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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.


  1. Lili

    To save more $, save seeds from the basil plants... let several flower, and then save the black seeds. Also for potting soil, since you mentioned compost tea, just grab a bucket with lid and in the fall, dig up some dirt. I know one lady that cooks it at 200-225 for about an hour to kill stuff, but then you have your 'potting' soil. I gave up on potting soil a couple of years ago, b/c it seemed it was useful for germinating seeds, but then not staying with the seedling as it grew... not enough good stuff in the soil. Your basil looks great by the way. I also freeze... sometimes with olive oil (garlic also) in ice cube trays, so when cooking I just pop out a cube. Happy Tuesday!

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Saving your own seeds is a great way to have truly free plants the next year, and especially if you can forgo the new potting soil.

      I have done the baking the garden soil thing, before. I have a couple of aluminum foil baking pans with foil lids (from a function at my husband's work). It did give me soil free of pathogens. However, while it was baking, it stunk like you wouldn't believe! Who knew cooking dirt would smell so bad! The other problem I found with home-cooking garden soil, is the soil seems heavy for starting seeds. That year, what I did was mix in some perlite, to "lighten" the homemade potting mix.

      I am back to just buying enough potting soil to get my plants started for the year. It seems to work well for me.

  2. Thank you so much for this post!! I learned a lot. We haven't been pinching the tops, and guess what, all our basil plants are flowering and producing seeds. Very rewarding though to see one seed packet produce so many basil plants and more than enough basil seeds for many years to come. Same with our green onion plant. We didn't buy the seeds but propagated our first plant from the roots of a purchased bunch, now we have hundreds of seeds for future plantings.

    I think our basil plants are suffering from heat and nutrient exhaustion. Will take your suggestions and grow them with some shade and be sure to fertilize more often.

    Also, I was hoping to freeze basil, now I know it can be done easily. May freeze a few with olive oil in cubes too, thanks Lisa for the suggestion.


    1. Hi YHF,
      You may want to pinch off that top growth right away. Basil, and other herbs, lose their potency and aroma when they go to flower. You can pinch off the top pairs of leaves, down as far as leaving the bottom 2 or 3 pairs of leaves on each little plant. But if your plant is fairly tall, right no, don't take off more than 1/3 of each plant. Taking off too much at a time could stress the plant, especially in the high growing season.

      If you want to save seeds from this planting, leave one or two of the flowering heads, for your seeds, but keep the rest pinched back for kitchen use.

      I did a similar thing to you (with your green onions, with roots) with watercress, many years ago. I bought a small amount of watercress (with roots on) in the produce department, then planted the watercress that I didn't need (use some in cooking). It has come back year after year for us, and self-sows readily each spring/summer.

  3. I love my basil! I didn't know to pinch from the top. How much is considered "top growth"? Give me an idea in the amount of leaves I could pinch from a plant. How do you freeze yours? I have done it in water in ice cube trays. I have also dried it but I didn't love that as the freshness disappeared.

    I also love my Rosemary and cilantro plants. In previous years, I have done sage, thyme, oregano, and parsley. But I still have a lot of those that I dried a couple of years ago and money was tight this year so only the basil, rosemary, and cilantro.

    We had baked rosemary chicken last night! Yum.


    1. Hi Alice,
      when pinching the top off, don't take more than 1/3 of the plant at a time, if it has gotten very tall, now. Leave about 2 or 3 pairs of leaves at the base of each plant. If you plants were small, still, I would say you could pinch off 1/2 of the plants at a time -- which for me is usually abut 2 sets of leaf pairs.

      To freeze, I just chop and freeze it all together, in ziploc bags. The chopped basil (and other fresh heabs, as well) is very easy to break off, after freezing, however much I want for a recipe. This is just a very easy way to freeze fresh herbs. I know some folks do it in ice cube trays, but for my use, I've found it unnecessary, and I'm just lazy!!

      Rosemary chicken --- sounds delicious!

  4. Great idea and I think it's decorative, too! My hubby grows different herbs behind our shed. We use some fresh, but mostly use the dehydrator to dry it for use in the winter months. There is a difference between store-bought dried herbs and home-dried herbs--much better flavor.

    1. Hi Kris,
      I think it is pretty! I have a mix of edible plants and flowers on the deck.

      Your home-dried herbs are probably much fresher than what you can buy in stores, as you harvest and get them drying right away, and then use within a short time span. Compared to store-bought, which may have been sitting on shelves in packaging for a while.

      It's so nice that your husband likes to keep a garden!

  5. If you have leftover basil try making basil jelly. It is delicious and also make a really good Christmas gift. My rosemary is going crazy this summer so I will also be making rosemary jelly.

    1. Hi Anne,
      what a lovely gift idea! I'd sure love to make some rosemary jelly, too! Thanks for the idea!

  6. Your basil is so pretty. I always pinch off the flowers as they form, but never pinch off much further to make bushier plants. That's something I need to remember.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Thank you. I think they look pretty, in their own way.
      Pinching back will really give you a good, bushy, high-yielding plant!

  7. whole chickens will be .89 cents a pound this week at safeway. Do you think they will go any lower this year?

    1. You know, I was just looking at the Safeway ad. Our ad has whole chickens listed at 88 cents per pound. But here's the thing, they don't have a limit on how many you can buy. So, either they think they have plenty of supply, or that folks aren't really going to stock up much, or that this is not a stellar, they lose tons of money, type of deal.

      What I think, though, based on whole chicken prices at other stores in our area which have been around $1.19/lb advertised, 88 cents is probably the lowest we'll see whole chickens advertised through summer, and into fall. Last year's best price was 79 cents per pound, and there's been the issue with poultry this spring and summer. It's been a few years since whole chickens were 67 cents per pound in my area. So, actually, I think 88 cents per pound is pretty fair. I do think you might find chicken leg quarters for less than 50 cents per pound, in the 10-lb bags, though.

      Whole chickens are nice to have in the freezer. They're easy to cook up and provide many servings for that one cooking effort.


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