These days, I simply can’t justify a quick trip to the grocery store for an ingredient or two. Thank heavens my Polish grandmother taught me how to make a meal from whatever is in the pantry. Give her potatoes, onions or cabbage, and she could spin them 20 delicious ways.
Our dinner menus got a huge boost thanks to a freezer full of pesto, and I owe a shout-out to two of my gardening neighbors. Darrell and Linda grew so much basil last year that they set up a table in their front yard advertising “FREE BASIL PLANTS’. It’s hard to say no to free, and my husband planted way more basil than usual. I turned most of it into pesto, and I’m glad I did. For months now, I’ve used that sublime concoction in paninis, pastas, soups, sauces and spreads.
Willi Galloway’s “Grow, Cook, Eat” is a garden-to-table handbook for growing 50 vegetables and herbs. A few years ago, she was a featured speaker at the Master Gardener Spring Symposium, and she shared her techniques for growing one of the most popular herbs in the garden.
PLANTING. Basil is a tropical plant, native to southern Asia and islands of the south Pacific. It refuses to grow when planted too early, so wait until the soil warms to 60 degrees and daytime temperatures reach the 80s. Its flavor begins to deteriorate when temperatures drop below 50, and come frost, basil will be one of the first plants to go. Extend the season by covering your plants with row covers. Grow basil from seeds (germination in 7-10 days), seedlings or rooted cuttings. Pick a hot spot in full sun. I don’t know of any commercially grown seedlings except basil that are sold as a tangled clump in a single pot. If you buy yours this way, gently separate the individual plants.
GROWING. Except for smaller bush basils, most varieties grow 1.5 to 2 inches tall, and should be spaced 12 inches apart. Unlike most herbs, basil requires rich soil, regular irrigation and fertilizing. When the soil is dry down to the top of your first knuckle, it’s time to water. After the soil has warmed, add a 2- to 3-inch mulch of grass clippings, straw, compost or ground-up leaves to retain moisture and suppress weeds. Basil grows happily in containers with good drainage, but they dry out faster than garden beds and will need more frequent watering. Feed all basil plants with a 5-10-5 fertilizer once a month and after every big harvest.
HARVESTING. Have your basil leaves toughened and lost their intense flavor? You probably weren’t harvesting often enough, or you allowed the plant to flower. As soon as the seedling develops four sets of leaves, pinch off the top two sets and repeat this with each pair of branches as they grow. Find the point where the mature leaves meet the stem. You will find tiny leaves emerging from that junction. When harvesting, always pinch directly above these tiny leaves, because they will respond by growing into branches, and 20 cups of leaves can easily be harvested from a single plant in a season. Handle delicately to avoid bruising or blackening the leaves. Once the plant is 14 to 18 inches tall, cut it down to just above the fourth lowest set of leaves. Harvest smaller amounts by pinching off the top set or two of leaves from each stem. When temperatures really warm up, stem tips form a square cluster of four leaves layered one on top of another, signaling that the plant is getting ready to flower. Pinching off just the tip doesn’t halt flowering but simply makes way for the next flower stalk. Cut at least six leaf nodes down the stem and stand back as the plant responds by producing tender new leaves.
STORING. Refrigeration ruins basil. Immediately after harvest, place the stems in a glass of water on the counter, and change the water every day. If you leave the stems in water long enough, they’ll root. You can pot up the cuttings to grow indoors for a while, though strong artificial light is needed to keep basil going for the long haul. Basil loses much of its brilliant green color and flavor when air dried, making freezing a better preservation method. Mix 1/4 cup chopped basil with a few teaspoons of olive oil, and drop dabs onto lined baking sheets. After they freeze, peel off and store in containers.
Basil tastes like summer, and eating pesto, even straight out of the jar, can give a gardener hope of better days to come. There’s nothing better than this “Silver Palate Cookbook” recipe: bit.ly/YHR-PestoRecipe.