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Posts tagged ‘basil’

Basil Loves Texas Heat

It’s true, basil thrives in hot, dry conditions that make other plants – even heat- and drought-resistant plants wilt.

It’s going to be 109 degrees tomorrow – what I think is our 70th day above 100 degrees and a new all-time record.  The grass looks like hay.  The spring veggie garden is long-perished.   The bare bones of milkweed plants stand in clumps along the fence.  Huge black cracks are forming in the ground, with small sections giving way to darkness below.   It is a terrible sight out there.

cracks in the ground...

Yet the two basil plants I have are loving life. As you can see, they’re bushy and full of aromatic, delectable basil leaves.  There’s enough for us to use fresh throughout the season without worrying about hurting the plants.  In fact, the more we use, the more it grows.  I continue to pick the top leaves off of the plants.  By doing so, I keep the plant from flowering and going to seed.  This ensures that the plant will continue to focus energy on producing more leaves and keeps the oils in the leaves at a higher concentration.  I water this box every few days and the marjoram really prefers the shade offered by the basil bushes.

Basil Growing Tip

Basil is a wonderfully aromatic and flavorful herb that can be used in a variety of recipes and dishes.  Unlike many other herbs, however, it is not cold-hardy, so it has to be replanted every year.  Luckily, basil grows very fast and thrives in warmer climates such as ours.  It is also very easy to grow, and, if it is maintained properly, can continue to yield great-tasting, fresh basil leaves into October and even November in our area.  The trick to growing basil is to keep it from flowering.  This can be achieved quite easily by pinching off the top growth of the basil plant every few days.

Look at the photo below.  This photo was taken looking directly down at the top of one of our basil plants.  You can tell that it is attempting to flower by the cross-like pattern of leaves forming at the top.   To keep it from flowering, simply pinch the top growth off down to the stem, right above the first set of leaves.

By pinching the basil in this manner, you disrupt its flowering phase and the plant begins vegetating again.   Keeping your basil in the vegetative state will produce a wider, bushier plant.   Just look at the two plants above!

If you do nothing to maintain your basil plants, it will not take long for them to start flowering, especially considering the heat here in Central Texas.  When they start flowering, they will no longer produce abundant leaves for harvesting.  Instead, all of the plant’s energy will be used to produce flowers and then seed.  Also during this time, the plant will stop producing the oils which gives basil leaves their flavor.  Plants that have begun flowering simply do not taste as good.  Keep them pinched back and you’ll be awarded with an abundant basil harvest this year!

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Did you know …

Basil originated in Iran.  It has been cultivated there for over 5,000 years.

The Greek word for basil, basileus, translates as “king”.   Basil is often called the “king of herbs” for this reason.

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Tips:

Basil quickly loses its flavor when cooked.  For strongest flavor, add at the end of cooking and serve.

Basil leaves taste great whole in a mixed salad.

Basil leaves can be stored in the freezer for months when prepared in pesto.

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Basic Pesto Recipe:

2 cups chopped, fresh basil

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 pine nuts, lightly toasted

1 T. sliced almonds, lightly crushed

1/3 cup grated parmesean cheese

1 T. garlic

Dash of salt

Optional: red pepper flakes

Directions: Put chopped basil in food processor and add a tablespoon of oil.  Chop well until it turns into a paste.  Slowly add the additional ingredients with a little oil each time and continue to process until all items have been added and the mixture is thick, but smooth. If you want a little more texture, add the nuts last and don’t chop as much.  Try this on some toasted bruschetta,  or slather it on chicken breasts before baking.

Bountiful herbs!

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There's nothing like the smell of fresh herbs!

I harvested sage, basil, Greek and Mexican oregano, marjoram and thyme this weekend.  For those of you growing herbs for the first time, check out my three latest blogs about how to harvest these wonderful culinary delights!

How to Harvest Basil

Herb garden 10/25/09

Herb garden 10/25/09

I harvested the herb garden again this weekend.  Although I didn’t blog about it at the time, the last harvest was three weeks ago, so the herbs were in need of a good trimming.   While I think i did a good job with placement of the herbs when I planted the garden, the marjoram has a little difficulty between the two towering basil plants after only a couple of weeks.  The basil grows faster than all of the other herbs and it doesn’t take long for it to create a bit of shade for the marjoram, which wants more light.  I know it is time to cut the herbs when the marjoram starts looking really leggy because of the increase in shade.

This and the next few entries will go step-by-step through the harvesting steps to help out anyone brand new to growing, harvesting and drying herbs.

How to Harvest Basil

Basil is an easy herb to grow, especially in Texas, because basil loves sun and heat.   It is a member of the mint family and is considered by many herb aficianados to be the “king of herbs”.   I have had success growing basil on an East facing wall so that it gets sunlight from 8 AM – 2 PM and shade thereafter with regular watering two times a week.

Our neighbor grew basil this summer, but did so in the open and didn’t appear to trim it at all.  It didn’t take long for the basil to go to seed this way.  When basil goes to seed, the stems turn woody and the plant stops producing all of the essential oils which make the leaves taste good.  Therefore, if you want to keep your basil tasting great, do not let it go to seed.  Instead, give your basil a regular trimming and you’ll be rewarded with a bushier, more-productive plant that you can harvest many, many times.  In fact, I harvested the basil every two weeks throughout the summer, which has slowed to every three weeks now that we’ve entered autumn.   With two plants, you’ll have all the pesto, dried and fresh basil leaves you and your family can handle.

Basil is grown as an annual in most of the United States and Texas.  It is very intolerant to frost, so I do not expect the plants to last the winter, but I’m going to try to see how long I can make them stretch with continued mulching.  Perhaps being shielded from the house and being next to the warm foundation will help it survive a little longer.   As such, I’m treating mine as a perennial.

Basil plant #1 in need of trimming

Basil plant #1 in need of trimming

As far as harvesting herbs go, there are two general rules of thumb: 1.  if growing as an annual, never trim more than 50% of the plant at any given time, and 2. if growing as a perennial, never trim more than 33%.  Since I treat mine as perennials, I never harvest more than one-third of the plant at any given time.    Even still, I have more than enough basil at any given time.

Another tip I learned is to spray the plant down with water the afternoon or evening before trimming to wash any debris away and give the herbs time to dry off before trimming. At first, I tried washing my herbs after picking them and they were difficult to dry that way. This method works much better. Harvesting the basil first thing in the morning ensures the highest concentration of oils in the leaves as the oils withdraw into the stems and branches throughout the warmth of the day.

basil #2, before trimming

basil #2, before trimming

Before I begin cutting, I size up the plant then visualize the plant with one-third of the top cut off.  Then I go to work, stem-by-stem, shaping the plant to fit my visualization (you know, kind of like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid).   Basil produces long stems from the main branches, which prove helpful in hanging and drying, so I generally pick a stem and follow it down to the joint, right above the leaves, then I cut there (be sure that you use clean scissors so you don’t spread any germs or disease).  This cut will force the plant to develop those two leaves, which will fork off and create more stems that I’ll later trim.   This creates a bushier and more-productive plant.

... this is where I cut before ... see how it forks.

... this is where I cut before ... see how it forks and produces another set of stems (right).

my previous cut, and the subsequent growth (two weeks)

my previous cut (bottom center), and the subsequent growth (three weeks worth)

cut near the joint of the main branch so new growth can start there

cut near the joint of the main branch so new growth can start there

both basil plants, trimmed

both basil plants, trimmed

beautiful bowl of basil

beautiful bowl of basil

To give you a better idea of how much basil this is, here it is spread out:

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The basil is now ready to use fresh in a salad or dish, to create homemade pesto, or dry for later use.  Basil dries slower than most herbs because of its high water content, and drying also diminishes and alters the flavor some.  I dry mine clipped to hangers upside down in a dark, ventilated closet for several days.  Drying in this manner uses gravity to pull the essential oils out of the stem and into the leaves.

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Herb Garden Update 10/17/09

Having lost a few of my veggies and feeling the frustrations of gardening, I thought I’d highlight what I’ve done RIGHT!  Behold the herb garden, that continues to flourish in the cooler autumn weather.

the herb garden

the herb garden

I’m really happy with every one of these plants.  The two oreganos have created a nice blanket across the floor of the bed.   The thyme, sage and marjoram are creating good sized bushes, while the marjoram has produced a number of flowers.   The three chive plants are also doing very well, despite the limited, dappled sunlight shining through the basil and sage.   And the curry plants, while ornamental only, have doubled in size and fill the air with the scent of Indian food.   Oh, how I love Indian food!  The mints, on the other hand, are suffering.  After watering them heavily all summer, I stopped watering them so much and placed them in a more open area.  They received too much sun, dried out, died back and I’ve since relocated them back to the herb garden.  They’ll bounce back – I have no doubt about that.  They are prolific.  The mint plants I stuck in the ground under the Texas Lilac tree are doing wonderful…

one of three chives

one of three chives

marjoram

marjoram

marjoram flowers

marjoram flowers

curry, basil and thyme

curry, basil and thyme

oregano close up

oregano close up

sage, oregano, curry and thyme

sage, oregano, curry and thyme

sage

sage

thyme

thyme

the mint bed

the mint bed

Garden Update 10/4/09

I spent yesterday morning planting a lot more seeds for lettuce and spinach.  I’ve lost a couple of bean plants and possibly one of the squash.  If I had thought ahead and planted more seeds in container, I could transplant them.  But I didn’t think ahead and it’s probably too late to do so now.  I’ll just have to hope the other plants make it.  In the meantime, I’m not going to be put in the same situation with the spinach and lettuce.  I’m also doing succession planting on these two veggies, which will require me to continue sowing seeds every three weeks through the fall.

More lettuce seeds started.

More lettuce seeds started.

... and spinach seeds.

... and spinach seeds.

Michelle and I went to HEB yesterday and noticed a “Fall Extravaganza” sale going on in their garden center.  We wandered through and didn’t find much of anything, but we did pick up some flowers and I replanted them in the new planter I threw together.  We bought a lobelia plant, an aster and a snapdragon.  I think the colors go together well. We also picked up a couple of sweet alyssum.

flowers

lobelia

lobelia

aster ... just a few blooms at the moment.

aster ... just a few blooms at the moment.

snapdragons

snapdragons

an uncommon treat on our bush - two hibiscus blooms side-by-side

an uncommon treat on our bush - two hibiscus blooms side-by-side

sweet alyssym

sweet alyssym

I planted four parsley plants at the top of the lettuce bed.  I didn’t have any more room in the herb garden thanks to the basil, sage and oregano.  I didn’t think about it at the time, but the wire I used to divide the planting sections is starting to rust due to all of the rain.  I replaced it with some stainless steel wire.  Since the herb garden has become a little overgrown, I trimmed down the basil today.  I noticed that it hadn’t produced as much this past two weeks, and also notice a number of leaves had been wholly consumed by voracious worms, one of which curled up for a little snooze in its own cocoon.

parsley

basil harvest

basil harvest

worms

And about 100 carrots sprouts have come up this morning due to the rain.  A torrential downpour left some standing water in one end of the box, so we’ll see if some of those sprouts get washed away.  I’ll let them grow awhile and then thin them out to about one every 2″.  Also, the pepper plant has fully rebounded and has a handful of nice peppers growing already and TONS of flowers.

carrot sprouts

carrot sprouts

the beautiful pepper!

the beautiful pepper!

Herb Garden: Harvest Update

After a morning trimming, I can see the dirt again.

After a morning trimming, I can see the dirt again.

It’s been two weeks since I harvested the herb garden, and it’s been one of the most productive two weeks so far – thanks to rain and cooler weather.   Last night, I briefly showered the herbs to rinse any debris off of the leaves, then I let them sit overnight.   I harvest the herbs first thing in the morning, before the sun comes up.  I’ve read that the fragrant and savory oils in the herbs are their strongest at the coolest part of the day.  In my experience so far, this is true.  There’s nothing like the smell of the herbs in the morning – the sweet clove smell of the basil, the spicy and sticky sage, the soapy perfumed marjoram, and the piney oregano all blend together into a delectable aroma on my fingertips as I trim the plants.

Munching their way through a sampling of scrumptious plants, I discovered a few cabbage worms.  They were full of “eleven herbs and spices” and obviously enjoyed a nice life before I came along.  Enough said.

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This was the first time I’ve harvested the oregano.  I have two varieties: spicy Greek and sweet Italian.  You can easily tell them apart by their leaves.  The sweet Italian has fuzzy leaves.  Along with the oregano, I also harvested a good bunch of marjoram, a couple fistfuls of sage, a handful of thyme and a bunch of oregano.

sweet Italian oregano, marjoram, and spicy Greek oregano

sweet Italian oregano, marjoram, and spicy Greek oregano

As usual, I hang them upside down on the stems in a dark, dry and ventilated closet, covered with a black plastic bag to keep the dust off. Drying them upside down allows gravity to pull the oils from the stems into the leaves.   It takes several days – each type drying at different speeds, then I remove the dried leaves from the stems and place them in sealed bags inside jars, then I seal the top of the jar with Press n’ Seal.  For the next couple of weeks, I am mindful to open them up every few days to let fresh air and let them cure slowly that way.

common English thyme

common English thyme

green Culinary sage

green Culinary sage

Basil takes the longest to dry, but it only takes about six days. Basil leaves have a much higher water content than other herbs and some sources suggest not drying basil in this way because of potential mold problems.  I have not noticed any problem with mold and monitor that pretty closely.   If a leaf turns darker than the rest, I discard it.

sweet basil - two weeks worth of growth

sweet basil - two weeks worth of growth