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Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

Basil Basics: Growing, Harvesting, Preserving

Basil is a native of Africa and other tropical areas of Asia where it has been cultivated for over 5,000 years.  It is a culinary herb that sends cooks into poetic rapture.  It is probably the favorite of the “sweet” herbs and well known from its use in Mediterranean cuisine.  It has a spicy bite when eaten fresh.

Harvesting Basil

For basil harvest, the key is to harvest before the basil gets too woody.  You can get multiple harvests from each plant.  Cut each stem back to the last 4 leaves. Give each plant a good dose of fish emulsion to support quick leaf regrowth.


Preserving Basil

You can freeze, dry, make basil into pesto, basil butter, basil vinegar, or basil oil.

For freezing, you can freeze chopped leaves into ice cubes to be able to pop into sauces.  You can also blanch and freeze.  If you don’t blanch, the frozen herb does not keep its color or flavor.  Blanching is simply throwing the herb leaves in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds and then quickly plunge them into a bowl or sink of ice water.  Dry the leaves then I then put the leaves on a cookie sheet, place in the freezer and when frozen, remove and put in quart freezer bags.  Now you can have fresh basil anytime you need it!

harvested basil 

For drying, I place the cut stems into a paper bag that I put in a dry, warm place.  Be sure to leave lots of open space between stems to discourage any mold.  When completely dry, I remove the leaves and place in canning jars.

Pesto is a mixture of fresh basil, traditionally pine nuts (but I use any kind of nut I have on hand-walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, cashews), parmesan cheese, a few cloves of garlic, and olive oil.  You can add spinach or parsley.  Just throw them all together in a food processor and ta-da pesto!


I use about 8 cups of packed leaves (be sure to not include any tough stems), 1/2 cup nuts, 1 cup of olive oil, 1 and 3/4 cup of Parmesan, 8 cloves of fresh garlic and a teas of salt.  After processing, I put half each in a quart freezer bag, lay flat in the freezer until ready to use.  Just thaw and toss with your favorite pasta or add to pizza, bruschetta, or sauce for a quick and tasty meal.

For basil butter, chop the basil and mix 1 Tbl, or to taste, into softened butter.

For basil vinegar, choose a white vinegar so that the taste of the basil shines through.  Place fresh basil leaves into an empty bottle and cover with vinegar.  Place in cool, dark area for a month.  Shake daily.  Strain out leaves and use!  You can accelerate the infusion process by covering the leaves with boiling vinegar.  Your creation will be ready in a week.

For basil flavored oil, chop 1 cup of leaves.  Heat 1 cup of oil on low, add herbs, stirring for 3-4 minutes.  Strain out leaves and keep oil refrigerated.

Lots of options!

Basil turns black when temps get close to freezing.  Be sure to harvest all leaves when it looks like you are getting a frost.  You can also take the the tips and place in water to grow roots and pot indoors for winter harvests.  You can also dig up the plant and repot to bring indoors.  Be sure to put in a sunny window.  Basil won’t thrive indoors, but you will get enough to use as seasoning in your favorite dishes.

Growing Basil

Basil is easy to grow.  It loves warmth and melts when temps get even close to freezing.  The only watch out is too much water.  You’ll get the best flavor when you are stingy with water.

They don’t require much in the way of fertilizer.  Just fertilize at planting and once/month.  A good organic choice is blood meal.  Nitrogen encourages green growth which is what you are after when it comes to basil.

Basil grows well in pots indoors or out. If growing indoors, be sure to put in a sunny window.  It does great in the garden bed or container.

It smells amazing when you brush up against it.  You can place next to a garden path to enjoy its fragrance every time you pass by.  Plant all around your garden bed to deter the deer.  Deer navigate by their sense of smell and avoid fragrant plants that interfere with their sense of smell.

When flowers appear, pinch them off.  This will encourage bushy growth.  The flowers are edible and great adds to sauces or as a zing to salads.  Harvest any time you need.  Be sure to add to the dish at the very end of cooking to keep the strongest flavor.

Sweet basil is used in Mediterranean cooking.  Popular types are Genovese (probably the most famous for Italian cooking), and Mammoth.  Purple Ruffles is more decorative than culinary, but adds fun color as an infusion to vinegar.  Thai, lemon and holy basil are used in Asian cooking.

For more tips on organic gardening in small spaces and containers, see Melodie's blog at Victory Garden on the Golf Course.

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