Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Growing basil on the deck

For many years, I tried growing basil in the garden. Our soil seemed to be too cool in the early summer months for the plants to really take hold and flourish. Then a friend mentioned that she had read basil often does better in pots in a sunny location, if kept well-watered.

So, for the past 4 or 5 years, I've been growing my basil in a large trough-style planter on our deck. And it grows so much better for me now.

Some of the things that I believe is helping my basil perform:

  • I begin with seeds, sown in flats, indoors, in late March/early April. Basil is a slow grower in the early part of the season, here, and needs plenty of time to gain size, before planting out to the trough.
  • My trough planter is about 18 inches deep, allowing for plenty of soil to hold hold water for these tender plants.
  • The trough is situated in what I believe is the best place on our deck. It's NOT up against the house, where it would bake all day long, but up against a side railing to the deck. The railing itself gives some stippled sun/shade in the early part of the day, and full sun from noon until 4-5 PM or so. But being a "porous" edging to the deck, there's lots of air circulation around the plants.
  • I planted out the basil seedlings in phases, as a just in case measure -- just in case there were lurking slugs in the trough (which I could bait for early on), just in case we had a late frost, just in case the soil was still too cool. I planted out the seedlings over the course of about 3 weeks, when the daytime temps were consistently mid-60s or higher during the day (May).
  • I planted the seedlings, thickly, about 3-4 inches apart in all directions. This is closer than many experts suggest, but it works for me.
  • During the dry part of the season, I shower the trough with water at least once per day, on very hot days, twice.
  • And this step is important for a full, lush bed basil -- when the plants have about 3-4 sets of leaf pairs, I pinch off the top growth for kitchen use. Pinching off new growth encourage bushiness in the plants. I have enough plants in my trough this year that I can pinch plants every 3 days, enough for a constant supply of homemade pesto.
  • Before planting out my seedlings, I mixed some new soil into the planter. This new soil had some fertilizers added, which gave the basil a good start.
  • Basil is a heavy-feeder, and does well with a liquid feed. I prefer using compost tea, sprayed over the top of the plants, every couple of weeks, from early July on.
I hope to be able to cut and freeze a significant amount of basil later this summer, to use in winter. Frozen basil retains more flavor and nutrients than dried basil. And I think it's just plain easier to freeze it.

Growing basil from seeds costs about a dollar or two, for seeds and potting soil. A small basil seedling at the nursery will cost about $2. Buying basil as a good-sized potted plant will cost about $5-7 or so. Buying basil as a fresh herb in the produce department of your supermarket will cost $2 or $3, for basil that will keep in your fridge for about a week.

There isn't one right way to have fresh basil for everyone's uses. If you will only want fresh basil for a few occasions in the summer, then the fresh basil in the produce department might be the way to go, for you. After you've used the leaves that you needed for a particular recipe, chop and freeze the remaining leaves to have on hand for a couple more recipes this summer.

It's not too late to buy a small seedling from the nursery. If you get it potted up now, you will have enough basil for several batches of pesto, or adding to dishes in August and September.

If you are needing much more basil than what you would buy in the produce department, and want your basil NOW, you could buy a larger potted basil plant from a store like Trader Joe's. These pots are actually about 7 or 8 basil pants, potted together in 1 container. You would have some for pinching off now, and more to come in about a week, continuing through summer. For best results, when you get one of these larger pots of basil home, pot it up into an even larger pot, for additional root room and soil to hold moisture. Then, water it often, pinch back weekly, and give it a boost of liquid plant food every couple of weeks. Your pot of basil will do well, and provide all of your basil needs for this season, and then some for freezing.

It may be a bit late to start a large trough of basil from seeds, now. Unless you live where first frost doesn't occur until November. But you could plant up a pot of basil seeds now, to bring into your house to continue giving you fresh basil leaves through early December. In past years, I've started basil seeds in a small pot in mid-July, to bring indoors in fall. These plants generally lose their oomph by early December and decline in new leaf production, but it is fun to have a small pot of basil growing on the window sill when the days are shortening.