaties.

No, the fault lay with the ingredients, which the American consumer has had to suffer with for far too long. Two things stand in his way: 1) fresh basil is mostly unavailable for parts of the year, and 2) most supermarket tomatoes are picked green, exposed to some noxious gas or other that turns them red (but doesn't ripen them), and shoved onto the shelves, their cheery exteriors concealing hearts of pure chalky sludge.

The obvious alternative--growing your own--always seemed a bit daunting to me, however. You didn't, I thought, have many chances to get it right.

But that was before I paid a visit to the Fullerton Arboretum and found out that the folks there can sell you, cheaply, 10 different kinds of basils from around the world and--count 'em--35 varieties of healthy tomato plants. In fact, if you show up at the arboretum today and Sunday you'll find more rare, unusual and, particularly, drought-tolerant plants for sale in one place than you've seen listed in most catalogues.

This weekend the arboretum is hosting its annual Green Scene, a kind of garden nut's free-for-all centered on what the arboretum folks say is the largest plant sale in Orange County. Hundreds of varieties of flowering plants, ground covers, herbs, fruits, vegetables, trees, shrubs, bushes and rare and unusual plants will be carted off by thousands of folks who rate a good time by how much dirt it allows them to get under their fingernails.

Let's get to the good part right away: You're going to have trouble spending a lot of money at the Green Scene. For instance, you can have any of the varieties of basils and tomatoes, in a small container--that's any of them--for 50 cents each. Want to jazz up the pasta sauce with some peppers? The arboretum folks will be selling 20 varieties for, yes, 50 cents each.

However, it is the plants that you look at rather than eat that will probably be the greatest draw--the "things that people who are plant people search out," said Lorra Almstedt, a spokeswoman for the arboretum. These are the sorts of plants, she said, that are seldom found in neighborhood nurseries but can nonetheless be sold at a reasonable price.

Mexican primroses, for instance, will go for $3.50, Douglas irises for $5. Various trees in 5-gallon containers will be priced at around $12, and more common flowering plants such as black-eyed susans and geraniums will go for between $1.50 and $3.50.

Rarer plants for sale will include begonias, orchids, rare fruits, cactus and other succulents and miniature roses.

There is a timely emphasis at this year's Green Scene on drought-tolerant plants, and the arboretum potters will not be the only ones selling them. There will be 55 other exhibitors--garden clubs, plant societies, individuals and others--who will offer plants they have grown themselves, as well as garden-related items such as birdhouses, ceramic containers and various tools.

You can also get good advice on what to do with it all. There will be 20 formal lectures and demonstrations on the arboretum grounds and an additional 10 to 15 demonstrations at exhibitors booths. Among the exhibits: drip irrigation, water conservation, fertilizer injection systems, recycling and composting, and an insect display.

And if you can stop carting away plants long enough to listen to a spiel or two, there will be lectures and demonstrations on landscape materials for the Southern California garden, the use of polymers to save water, the iris in a drought-tolerant landscape, bonsai potting and training, and grafting and potting trees.

It all goes fast. The Green Scene is held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday. Entry is by donation, $2 for individuals, $5 for families. The arboretum is on the Cal State Fullerton's campus, west of the Orange Freeway on Associated Road just south of Yorba Linda Boulevard in Fullerton.

A warning to tomato fans: I am passionately dedicated to improving my tomato-basil sauce (of course, I could make it with Spackle and it would be an improvement over the last batch) and intend to bring home at least two small pots containing a variety known as the Super Italian Paste tomato that is reputed to make sauce that causes Neapolitans to weep. They are going straight into my window box and, until they bear fruit, I will have something real and true and fine to live for.

I may even buy a basil plant or two and go for broke.

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