Making the most of summer basil

Basil is ready to pick when the leaves are fully grown, but still tender.

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If you planted basil in your garden, there are a few things you can do now to ensure a good harvest.

Basil is sensitive to drought, so you will need to water it often for a better crop. You can tell if the soil is dry by using a trowel or your fingers to dig down 1-2 inches into the soil. If it's dry, it's time to water.

Try to water in the early morning for the best results. Watering in the evening is okay, too, although water sitting on leaves overnight may encourage fungal disease. Avoid watering during the day, unless you have no choice, as the heat of the sun will evaporate much of the water.

Throughout the summer, make sure you pinch off the apical (dominant or top) bud. Pinching off this bud encourages plants to put their energy into making more leaves, which is exactly what you want with basil.

Basil is ready to be harvested just before it flowers. Don't wait for a full flower head to appear on your plant, however, as basil gets tough and bitter at this stage.

I like to pick basil when the leaves are fully grown, but still tender. If you are not sure when to pick, pull off a leaf and give it a taste. It should have a slightly spicy or peppery taste.

It is best to pick a tender herb like basil in the early morning when temperatures are low. Try to harvest only the amount you will need and keep it out of direct sun.

If you need to store, do not put it in the refrigerator, which will cause the leaves to wilt and blacken. Instead, just trim the stems, place in a glass of water on the counter and snip off leaves as needed.

An amazing quality of basil is that it keeps growing after you cut it. To take a cutting, use scissors and cut the stem just above a node, which is where the stems meet.

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Trim the central stem first, which provides room for the side stems to grow bigger. Leave at least one third of the plant, which will allow it to recover and produce more leaves.

Basil, the main ingredient for pesto, is an expensive herb to buy fresh at the grocery store. I like to grow as much basil as I can in the summer and use it to make my own pesto, which I freeze for use the rest of the year. Another cost-saving trick for pesto is substituting toasted walnuts for pine nuts. It is still delicious!

After making pesto using a favorite recipe (mine uses both olive oil and butter), I fill an ice cube tray with the pesto, and freeze it until solid. Then I transfer the cubes to a plastic freezer bag or container and return to the freezer.

Fresh basil can be used as a garnish for just about any pasta dish or added to grilled pizza after the pizza is cooked. That's one of my favorite recipes along with caprese salad (fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella drizzled with olive oil) and Goi Cuon, a Vietnamese fresh spring roll made rice noodles and fresh summer veggies and herbs.

If you didn't plant any basil, check with your local greenhouse or garden center, which may still have plants available for sale. Or consider planting some next year.

Spicy, sweet basil is easy to grow and brings extra freshness and flavor to many dishes year-round. Why not try growing some today?

Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and landscape designer from central Vermont.


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