Growing Basil for Fun and Pesto
Basil is one of those plants I feel like I can never grow too much of. I always start a ton of seedlings early and then plant all of them. This is unlike other plants, like tomatoes, where I only plant a few of the healthiest.
Why Grow Basil?
Italian or Genovese Basil is the main ingredient in pesto and an important flavor in Caprese salad (see my favorite recipes below). There are also purple and Thai varieties that have different flavor profiles perfect for different styles of food. Basil dries easily, so any excess (should you be so blessed) can still be put to culinary use.
Basil is also supposed to deter pests like aphids, and, while I haven’t done any scientific tests on that myself, my tomatoes are primarily pest free when I plant basil nearby. This year, I’ll plant them near my notoriously aphid-ridden kale and see what happens.
Types of Basil
The Basil I grow is the Genovese variety, also called Italian Basil. It grows large round leaves, and has a distinct strong smell.
There are many other kinds of basil, such as Thai basil, which I find spicier, and is more appropriate in Asian dishes than Genovese basil, as well as milder forms of Basil like Purple Petra Basil, showy varieties like Cardinal Basil, Lemon Basil for a more stringent taste, and even Tulsi Holy Basil, known for the stress-reducing qualities when made into a tea.
Sprouting and Planting
Basil is usually pretty happy to sprout. It likes heat and regular watering. You can start basil ahead of time indoors, and it should transplant just fine as long as you aren’t purposefully mangling the roots. You can also seed directly into the soil.
While basil may deter some pests, other bugs will happily eat it, which can be devastating to a seedling. As of this writing, many of my basil transplants are nubs and I’m waiting for newly-planted seeds to sprout.
Despite the diminutive appearance of basil sprouts, the plant can get quite large. With good soil nutrition, you can expect Genovese Basil plants to get to about 2 ft high and 1 foot wide. The full-grown size will vary depending on the variety.
You should know that basil seeds do not generally keep well over time, so if you plan on growing a ton of basil, sure, get that huge seed packet–just don’t expect those seeds to be viable for more than 2 years.
Harvesting and Increasing Yields
When it’s growing, basil will grow pairs of leaves along the stems. When you are ready to harvest some, you should pluck leaves at the point just above where you see two sets of basil leaves forming in the connection between larger leaves and the stem. This will accomplish two things: one, it will take new leaves instead of established leaves, allowing the plant to continue growing strong by keeping a large surface area of older leaves for utilizing sunlight. Two, at those stem points, each of those sets of two leaves will grow a whole new stem, causing the plant to branch and form more and more leaf notes, meaning a bushier plant and more yummy leaves for you.
Like most leafy plants, the best time to harvest is the morning, when the plants are full of moisture. And, it is best to pinch off flowerheads to get the tastiest basil. Flowering doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the leaves anymore, but the flavor will be less strong.
Basil Walnut Pesto
- 3 cloves of garlic (or more, if you just looooove garlic), peeled and stem-end removed
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 2 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Romano cheese, or a mix of the two (about 2/3 cups if finely shredded)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 3 cups of Basil leaves
- about 2/3 cup olive oil, depending on preference
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse garlic until well chopped. Add walnuts, cheese, salt, pepper, and basil. Process until well mixed. With food processor running, slowly drizzle olive oil until mixture becomes less crumbly and more like a creamy paste.
Stop the processor and taste. Remember that if you will be adding the pesto to pasta or bread, the flavor will be diluted, so some garlic sharpness or saltiness is OK. If you will be eating it more directly (like, with a spoon), you may need to tone down the sharpness with some more olive oil or more cheese. Adjust based on your own preferences, and add more of any ingredient you need a little more of.
Makes about 1 cup of pesto.
- Ripe Tomatoes
- Fresh mozzarella (not low moisture) or burrata cheese
- A few sprigs of Basil
- Olive oil
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Crusty Italian or French Bread
Slice tomatoes and cheese about 3/8″ thick. Distribute alternating tomato and cheese slices along the curve of a plate. Cut basil leaves chiffonade style or tear by hand and sprinkle over tomato and cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve with sliced bread.
Chop tomatoes and mozzarella into half-inch cubes. Chop basil and combine with tomato and mozzarella in a bowl. Add in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. To eat, spoon mixture onto bread and enjoy.