Over the next few weeks, we'll cover some gardening ground as it relates to fall and winter herb harvesting projects, culminating in a step-by-step tutorial for making herb wreaths. September is always a busy month, and I'll write as fast as I can.
First up is basil. This little herb is great on hot summer nights with garden tomatoes and some fresh mozzarella cheese. When there's a frost on the way though, you'll have to harvest next year's seeds and put aside enough leaves for your winter cooking needs. Basil can be challenging because it doesn't dry very well. That distinctive, earthy licorice/peppery flavor fades to nothing within a month once the leaves have been dried, so let's explore other options.
Basil leaves will be sweetest and most fragrant before the plant flowers, but even after basil sends up flowering stalks, leaves are still suitable for harvesting, drying and freezing. For pesto dishes (fresh basil intensive), prefer young leaves picked before flowers appear on the plant.
Freezing Basil - Option 1
Freeze all those luscious, full basil leaves in ice cube trays. Start by harvesting the leaves and washing them well. Leave them in cold water for an hour or more to remove dirt and encourage insect freeloaders to move on. Replace the water at least twice. I use my kitchen sink, but a colander inside a big bowl is an efficient method for small batches.
Once the leaves are clean, drain them and chop them.
Place the chopped mixture in enough *distilled water to cover completely and pour into ice cube trays.
Once frozen, remove the basil cubes (don't you love the sound of that) and put them in a freezer bag so you can use individual cubes as needed.
Drop cubes directly into hot sauces or stews, or let them thaw in a dish and drain off the excess water. This method works great for pizza sauce, marinara, soups, cocktail sauce, stews and salsas.
Growing Basil Indoors - Option 2
Basil is an annual, but you can start a new plant in water pretty easily. Just harvest healthy stems, strip off all but the top few leaves and place the stems in water to which you've added a little liquid fertilizer. Make sure that there are no leaves below the water line.
If you have some sunny window real estate for your vase or jug, you can keep these plant starts throughout the winter and harvest leaves sparingly from time to time. Plant the new basil plants next spring. I tried this last year with surprising success, and so can you.
Hints and tricks: It's best to do this as soon as possible once the Summer temps start to dip a little, and always before the first frost.
Cut stem ends on a 45 degree angle to encourage water uptake.
Keep the stems in water while you cut them (if possible), and use the sharpest knife you have.
Never use scissors. They'll smash the stems.
Other Basil Preservation Methods
There are a number of other ways to preserve basil, like making pesto and freezing the finished recipe, layering basil leaves in oil and freezing the mixture, or packing the leaves in salt. All will work, but I've found that keeping a plant indoors during the winter months and freezing some of the summer crop is the best approach for me. One caution if you use the oil route: fresh herb oils, like garlic and basil oil, are susceptible to botulism contamination, so keep any mixture you make frozen, or discard it after a week.
Basil seeds are really easy to harvest. They're large and occur on the flowering spikes. You'll know they're ready to remove when the spikes start to turn brown and the seed coverings look papery and dry. All you have to do is remove the stalks and rub them between your palms into a brown paper bag. The seeds are dark - you can't miss them.
Separate the seeds and store them in a dark, dry place until spring. I use small, dated and labeled envelopes and put the seeds in a special "seed" drawer in my desk.
That's it. In any given season, I do all three and hope for the best.
I don't usually include basil in my dried herb blends, wreaths, swags or any other dry arrangements. Last year I did give away lots of rooted stems, though.
Basil and Grow Lights
Basil likes light, and you'll discover that almost any herb you bring indoors to overwinter, like pineapple sage, ginger, rosemary or marjoram, will need LOTS of light. If your herbs fail to make the transition, lack of adequate light is the likely culprit.
One way to hedge your bets if you don't have a huge window with a southern exposure is to invest in grow lights. They're less expensive than they used to be, and you don't even need the entire light fixture setup. You can buy the bulb in some cases and place it in a lamp you already have or can buy on sale. That and an inexpensive timer attached to the plug will give you a timed light source that will get your herbs through the winter just fine.
Depending on your arrangement and the number of herbs you have, you can probably find the raw materials for light enhancement for under $30 -- and the setup can look attractive too and definitely not like your son's latest science experiment. Just remember to read the bulb instruction label for distance recommendations, and be sure to give your indoor herbs at least six hours of bright light a day.
*You can use regular tap water, but distilled water is pure, without antibacterial agents or potentially harmful microbes to cause problems. You can usually buy a gallon for a couple of dollars and use it as a starter for lots of different herbs and houseplants.
Harvesting Basil Notes: Not everyone goes organic, so if you've been spraying your herbs, observe the label instructions on how long you need to wait to harvest after a treatment.
You might also want to take a look at: Harvesting Basil Seed and Grow Basil
Photo - By Cliff Hutson (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons