Saturday, July 17, 2010

Basil Begs for Butchering

Harvesting basil too little is one of the most common mistakes made by gardeners.  Cutting the plant back produces lots more basil by encouraging branching and more leaves.  More importantly, frequent harvesting keep the flavor of the basil sweet by preventing  flowering.  Once basil plants begin to bud or flower, the leaves turn bitter and rather unpleasant.

You can cut basil very quickly (as shown here) by grasping the leaves at the top and cutting several stems at once. Harvesting basil can resemble butchering as long as fingers and dog noses are out of the way!

At the Harvesters Demonstration Garden, we cut the basil nearly every week in July and August to make sure we don't get flowering.  Wait to start harvesting until you have at least three sets of leaves so the plant will survive. You need to leave at least 2 sets of leaves so the plant can regrow.

Some gardeners even use shears to cut their basil.  You'll want to cut often enough that you're only cutting about 1/3 of the plant at a time.  However, a healthy basil plant readily forgives the aggressive cutting we did this morning in the photo above.

We sowed basil seed directly into the garden this year around Mother's Day. If you want a slightly earlier crop, set out basil plants once the weather is consistently warm (mid-May in Kansas City). Basil can easily die if you plant too early since cool weather readily damages it.  Plant in full sun unless you'll be satisfied with spindly and wimpy plants.

One basil plant can produce a 12-20 cups of leaves through the season.  Use a bountiful crop for pesto to flavor a variety of dishes or as a topping for pasta.

Basic Pesto 

4 cups basil (without stems)
½ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
6 sprigs parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup pine nuts
½ cup fresh-grated Parmesan

Place the basic in a blender or food processor.  Add the oil, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, and pine nuts. Blend until all are chipped very fine.  Remove from the blender and add the cheese.

Makes about 2 cups

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vegetable Valedictorians

At the Harvesters Demonstration Garden, we grow a variety of vegetables to inspire Kansas Citians to grow food for the hungry. Through the seasons, three vegetables have proved so outstanding that they deserve to be named “Vegetable Valedictorians.”

Swiss Chard, Gypsy Peppers and Sweet Potatoes are all easy-to-grow, prolific and nutritious. And if you think a prolific vegetable must be something you need to hide behind the garage, think again about these vegetable valedictorians.  These three aren’t dowdy dweebs but beautiful babes that look great all season and require minimal maintenance.   

We pick bags and bags of Swiss Chard all season long.  Rabbits don’t seem to like it and it tolerates heat, inattention and mild freezes.  You can buy varieties with red, yellow or green stems or a mix of all three like “Bright Lights.”

It's incredibly hardy. Here's a photo of a "volunteer" Swiss Chard plant that survived last winter in the Harvesters Garden.

Swiss Chard is vitamin rich and you can eat both the stalk and leaves.  It’s much easier to grow than spinach but you can cook it similarly.  Sauté it with onion and garlic or mix it with scrambled eggs.  With its tolerant attitude in the garden and its nutrition on the table, Swiss Chard is probably the most under appreciated of all vegetables.

Gypsy Pepper is a very prolific frying pepper that also goes great in fresh salads.  It’s a beautiful plant with a mix of red, orange and yellow-green peppers ripening at different stages. The peppers taste sweet and zesty with a hint of floral aspect.  The Gypsy Pepper earned its name because no other pepper changes color as quickly as the Gypsy.
The only extra care required is to stake the Gypsy Pepper plants. A voluptuous valedictorian, they appreciate some support because the sheer quantity of peppers can make the stems droop.

Of our three vegetable valedictorians, Sweet Potatoes are the most productive in pounds produced. Last year at the Harvesters Demonstration Garden, each Sweet Potato plant produced over five pounds of Sweet Potatoes.  Beautiful green vines trailed broadly and choked out all weeds with the help of a little mulch.

Plant Sweet Potatoes in early summer and forget about them until fall when you dig the mother lode full of vitamins and antioxidants.  It’s always an adventure to see what you dig up.  Sometimes they look like a potato, being short and blocky with rounded ends; while other times it they resemble your grandfather’s big nose!