What I’ve Learned in Three Years Growing Basil: A Rough Guide

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Absolutely nothing. I’m joking, but the temptation to just post that remains. Seriously though, I think there are a few pointers that I can share to growing many successful harvests of basil. These are just anecdotal tips from your forever friend Jack, nothing more than the summation of my experiences. The reason why every guide here is rough is because I’m constantly learning and the me sharing my experiences in the here and now will be a very different person in the future. There does have to come a point where I’ve learned as much as I can, but you can never be sure. So whether you’re new to basil an old hand or just vaguely interested in these little herb, here are a few tips, in the now ubiquitous list format, for getting a large, healthy and delicious harvest. I’ll even point out a few tips for pesto, I’m still new-ish to pesto, but now I’ll only make it using he freshest herbs, my own in other words. I never ate it before I couldn’t eat any commerical pesto so take my tips as you will.

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Basil Tips:

Not too Tall.

You’ll enjoy watching you basil get bigger and bigger, but one of the problems is that when it grows very tall is that it can get weak stemmed, if you’re not cutting it and letting it bush out the basil can end up wobbly. The other issue is that when it reaches it’s maximum height it will start to flower and as pretty as they are you don’t want them spoiling the taste of your basil. Either pinch them off or just cut below them. What you want is a basil that isn’t too tall, has no flowers and has leaves from everywhere on the stem.

Light prune, heavy prune.

Now this does assume you have basil ready, whether you buy it as a seed, like Jack, or you buy it from the shops and propagate it via cuttings, like last year’s Jack. The best way I’ve found is alternating between light harvests, small amounts taken with careful hand, and heavy harvests, large amounts taken with rough cuts. The idea is that you do need to keep basil pruned, removing the light, small leaves when healthy is great as you can use them, rather than letting them wilt, this will let the plant feed itself and grow. For heavy the best time is when there’s too much top growth, way too many leaves, you can just cut it down a few inches, at the growth node of course, and the plant should have sufficient leaves to grow again. The best way to determine the stage is by how many leaves are on a stem. If they’re mostly empty then you don’t want to take too much. All crowded and hen it’s time to take a heavy hand. Basil is tough, but smart pruning means you get more out of each plant.

Feed when scraggly.

Like you and me, dear reader, plants need to feed to grow. The thing about herbs is that they release their flavoursome oils when they struggle, the less for it to draw upon the better tasting it is. So naturally feeding isn’t advised, but you should do it. Huh? Bear with me. You want the basil to be at it’s peak when harvesting, just wet enough to be healthy, the smell will spread throughout any room,  it’ll taste best then. After a few harvests you’ll want to add a little plant feed, this will help the plant grow again and stay strong. The only issue is that the taste will be almost non-existent while the nutrients are in the soil so don’t over-feed it or use slow-release pellets. A little liquid feed is all you need.

Consistently Warm.

Now this pertains to Ireland wacky weather. I had basil last year in a plastic greenhouse that was just ready for harvest so I let it until the next day, the next day’s weather was a cold snap and the basil wilted and died. Now that I have a well insulated greenhouse that holds heat better, and keeps out some of the cold, there’s a world of difference in my basil. You might be best to keep your basil indoors if you don’t have a greenhouse. It’s very disheartening to see basil just die suddenly. I did find the Thai a tougher basil, but that may have been a fluke.

Pesto Tips

Not too smooth.

I use to blend my pesto to a smooth consistency and I feel that that’s a disservice to the basil. I find that a rough blend, where the nuts are just broken up and there are few shreds of leaf left gives  much better texture and even improves the taste. You’re not disguising stems or hiding poor quality leaves, this is your harvest and you should use it the best way possible. I don’t recommend using the stems, they’re okay when very young, but become rubbery in time and eventually woody when the weather changes to cooler temperatures.

Not too much oil.

This is more of a preference, but if you are freezing, and topping with oil naturally, then I find making a thick paste, topping it before freezing leads to a pesto that clings perfectly an doesn’t end up with pasta that’s floating in oil. I love oil and rich pasta dishes, but I think the freshness is where pesto shines, overwhelming the basil is a mistake I’m glad to say I no longer make.

Mixing and Match.

I’ve mentioned that I grow a few varieties of basil, the sweet is the most versatile, but the others offer a unique taste in dishes. The issue I find is that some overwhelm while others fail to stand out enough on their own. I’ve found that mixing the Thai (They call it cinnamon on the packet, but it’s Thai) with the dark opal gives the Thai’s aniseed a slight undercurrent of something sweeter, the lighter flavour of the dark opal is still present, more so thanks to the contrast in flavours. It’s also helpful if you just don’t have enough basil to make pesto, a little Thai with sweet is really fun and different ratios make really different pesto.

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6 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned in Three Years Growing Basil: A Rough Guide

  1. I have tried, for many years, to keep a basil plant alive for more than a couple of weeks. Thanks for sharing these kernels of wisdom. I just did a heavy harvest and it’s left my current plant looking very frail and tall.. but I have another that just sprouted from one I thought was dead, so maybe there’s hope for me yet!

    Liked by 1 person

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