If you’re a newcomer to herb planting and harvesting, here are some quick tips to get you off to a good start. This post is specifically about basil, but the process would be the same for many of the most commonly grown herbs.
Meet my basil plants that live on the south side of my house. They replaced some ailing spirea bushes, and look right at home among my other foundation plantings. The sun there is brutal, but they appear to be happy and well-adjusted because they’re getting the required six to eight hours of sun per day. The photo is actually of two plants, planted a foot or two apart that have mingled together beautifully.
If you’re hoping to plant your herbs in a tiny space or a small pot, I hate to burst your bubble, but you might want to re-think that idea. Basil, as well as most herbs, when given enough room to mature will grow to the equivalent of a medium-sized bush.
I have a tiny suburban yard, so I have to get creative and be practical with my limited space. I like to use my little slice of the planet for plantings that are not only beautiful but edible too. There’s no reason why basil can’t be used as a foundation planting.
Many people have the standard evergreens, spireas, boxwood and such around their foundations, but here you can see from left to right are a tomato plant, a barberry bush, and some basil instead. Not pictured, to the left of the tomato plant are pickling cucumbers that grow up onto a trellis to save space, and to hide an ugly air conditioning unit.
Another view from left to right shows barberry, basil, burning bush, onions and peas (in the upper right). Also planted in this area are beets, a pepper plant and some red cabbage. All of this in a tiny side yard!
OK, back to the herbs. The best time to harvest herbs such as basil and oregano, is before they flower. Once they flower, it takes a little more time to prepare them because the blooms need to be snipped off. But it’s not a big deal to cut the flowers off with a pair of scissors, and the herbs will still taste just fine. If you look closely at the top of the stem in this photo, you can see there are no flowers forming yet.
When the flowers form, it’ll be obvious because they’ll look like…well…flowers. Basil blooms can be pinkish/purple or white.
Basil can be harvested in the spring in zone 5. The stems can be cut at the ground, and new ones will grow right back. If harvested in fall, basil will return in the spring.
After it’s cut, I remove any grass, weeds or critters that may be mixed in, and then give the stems an extra shake for good measure. I don’t use any chemicals on my basil since nothing insect-wise or disease-wise ever seems to bother it. That being said, I don’t soak the leaves in water before I dry it. Mother Nature’s rain keeps the basil clean enough for me, and a little dirt (protein) never hurt anybody anyway. (I do inspect it for dirt, but it seems a little counterproductive to me to unnecessarily wet down something that’s supposed to be drying out.)
If you cut a large amount of basil, and lay the stems in a ginormous pile, you won’t live long enough to see them dry out because, yes, it’ll take that long. I’ve also heard that they can mold if they take too long to dry, but I’ve never had that issue. I spread them thinly on a cookie sheet for drying.
A more efficient way to dry herbs is to tie the cut ends together, and hang them in small bunches so the air can circulate on all sides. I don’t have a good spot for hanging herbs, but I wish I did so I could be all glamorous like Martha Stewart.
Drying them in the sun is a no-no because they’ll fade and lose their flavor. I’ve read that you can dry them in the oven, but why? I prefer to go au naturale.
Within 24 hours, you can see in the photo they’ve wilted quite a bit, but they’ve got a long way to go. I flip the stems over, and fluff them up often so the bottom leaves will be exposed to the air too.
Here’s the basil after two weeks of drying time. You’ll know it’s ready when the leaves crumble when you rub them between your fingers–anywhere from two to four weeks. You may be wondering if a person might get tired of having a pile of wilted leaves on their kitchen counter for weeks. The answer is yes. But I do it anyway in hopes of being a tiny bit Martha-glamorous, a little more healthy and a few dollars richer.
To strip the leaves, I hold the cut end of the stem, and pull my fingers down the stem to the tip and the leaves come right off. If you try to strip them by going the other direction, the small branches can prick your fingers. I strip them directly into my food processor bowl.
Here’s what’s left when I’m finished. The stems go into the compost pile or my worm-composting bin.
Now the leaves are ready to be chopped. Some people believe they have more flavor if left whole while stored, and that they should be crushed when you need to use them. I’m thinking a shriveled up leaf is going to have the same amount of flavor whether whole or chopped, but more importantly, they take up much less room in if they’re chopped. You be the judge.
Here’s the finished product. Being a sort-of-hoarder, I’ve got a decent stash of spice containers that I save for storing my own dried herbs. It’s nice to have the containers if you’re giving your basil to friends too. If you put it in a Ziplock bag, your herbs could be mistaken for an illegal drug and you could find your little Martha-self in the slammer (just like Martha, in fact). Food for thought.
As was mentioned earlier, the leaves shrink up considerably after they dry, and after they’re put through the food processor, they really shrink. So although you may cut several stems thinking that you’re going to end up with a crap-load of basil, keep in mind that you’ll probably be surprised when your crap-load of basil does not end up being a crap-load of basil at all. (I like the word “crap-load”). Just giving you a heads up on that.
And here’s my home-grown basil. I’m good to go until next year.
This post was written by Tracy Evans, who is a certified Home Stager and Redesigner, a journeyman painter and an avid gardener. If you have an interest in home organization, DIY home improvement projects or redesign, please feel free to visit her other blog at https://homestagingbloomingtonil.wordpress.com/. You can find additional before and after pictures on her website at http://www.HelpAtHomeStaging.com.