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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