Garlic, basil and ice cream sound like an unlikely combo. Yet this trio is just the beginning at the annual Garden in the Parks celebration from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 16.
The Penn State Master Gardeners of Allegheny County host this free event at the North Park and South Park demonstration gardens, which are planned, planted, weeded and watered all season long by master gardeners. This celebration captures the essence of summer, with garlic, basil, tomatoes and a wide range of annuals and herbs taking center stage.
The planting begins in October with individual garlic cloves. All of the varieties selected are hardy, strong and reliable growers in southwestern Pennsylvania. Chunky, round bulbs are harvested in mid-July, just in time for this event. In addition to garlic, you can sample organically grown allium cultivars including ‘Duganski,’ ‘Music,’ ‘Chesnok Red,’ ‘Vietnamese Red,’ ‘Carpathian’ and ‘Zemo.’
Garlic scapes -- the flower stalks cut from stiff-neck varieties a month before the cloves are harvested -- are made into pesto with the addition of nuts, cheese, olive oil and citrus juice. Garlic scapes are a gourmand’s delight and can be used on their own in simple sautes in place of garlic cloves or green onions. If you want to try pesto made with different garlic cultivars, be sure to arrive early. It goes fast!
Basil is also big at Garden in the Parks. You can sample several varieties of Ocimum basilicum -- ‘Genovese,’ ‘Lemon,’ ‘Lime,’ ‘Thai,’ ‘Red Rubin’ and ‘Pesto Perpetuo.’ They are served in emulsions composed of chopped basil leaves and olive oil. Genovese emulsion is a wonderful addition to tomato sauce and lemon basil emulsion is fantastic on grilled fish. Emulsions can also be frozen and made into pesto later in the year with the addition of toasted pine nuts, garlic, sharp Italian cheese and a touch of lemon juice. Once you’ve tasted basil preserved in this manner, you’ll pitch the tin of dried basil in your spice cabinet.
Tomatoes are not grown in the demonstration gardens, but an event touting garlic and basil must include tomatoes. Last year, the tomato tasting station featured more than 16 varieties. Most were heirloom, including ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Pruden’s Purple,’ ‘Money Maker,’ ‘4th of July’ and ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green.’ Cherry tomatoes included ‘Sun Sugar,’ ‘Sweet 100,’ ‘Super Sweet 100’ and ‘Black Cherry.’ We will be doing a blind tasting this year. The names will be hidden and labeled by number only. It will be just you and your senses to determine which tomato is your favorite.
After sampling garlic, pesto and tomatoes, you can cleanse your palate with free ice cream. The famous Penn State Creamery ice cream is made from the milk of cows who call State College home. Traditionalists will enjoy vanilla, strawberry or “Death by Chocolate.” For the adventurous, we are featuring “August Pie,” a flavor made with nectarines and peaches, swirled with raspberry sauce in a vanilla base.
The visual delights of summer include an amazing array of beautiful flowers, foliage and pollinators. Free tours of the demonstration gardens will allow you to explore the herbs and annual flower beds. Vote for your favorite plant and register to win one of several garden baskets. While at the registration table, be sure to sample the cookies made with herbs from these gardens. Lavender shortbread, lemon verbena and cinnamon basil cookies round out the many tastes you’ll experience at Garden in the Parks.
Attendees will also receive a packet of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds, courtesy of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. Milkweed is the only plant that Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on, and the larvae require the milkweed for survival. The seeds come with a handout explaining the plight of the monarch and their drastic population decline due to loss of habitat and chemically based agriculture.
The event will also include digging for potatoes and other children’s activities; master gardeners and Burgh Bees representatives available to answer questions; and a marketplace with garlic, tomatoes, tools, seeds and other gardening supplies available for purchase.
For more information about the demonstration gardens, go to http://extension.psu.edu/plants/master-gardener/counties/allegheny/demonstration-gardens.
Karel Ulizio is a Penn State master gardener. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.