Basil is one of those things I can never have enough of in my garden.
It's great for Caprese salad, pesto, pasta salads, and muddling into summer drinks.
There's really no substitute for fresh basil, which imparts a slightly licorice-y, fragrant taste that's unmistakable. Basil is surprisingly easy to grow, and given the price of a bouquet at the grocery store, it pays to harvest your own.
You can grow basil from seed, from started plants and even from cuttings from plants already growing. Whether you decide to grow the large-leafed Genovese basil (perfect for pesto) or the stronger-tasting Thai basil, lemon basil or lime basil, you'll find these tips will work for any of those varieties.
There's a trick to growing basil and getting the most of your plants.
Basil wants to be harvested. And if you're strategic in how you prune it, you'll end up with more basil to enjoy. You can promote growth and vigor in the plant just by regularly pinching it back, and you'll avoid having spindly, awkward plants with few leaves.
See, basil grows upward. It will just keep getting taller and taller. Eventually it becomes gangly, falls over and looks pretty sad. Eventually it will bloom, putting all its energy into making flowers instead of delicious leaves, and the taste of the basil changes and isn't quite as good.
How do you prevent this? You pinch off parts of the plant in certain spots to make it branch out, which encourages the plant to become bushier and less leggy. This will also force it to produce more leaves, which means more fodder for pesto, which is a good thing, right?
How do you know where to pinch off the leaves? I wait until the basil plant is about six inches tall. Then I look for the first set of big leaves near the bottom of the plant, and if there are two smaller leaves situated alongside the bigger leaves, that's what you're looking for. About 1/4 inch above that group of four leaves is where you want to cut back the plant.
Use your fingers to pinch the stem off or use pruners or scissors. This forces side shoots to grow outwards, producing more leaves and creating a bushier plant. I know it looks like you're cutting it back a lot, but believe me, this is good. Depending on how you cut back your plant, it can transform into a rounded, bushy little basil plant with tons of leaves for harvesting.
The basil you cut off the plant can be used for cooking right away, or you can do something cool with it like propagating more basil plants.
That's right. The part you cut off can be rooted again and you can make even MORE basil, which reduces the time you would need to grow a plant from seed. Isn't that amazing? You can simply put it in a vase and watch it form its own roots, and within about two weeks, you can plant it in soil and start an entirely new plant.
You'll find you will be able to harvest every plant about once a week, during the period of the summer when it's growing the fastest.
Unfortunately we gardeners aren't the only ones who love to eat basil. I find the biggest pest that munches it in my garden is the horrid and persistent earwig. If you find your basil leaves have been skeletonized overnight, usually starting with the bottom leaves, that's your culprit. Your best bet in this case is to build an earwig trap. Just get an old plastic container (something wide and flat like a small cottage cheese tub works well). Poke some holes in the sides near the top, big enough for an earwig to crawl through. Fill the tub with half canola oil, half soy sauce. Cover it with a lid, dig a little spot for it in the garden by your basil and nestle it in that spot so the entry holes are as even with the soil as possible. Just wait, it will be full in no time and you can re-fill it and catch more.
My other strategy to outwit the earwigs is to always have a few plants in waiting, in pots away from the garden, out of reach just in case there's an overnight attack. They'll never suspect there are reinforcements!