Attempting to Grow Basil Again
In my first gardening article, My Garden Story, I mentioned that I've struggled to successfully grow basil. I've attempted to plant it almost every year, and if it doesn't die right away, then it doesn't grow far beyond the size it was when I planted it. I've tried planting it in different parts of the yard, hoping to randomly find the right light and soil combination to generate leaves in abundance. It's been frustrating. My mother and mother-in-law grow it successfully every year, and their climate isn't much different than mine. What am I doing wrong?
Okay, well, I have to take some responsibility for my lack of success. Have I tested the pH level of my soil? No. Have I watered every day? No. Have I tried fertilizer? No. I'm used to plants such as lemon balm and spearmint that return every spring and grow wildly in my yard without any intervention.
This year I decided to put a little more effort into it, making better soil preparations, and taking notes and photos as the season progresses. Smartphones are a helpful note taking tool because they store the time, date and location with the photos and videos.
Uses for Basil
Why grow basil? It's one of my favorite cooking herbs. As an Italian-American, pesto sauce is a staple in my family. It's great as a standalone sauce on pasta, as a marinade, mixed with red sauce, or dappled onto homemade pizzas. The herb itself is a wonderful, fragrant addition to any beef or chicken dish, from Asian-style to Italian-style cooking. Not to mention that it's a beautiful, flavorful garnish on top of your favorite pasta dish.
Unfortunately, store-bought basil doesn't keep in the refrigerator for very long. I like having it fresh on-hand all summer, any time of day or night, and in large quantities. When I make pesto sauce, I usually use two packed cups of leaves at a time, and the local grocery stores are inconsistent about carrying it in bulk containers. Having it available right outside my front door when my family gets a hankering for shrimp pesto pasta is the optimal solution.
Rising to the Challenge
A few weeks ago, I planted five basil plants. Thankfully, we've had lots of rain and moderate temperatures. Here's my progress so far. I'll continue to update this post with journal entries and photos. Check back for more details.
My Basil Plants Journal
Bought five basil plants - 1 large and 4 small
I found a spot in my yard large enough for an herb garden that gets full sun. My shovel encountered Virginia clay soil just below the surface, which is terrible for drainage and lacks in plant nutrients. Luckily, my compost beds had an ample supply of "black gold." I dug out the clay chunks, broke them up with the shovel, and mixed it with a five-gallon bucket of compost. But I ran out of time. Planting would have to wait another day.
I mixed another five-gallon bucket of compost into my herb bed, then raked it smooth. The chunks of clay that I had dug up earlier baked in the sun and became hard as bricks. I tossed many of them out.
Finally it was time to set the plants in the ground, cover them with mulch and water. I'm eager to see if they live through the week.
Wow, I didn't kill them and in fact, they're growing!
We've had lots of rain and cool temperatures. The plants are getting bigger!
I harvested a few leaves from the large basil plant and added it to my beef tips and gravy dish. Delicious! But still not enough for a batch of pesto. Keep growing!
We had another nice evening rain shower, but hot and dry weather is coming. This will be the true test of their survival.
After doing a little more research online, I found a handy tip for getting basil to grow and produce more rapidly. Regular harvesting by cutting the center stalk growing between two leaves actually stimulates growth. Here's a video titled "How to Prune Basil" that explains it.
I tried it here:
Here are my plants in late July with regular pruning.
And here they were by mid-August with regular pruning and harvesting.
Basil production kept going all the way until October. We enjoyed numerous batches of fresh pesto sauce all summer long by just stepping out into the garden.
We had a particularly rainy and mild summer, so I barely had to water the plants. Growing our own at home definitely saved money compared to buying large packs at the grocery store.
Now that I know how to prune the basil to make it grow more rapidly, I'll be harvesting next year all summer long! I'm so happy that I finally had a successful year of growing my favorite herb!