Leggi questo post in: Italiano
I live in Italy, and everyone knows how much Italians love their basil.
Even in the families with the worse black thumb imaginable, there is at least one pot of basil sitting on a balcony or windowsill. It gets thrown on top of plates of steaming spaghetti, made into pesto (check out my foolproof recipe and 15 ways and recipes to use basil pesto!), or placed prettily atop Neapolitan pizza. (My adoptive city, Naples, is the birthplace of pizza!)
I used to buy a few new basil plants every year, as most people do, and these would do me very well for the whole basil season, until winter. Then my sister-in-law taught me a trick, and I haven’t bought a basil plant since.
She taught me how to harvest basil seeds from the plant as it dies off and dries up.
I’m sort of kicking myself that this never occurred to me before she showed me, because it seems so obvious, but apparently it isn’t just me because most people I know don’t do this. But it is so easy and totally free. Ok, I know that basil plants aren’t exactly expensive, but you also get a whole lot more satisfaction from growing massive basil plants from seeds that you harvested yourself than from little plants you bought somewhere. Compare the following:
visitor to home: Wow, your basil plants are huge!
you: Thanks, I bought the plants at Acme plant nursery.
visitor: Yeah, that’s nice…
visitor to home: Wow, your basil plants are huge!
you: Thanks, I grew them from the seeds I collected last year. These are the great, great grandchildren of basil plants that I had years ago!
visitor: Get out! That’s so cool!
As you can see, the coolness factor goes way up this way!
So, are you ready to learn how to grow basil year after year without spending a cent, raising generation after generation of fragrant and tasty green leaves? Let me show you how!
First, you need to start of with one or more basil plants. You can purchase them or grow them from seeds bought in a little packet or that someone else has given you.
How to pick basil correctly in season
When you pick basil from a plant, don’t just peel off a few side leaves. The trick to growing big, full basil plants is to pop the tops off every so often. A friend of mine, whose father was a farmer, taught me this. So when you need some basil to garnish that day’s culinary delicacy, cut off the entire top of the plant from the main stem, leaving at least a few leaves below. The plant will create two new sprouts just below where you cut the stem, as you can see in the picture above. Let those grow a little bit, then when you pick the basil again, pop off the tops of those new stems. The plant will continue to grow more full in this way, and you’ll end up with loads of fresh basil for all your cooking needs!
How to pick basil correctly at the end of the season
When the weather turns colder and you notice that your basil is no longer thriving, start picking the basil leaves off of the stems laterally, WITHOUT popping off the top. When you don’t remove the top part for a while, it starts producing these long parts at the tops of the stems which are full of seeds. And as the plant starts to dry up, these seed pods also dry up. In the picture above you can see some seed pods that are still green and others that are drying up.
Let the seed pods dry up, then cut them off of the plant. Put them on a tray or other open container so that they can continue to dry out completely. It’s very important to dry the seeds well before storing them, otherwise they’ll rot.
I cut the seed pods off my plants as they dry up and put them in this metal pie dish on top of a cabinet. Bit by bit, as other seed pods dry up on the plant, I add them to this dish. I prefer not to leave them on the plant too long, because one year my plants got ruined during a bad wind storm and I was left with very few seeds for the next year.
Once the pods are completely dry, the seeds will come out easily. My kids love helping me harvest the seeds, especially with marker-covered hands!
How to store basil seeds
There are, of course, many ways to store your seeds until next season. I usually pull the dried seed pods from the stem and store them in a paper envelope. I don’t even bother separating the seeds from the dried pods. Some years I totally forget the seeds on top of my kitchen cabinets and they spend all winter there. It doesn’t matter, as long as they are in a dry place.
How to plant basil seeds
When it gets to be planting season (where I live, around March or April is good, but it should be later in cooler climates), crumble the seed pods onto damp soil, cover with a bit more soil, and water frequently. Soon your baby plants will start sprouting!
The classic way to start plants from seed is to use small containers, egg cartons, toilet paper tubes, special seedling planters, etc. to grow each seed separately, then transfer the baby plants to pots or open ground. I used to do this, then my laziness got the best of me and I started doing it another way.
I am sure that I’m going to get comments from experienced gardeners berating me for this “wrong” method, but it quite honestly works great for me. I usually grow my seeds in two or three big pots. I prepare the soil in them, crumble all my seeds into these pots, cover them with more soil, and let them grow directly in the pot they will stay in. Once they start sprouting, the pot gets full of little plants all squashed together, as you can see above.
I then pick out all the seedlings, including the roots, except for a few of the healthiest-looking ones. These will become the plants that our family will use for the upcoming months.
You can plant some of the extra seedlings in little pots to give away to anyone you know who somehow has still not procured a basil plant. Or you can cut off the roots, wash and eat the seedlings. You might have enough to make a little bit of pesto, but I usually just toss them in with a large salad. (I love adding a bit of basil to salads!)
If you continue to pick your basil as I described before, snapping off the top of the stem instead of “peeling” off the leaves, and keep the soil damp, you will soon have a big, bushy basil plant!
We always have a large assortment of herbs growing on our balcony, which we use in our cooking every day. The kids are also fascinated by these plants. Every so often we go out and look at the shapes of the leaves, rub our hands over them to smell them, and the kids try to guess what plant it is. So now, when we go out and see herb plants anywhere else, I always tell them to try to figure out which herbs they are. I love that they can learn about nature this way!
So, in the end it is actually really, REALLY easy and totally FREE to grow basil year after year from seed, plus it makes you feel good about your gardening skills and is a fantastic learning experience for kids! If you’ve never tried, give it a go this year!
If you love gardening and eating freshly picked greens, make sure you check out this great post on how to eat the weeds that grow naturally in your flower pots and garden!