Basil Garden

This summer I decided to grow Bruce a basil garden. He loves making fresh pesto, and is quite good at it!

Last summer, I had sad results with our basil plant. Without knowing what I was doing, I made three big mistakes. I will share them here for your benefit, dear readers:

Mistake #1. First I planted it in a shady corner of the deck. I assumed that since it is part of the mint family, it would thank me. As it turns out, basil LOVES sunlight -lots of it. It needs the intense heat to develop its robust flavor. My basil plant last year grew tall and stringy (it was trying to get to the light). Its leaves were thin and kind of yellow-tinted. Again, not enough light! Basil left in the direct sun for 4-8 hours a day grows bushy and has thick green leaves.

Mistake #2. I watered it relentlessly. Basil needs water. But it hates “wet feet,” or roots sitting in standing water. It needs good drainage, and does very well in terra cotta pots that keep the moisture levels down.

Mistake #3. I was too gentle with it and didn’t harvest it enough. Basil is meant to be harvested several times in one growing season. By harvest, I mean, rip or cutting off the top part of each stalk. The leaves and upper stalks are where the herb flavors lies.You should always cut (or tear) above the bottom set of leaves on the plant. But above that point, go crazy.  Basil is a prolific grower and has amazing recovery skills. It is scary the firs time you do it – it looks like you have just destroyed the plant. But it will start to grow back in a couple of days, and within about 3 weeks, it will be fully back and as bushy (or more) than before. Then, you harvest again!

Mistake #4. I let it flower. Being a novice gardener, when the plant started to grow tall, I thought I was doing something right. Then when flowers appeared, I was convinced it was doing well. What I didn’t realize is that when basil begin to flower, it puts all its energy as a plant into producing flowers shoots, and seeds. This efforts take a lot of the natural oils out of the leaves, and the leaves (which are used for making pesto) become sour.

Anyways, this year, armed with much more knowledge about what I was doing, I started from seed packets! I planted them in early march, in Burpee trays. Then I waited. Shoots came up in a few week, then sprouts, then they just took off. I have had to re-pot them twice before they got settled in a large enough pot to really grow.

But grow they have! For those that just want to see pictures, here are some:

For those who are interested in the process, more explanation below.

As I said before, this year, I put those basil plants in the sunniest corner of our desk. I put them in clay pots, and watered them regularly, but not too much. Then, I harvested them every 3 or so weeks.

How to harvest the right way:

If you want to take a blunt approach, then it’s reasonably safe to say, you can just cut off the top few inches of each stem. I have even watched (in aghast horror the first time) another gardener just grab the whole bunch and chop it right off. He called it “giving the basil a haircut.” For the most part, as long as you don’t cut it down to the base, it will regrow.

But for those of you who are slightly more timid (like me), there is a more “proper” way to harvest. Find the place on each stem where the first set of two leaves appears. On a reasonably long stem, there should be a couple sets of two leaves, and then at a certain point, you start to see double sets. You cut right above that point. Seriously, chop off everything above it.

Another thing I did wrong that first year, I took just the leaves off them stems. It’s horrible to me now, looking back. But I would come outside and remove six or seven leaves for a salad, leaving the stem long and denuded. What happens when you do this is you wind up creating long stringy plants, because more often then not, the plant will not regrow new leaves in those areas. It will just focus its efforts upwards. So you wind up with a long stringy plant with less and less leaves and more stem, which is not what you want.

You want big bushy plants thick with leaves! The way to create that is to harvest the whole stem, leaves and all, just above the point of new growth. Every time you do this, the plant will create new “branches” at that juncture.

And above all, you do not want to let your plant flower. As I have mentioned before, allowing the plants to flower is allowing the plant to die. After it form flowers the leaves will turn bitter or flavorless. And the plant has only weeks left to live. It will flower, then create seeds, drop the seed and die. So if you see little buds appearing, pinch them off! Then, harvest everything on the plant that is ready. This will force the plant to refocus on growth again.

So far this summer, Bruce and I have harvested about 3 huge batches of basil (two huge baskets worth, or 5 to 6 cups of leaves only) and 2 or 3 smaller batches. That is how prolific a basil plant is when harvested correctly – it produces a whole new set or leaves in about 3 weeks.

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