The Easy Way to Grow, Harvest & Preserve Basil
If summer had a flavour, it would taste like fresh basil. The tender green leaves of the basil plant are my favourite herb by far, and while I absolutely love to eat them fresh in pastas, salads and on top of beautiful homemade pizza in the summertime, I love fresh basil just as much in winter.
There’s something so uplifting about enjoying fresh basil in the depths of winter. It reassures you that summer is not just a figment of your imagination, and that the long winter will end eventually and make way for warmer, sunnier days again.
So what’s the best way to enjoy fresh basil all year long? You could grow basil indoors. Basil actually does very well grown indoors in a kitchen herb garden. However it needs a lot of light as well as heat. So while placing it near a window in winter will give it the light it needs, it can get quite cold here during the winter months. I’ve had many a basil plant die on my kitchen windowsill shortly after the first frost. It just cannot tolerate those colder temperatures.
Now, if you have indoor grow lights that you don’t mind powering (and adding to your likely already high winter electricity bills) then you could grow them under grow lights. Likewise if you have a heated greenhouse. But most of us don’t have either of those luxuries (or at least can’t afford to power them all winter long). So the best way to enjoy those freshly-picked flavours year-round is to preserve basil in the summer when it’s naturally at its peak.
The most common way to preserve most herbs is to dry them. This method works really well for herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, parsley and even chives. But dried basil just isn’t the same. Unlike many other herbs, basil doesn’t preserve its signature, fragrant flavour when dried. It really is just one of those things that is best eaten fresh (or at least as close to its “fresh” state as possible).
One option for preserving is to turn basil into a pesto and freeze it. This is great if you are wanting to enjoy pesto in the winter. But pesto is not fresh basil. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE pesto. My favourites are traditional basil pesto and this garlic scape variation. So tasty! But pesto has a whole bunch of other flavours going on. Chopped, fresh basil, with no added salt or other seasonings, is really what I love most of all.
Luckily, there is a super simple way to preserve basil in this most basic form. All you need to do is chop it up as desired, mix with olive oil and freeze. No need to add anything else. I found the best way to do this is to freeze individual portions in an ice cube tray. Then, when you want to use some, just pop an ice cube or two into your dish and voilà! It’s as if you just harvested basil fresh from your garden!
This works especially well when added to pastas or any dish that requires a little oil as well. If you want to sprinkle some on top of pizza or add to a warm, hearty winter soup, just place ice cube(s) in a strainer or in some cheesecloth and allow them to melt. Strain out the liquid oil and dab basil with a paper towel to absorb the rest of the oil. Then add chopped basil leaves to whatever you’re cooking up!
This preserving method is so simple it hardly warrants instructions. But I will walk you through it a little farther down anyway. First, let me tell you a bit about best practices for growing and harvesting your basil:
How to grow basil
I’ve always heard that basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow. Perhaps so, but I’ve honestly never been that great at growing herbs. I don’t really know why, but I figure it’s been a combination of overwatering or under watering, too much shade or too much humidity, and letting them flower without pinching the buds off (super important to preserve the flavour).
Also, I used to buy my herbs as part of an herb garden, all crowded together in one pot. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve never had success with keeping these alive. I think they’re just crammed too close together and fighting each other for nutrients. Usually only one plant survives by the end (if that).
Last year I grew my basil from seed. It started really well. I grew it in the greenhouse because I know basil likes it really hot. But our summers are naturally pretty hot. The basil leaves never got too big, never turned that deep green colour (instead they were more of a lime green/sickly yellow) and the edges of the leaves quickly began to turn brown and die off.
I’m not sure exactly why this happened, but I imagine it was simply too hot and humid in the greenhouse. Basil likes conditions to be pretty dry. The greenhouse might be a good way to get a jump on or prolong the growing season, but in the heat of the summer, it’s probably best to just grow it outdoors.
That’s what I did this year. I started my basil from seed indoors and moved my pots outside to our deck. All three pots are doing beautifully. The leaves are all full and healthy and packed with flavour. I coul
d have just got lucky this year, but I think the combination of direct sun, warm weather, fresh air and just enough water has really done the trick.
So if you want to grow basil from seed too, here’s how:
1. Sprinkle seeds in soil (I have always used fresh potting soil in pots) and lightly cover with just enough soil to cover them. The general rule with seeds is to plant them just about as deep as the seeds are large, Since basil seed are very small, you don’t need to plant them very deep. Just cover them with a light dusting of soil and then water gently.
* Just an FYI: You need to sprinkle a bunch of seeds for basil to grow. Don’t sprinkle too many so they don’t have enough room to grow, but a good sized handful per pot should do the trick. I say this because we tried planting a single seed at one point wondering if that would grow into a big, beautiful plant. It didn’t. It grew into a single stem of basil. Each seed will grow into a stem, so plant lots!
2. When watering seeds, be careful not to use too much water pressure or you could flood and displace the seeds. Water thoroughly with a spray bottle set to the mist setting or with a child-size watering can that releases a sprinkle of water rather than a steady stream (like from a tap). Keep soil moist at all times when germinating seeds.
3. If starting indoors, keep in a warm place. Seeds need warmth to germinate. They don’t need light until they have sprouted leaves above the soil, so don’t worry too much about sunlight at this point (unless it’s simply to keep the soil warm).
4. Once basil has sprouted, continue to water gently. You can use a little less water now, but still try to keep the soil from drying out too much. Place basil in a warm, sunny location outdoors.
5. Once basil has grown to full size and has produced lush, full green leaves, water less often. Either sprinkle lightly in the morning or water every other day or two. Basil originated in India and has been used in the Mediterranean for centuries. Naturally, it does well in warm and arid climates.
6. Harvest basil when it is looking healthiest, before flowers start to appear. Harvest up to 1/3 of the total plant height at any one time. Harvesting will actually encourage plant growth, so the more you harvest the more you will get to harvest over all.
7. If plants do flower, pinch off the flowers as soon as possible. If left on the plant, they make the basil taste bitter. Don’t do what I have done in the past and just wait for the basil to grow bigger and bigger. You’ll just end up with flowers and basil that is past its prime. Harvest regularly to encourage plant growth and enjoy yummy, fresh basil all summer long!
How to harvest basil
To harvest basil, either use your fingers to pinch or use a pair of kitchen scissors or hand pruners to cut fresh basil. Cut or pinch each stem just above a set of two leaves. You will see these “leaf pairs” further down the stem. Don’t cut the stem right in the middle, leaving a stub. Instead, cut right above the leaf pair. This encourages new growth.
Basil should grow back and be ready for another harvest in just a couple short weeks. Continue to prune like this throughout the season to maximize your basil harvest. This continual harvesting will also help keep flowers from appearing, but remember to pinch them off if they do appear!
At the end of the season as the weather begins to turn colder, harvest the rest of your basil plant by cutting all the stems all the way to the soil and using/preserving any leaves that remain. You could also try bringing it indoors if it is in a pot. If you do this, remember to give plants lots of light but don’t leave them on a cold, drafty windowsill or they will certainly die. Once dead or fully harvested, basil will not grow back. Basil is an annual so you will need to replant next year.
How to preserve basil in ice cube trays
1. Harvest basil when leaves are lush and green (as directed above).
2. Remove leaves from stems and discard stems.
3. Stack leaves on top of each other until you have a thick little pile (they are easier to chop this way).
4. Cut the pile of basil leaves lengthwise down the centre and then coarsely chop leaves. Continue to do this with all leaves until they are all chopped.
5. Place chopped leaves in a mixing bowl or cup and pour enough olive oil overtop to just cover basil.
6. Spoon basil/oil mixture into ice cube trays. Pour in just a little more oil if needed to cover basil.
7. Pop in the freezer. When frozen, remove cubes from trays and store in a ziplock or freezer bag. Use basil cubes as needed!
Basil really is such an easy plant to grow if you follow a few simple rules. And if harvested correctly and often, it will give you a continual harvest all summer long. Preserving it in ice cube trays is one of the easiest ways to make sure you will have fresh basil all winter long. So what are you waiting for? Grow, harvest, preserve, and enjoy!