Growing basil

All herbs are easy to grow, but most taste pretty good in dried form–thyme, tarragon, rosemary, savory, oregano, marjoram are all perfectly acceptable when sprinkled from little jars. Parsley and basil taste good only fresh, so it’s worthwhile knowing how to grow them. (Come back soon for a post about growing parsley.)

Basil is extremely tender and doesn’t last more than a day after it’s picked. It’s also, to me, the most delicious and indispensable of herbs, and in summer I can never get enough of it. So here’s how I make sure I have fresh basil from late May through October.

Basil is an annual: the plants germinate, flower, and go to seed in just one growing season. It’s also a plant of warm climates, so if you want to start it from seeds, you would need to do it indoors with lights and heat. Instead, I grow it the easy way: I buy a flat of plants around mid to late May, as soon as the weather gets warm. I plant them in the ground in my plot in the community garden that I enrich with homemade compost every year. By the end of June, the plants are a foot high and showing signs of blooming, and shiny brown leaf-eating beetles are beginning to attack the leaves. That’s my signal to harvest the leaves.

I cut the plants off at the ground level, leaving only a couple of leaves on each one, and use the leaves to make a large batch of pesto. The plants regrow, and I repeatedly remove the flower shoots, because i want the plant to put its energy into making leaves, not flowers and seed. Throughout the rest of the summer, I pluck all the leaves I want for fresh tomato salads, pasta, minestrone, whatever. And I have a lovely reservoir of pesto in the freezer for winter use. By September, the plants look like this:

DSCN1554

This plant is short and stocky; it’s certainly not beautiful, but there’s still lots of new growth to pluck and enjoy.

If I hadn’t repeatedly pinched off the flower heads, the plant would look like this:

DSCN1546

If you’re a basil lover, which plant would you prefer to have in your garden now?

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