Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
May, 2001
Regional Report

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My hearty basil seedlings are hardened off and ready to go into the garden. I can't wait for pesto!

The Sweet Scent of Basil

I planted basil seeds about one month ago, and the plants are coming on strong. I planted the seeds in small paper pots in the cold frame. Since basil likes the heat, to help with germination, I laid a heating cable beneath the pots. Now that the outdoor temperatures have warmed, the pots are ready to go in the garden. Whether you say bay-zil or baa-zil, there's one thing everyone will agree on. Juicy, sun-warmed tomato chunks mixed with olive oil, freshly picked basil, and chopped garlic spooned over hot pasta is truly a sublime summer feast. I just can't resist the flavor or basil.

Grow Basil Everywhere

Besides having extraordinary taste, basil is incredibly easy to grow. It shouldn't be limited to the herb garden. It also looks great in the perennial garden, as a shrub border, or in a container. I tend to tuck basil plants into unused garden corners and grow it among vegetables. However, I've also edged a flower garden with basil and used it for handsome foliage contrast in flower containers.

Basil-Growing Tips

Basil loves the full sun and well-drained soil. It's not necessary to start basil indoors since it grows quickly from seed. I just tend to get impatient, so I like to start a few plants myself. Basil thrives in warm weather, so don't sow your seeds outdoors too early. Wait until the soil is at least 60oF.

Harvesting Basil

Once basil is growing strongly, harvest leaves as you need them. The leaves contain the most concentrated oils and taste best just before the flower buds form. Once the plant begins to expend energy in flower and seed production, it loses some of its potency. Cut or pinch basil just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than a quarter of the plant at any one time. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and looking good as a landscape plant.

Keeping the Harvest

Air drying will produce tasty basil for use all winter. Rinse the leaves in cool water and gently shake off extra moisture. When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle. Place the bundle in a paper bag, gathering the top of the bag around the stems and tying again. Label and hang the bag in a dry place where the temperature doesn't get above 80oF (an attic or garage is ideal). After two to four weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.

Freezing Basil

To retain just-picked flavor, I also freeze basil in tomato puree. I put a handful of washed leaves in the food processor with a peeled, seeded ripe tomato. You can also add water or olive oil for a more liquid consistency. When processed, I pour the slurry into ice cube trays, making sure each cube has enough liquid to cover the chopped leaves, and freeze. When frozen, I pop out the cubes and store them in labeled freezer bags. All I have to do for a great meal is thaw a couple of cubes and toss them with hot cooked pasta and plenty of fresh romano cheese. What a dinner!

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