The summer is winding down and my harvest (well, except for the still-green tomatoes) is in full swing. Last month I made my first basil cuttings. Now it’s time for another one. And with any luck (and a late frost), I’ll reap one more before the plants freeze.
How do I get so much basil from just a few plants? It’s not hard—I just have to plan ahead. First, I start the plants early indoors. Second, when I pick the leaves, I make very intentional cuts in specific places. And finally, I don’t let the plants go to seed. Let’s look at each of these points more closely.
Basil is a wimp. Coming from south Asia, the plants absolutely hate to be cold. Growing them in Colorado can be a challenge, so I have to apply all my season-expending strategies. At 7,100 feet along the Front Range, my average last frost date is May 22, while my historical last frost date is mid-June. If I seed basil then, I’d be waiting all summer for them to get large enough to cut. Instead, I start them indoors in early May.
Basil is easy to grow from seed, and an entire packet is cheaper than the single plant you buy at the market or garden center. To begin with, fill your containers with potting mix (I use those cell packs that come in a tray, along with a designated seed starting mix. Then water well. I like to fill the tray with water and let it soak into the mix from the bottom. If the top doesn’t get wet enough, I mist it with my sprayer. Then scatter two to three seeds on the top of each cell, and mist again. Don’t cover the seeds; they need light to germinate. Finally, cover the entire tray with the clear plastic dome so that everything stays damp, and place it in a warm spot. I use a seed-starting heating mat, as my basement isn’t heated.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the seeds swell and turn gray. They have a coating that holds in moisture, helping them to germinate. In a couple of days, you should notice signs of life. Once the seeds sprout, place the tray where it will receive bright light, remove the cover (you don’t want fungal diseases) and keep the soilless potting mix damp.
While a window works, a better source of light is a couple of shop fixtures with the new LED bulbs in them. I was amazed at how bright they are, and they barely sip at the electricity. Place the lights as close to the seedlings as possible, and leave them on for 14 hours a day.
I leave my plants indoors until they have two pairs of true leaves (not the cotyledons that were in the seed), and the weather outside looks promising. Then I start hardening them off, moving them outside a few hours at a time on nice days. Start in the shade and gradually introduce them to full sun. Finally, I take the plunge and transplant them into their permanent locations.
Some of my basil plants go into my veggie beds. Others go into containers on my deck, so they’ll be close to the kitchen. Also, I can move containers into a sheltered spot when hail threatens, so even if my main crop is destroyed, I’ll still have a few plants left.
As an added layer of protection, I initially cover the plants in my raised beds with a sheet of fiberglass, creating a sort of cold frame. (Make sure there’s ventilation on hot, sunny days!) The cover comes off when the plants get too tall to fit under it.
By early July I have enough foliage for my first cutting. It’s more a matter of pinching back the plants and getting some usable leaves in the process. Nip the top off of each stem back to a pair of healthy leaves. With the growing tip gone, the plant will branch at that point, doubling your future crop. A few weeks later, do it again. The plants will get bushier and bushier, and you’ll get more and more basil.
This continual pinching will also keep the plants from going to seed. Basil is an annual, and once it has reproduced, it dies. By removing the growing tips with their flowers, you’ll extend its life until it’s killed by frost. Caprese salad, anyone?
The photos here show my lemon basil ready to harvest, after harvest, and with the leaves picked off for making pistachio lime basil butter.