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Unfortunately, basil is not the easiest herb to grow. It takes a bit of TLC in both hot and in cold climates. And, it needs to be sown year after year – unlike woody herbs such as rosemary and lavender. But, once the plants are growing strong, their unique culinary offerings are diverse and unparalleled.
So, what’s the trick with basil?
Basil is best treated as an annual plant. This means, the plant grows for one season, flowers, sets seed, and dies. In locations that do not experience true winters, a basil plant may survive for more than one season, but it will also become woody and spindly. So, cycling older plants into the compost and replacing them with new, fresher ones is ideal.
Many gardeners choose to pick up basil starts at a local nursery or plant sale in spring. Selecting starts rather than growing from seed may limit your variety choices. Traditional Genovese basil is the most readily available variety, and while delicious, there are many others worth growing.
Thai Basil: Licorice-spiciness permeates the purple-tinted leaves, flowers and stems of this variety, which is ideal for Thai dishes.
Spicy Globe (aka Boxleaf):This variety offers miniscule leaves that pack a heady, spicy basil punch. Plus, the tiny leaf form means this plant is perfect for tiny hedges in your miniature edible garden displays.
Lettuce Leaf: Love basil on your sandwiches? One crinkly leaf from this plant is as big as most slices of bread. Plus, the basil flavor is somewhat mild – adding just the right amount of kick to a summery tomato sandwich.
To grow from seed, plant basil seeds in sterile seeding mix and allow to germinate in a warm, indoor location. Once the seeds have germinated, separate seedlings and pot them up. Basil plants will grow well all season even with a few plants in a 1-gallon size container, so don’t worry if a few plants grow somewhat crowded together.
While many seasonal edibles are relatively easy to harden off for outdoor growing, basil is a little bit more difficult. Even the briefest hot or cold snap can turn the plant’s leaves black, stunt your basil, or just plain kill it. So, plan to keep your basil in a protected growing location where burning mid-day summer sun won’t fry it and a chilly overnight temperature drop won’t freeze the leaves. In my own Pacific Northwest garden, I keep my basil in a protected, vented greenhouse for the entire summer.
Once your plants have put on a few sets of leaves, you should begin harvesting. Throughout the growing season, harvest your basil by pinching out the tip growth on each stalk. Make your pinch along the stem, just above a pair of leaves. Each time you trim the plant this way, you will be encouraging new stems and leaves to grow, and they will emerge from buds at the base of each leaf pair. If you are growing a variety with tiny leaves, shearing the exterior of the plant is optional and may prove easier than pinching here and there. Using a pair of Fiskars micro-tip snips makes easy work of basil harvesting.
If you are pinching your plants back this way regularly – about once a week or so during the growing season – it is unlikely that your plant will have a chance to flower. However, if you do see flower buds begin to form, cut out the entire flower stalk. Once basil begins flowering, it is near impossible to stop it from heading toward a rapid demise.
Resist the urge to simply pick the biggest leaves all over the plant. Harvesting basil this way will simply knock back its growth pattern. But, when summer is moving toward fall and the plant starts becoming woody and leaves are sparse, harvest the best of what’s left and compost the rest.
If you find yourself harvesting more basil than you can eat fresh, there are a few ways to preserve it for later use. Drying is an option, but basil never tastes very good that way. Freezing it will save the flavor really well, but plan to use it in cooked foods, as the color and texture will be lost as the leaves defrost. During the summer, label a zipper freezer bag to correspond to the basils you will be saving – keeping the Thai basil separate from the other varieties at the very least. After you pinch, de-stem, wash and spin dry a harvest, simply pop the leaves into the corresponding bag, adding to it as the season progresses. Come winter, grab a fistful to crunch frozen into marinara or curries.
Pesto is another great option for putting basil by. This no-dairy option is a staple in our kitchen.
Fill a food processor bowl with basil. Pulse several times until well chopped. Add in pine nuts and spin until crushed and mixed. With mixer running, slowly add the olive oil in a steady stream. Begin with the smaller amount, adding only enough to thoroughly wet the mixture but not create a thin liquid mixture. Pulse in salt and pepper.
Freeze in one or two cup portions in labeled vacuum bags.