An Essential Herb In The Garden
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to propagate from seed in a home garden and the rewards are plentiful!
In this post I will talk about harvesting the best leaves from your basil plant and explain a simple method for making a delicious pesto that can used on its own or combined with other sauces.
Harvesting The Best Basil Leaves
While the pruning method I'm about to describe works well on any type of basil, the specific type we're talking about here is Ocimum Basilicum, commonly known as Sweet Basil.
All basil plants have the same goal in life and that is to flower and go to seed. As gardeners, our mission is to prevent this from happening for as long as possible. We also want to prune in such a way that stimulates the plants to grow bigger & bushier so that our harvesting actually creates even more basil!
Harvesting basil is very simple, all you need to do is pinch out the center leaves down to a set of side shoots. Every time this is done, the plant will then create two more shoots. When those new leaves reach 1 to 2 inches long, pinch the new leaves out again and, yet again, the basil plant will create two new shoots.
The reasons for doing it this way are threefold. #1 The new leaves are the most flavorful. #2. It encourages the basil to grow bigger and bushier and can literally double or triple the yield from a single plant. #3. It prevents the basil from flowering and going to seed.
In the photo below, you can see on the right side of the frame a stem that has recently been pruned and then the two new shoots emerging. Right in the middle, and conveniently spot lit by the sun, is a bundle of new leaves that are exactly ripe for picking.
What you don't want to do is just pick big random leaves off the plant. Those big basil leaves that will appear lower down on the plant may look appetizing but they will be far less flavorful than the smaller new leaves plus picking those big leaves does not encourage further growth or prevent the basil from flowering.
When To Allow Basil To Go To Seed
One basil plant can produce hundreds of seeds and they will easily reseed their area as long as they are happy. Here in central New Mexico (grow zone 7), our average first frost is usually around mid October so I try to prevent my basils from flowering until at least mid September. About a month before the first frost I will allow them to flower and go to seed. Then, after the plants have frozen a couple times and are thoroughly dead, we harvest the flower stalks and sit around the kitchen table cleaning seeds and preparing them for sale.
Storing Basil For Later Use
In order to maximize the yield from each basil plant, it is important to monitor its growth and to prune it when it needs pruning - which may or may not coincide with when you feel like cooking something with it. Fresh basil has a pretty short shelf life so it is helpful to process it in ways that will allow it to be used at a later time. One way to prolong the shelf life of basil is to dry it but my favorite way is to make pesto!
Quick & Easy Pesto
This is not so much an exact recipe with precise measurements as it is a method using specific ingredients. The reason is because the amount of basil that you have available could be a little or a lot and food processors come in many different sizes.
This my method and it's quite simple!
Step 1. Place all the stems and leaves into a colander and rinse with cool water to remove dust and other debris that may be present. Pat dry with a towel.
Step 2. Remove the leaves from the stems and begin placing the leaves in the food processor.
Step 3. Fill the food processor no more than 2/3 full with basil. I've noticed that if the processor is too full it tends to not chop the basil very well. If you have a whole lot of basil it may be necessary to make multiple batches.
Step 4. Add feta cheese, minced garlic, salt and pepper. Quantities can be adjusted, season to taste.
Step 5. Do several pulses with the food processor and then, using a rubber spatula, scrape the mixture down from the sides and push it towards the blades. Repeat until the mixture appears well blended and looks like the photo above.
Step 6. Transfer the pesto mixture from the food processor to a bowl and gradually stir in olive oil until it a gooey texture is achieved. You could also leave the mixture in the food processor and blend in the oil but the food processor is much easier to clean if there hasn't been oil in it.
Now that the pesto is made, there are many options for what to do with it! The first, and most obvious, option is to stir it in with pasta or step it up a little by adding grilled chicken and making Chicken Pesto Pasta. Another way that pesto can be used is as seasoning for marinara sauce. It can be mixed with premade commercial spaghetti sauce or with plain canned tomato sauce.
If you've made more pesto than you can use all at once, I highly recommend not storing the excess in the refrigerator and freezing it instead. Pesto will not last very long in the refrigerator but can last a very long time in the freezer! There are many methods for freezing but I just section the pesto into single use portions and store it in zip lock freezer bags.
Ocimum Basilicum, Sweet Basil
Are you ready to add basil to your herb garden? We have Sweet Basil (Ocimum Basilicum) seeds in stock and ready to ship. Check out our Herbs & Gifts in the Dry Heat Gardens store!