By August, you can look around many Central Texas gardens and see the effect of consistent 100+ temperatures. With the heat bristling upon them, many plants decide to go dormant. As you peruse these sleeping gardens, however, you’ll find a confident, boldly standing aromatic herb, basil.
Basil is one of the few plants that absolutely thrive in hot weather. This makes sense since basil originated from the tropical climate of Africa and Southeast Asia. It made its way to India, across the Middle East to Europe, and by the 17th century, you could find it in the Americas. As a result, basil infuses many culinary traditions, such as, Italian-American, Mediterranean, Taiwanese and Laotian cuisine. Many basil varieties developed from this migration and these can be grouped into four main categories: sweet, dwarf, citrus and purple basils.
If you are a beginner, start with the sweet category: the Genovese variety. This variety produces abundantly and is ideal for a variety of dishes.
You can plant basil in-ground, but it is a perfect plant for container gardens particularly if you are just getting started. To plant in a pot we recommend about a one gallon container that drains well. Create your own potting mix from the following blend, as suggested by The Natural Gardener’s own John Dromgoole:
1 part Coir fiber (coconut shell material that retains moisture)
1 part Perlite (volcanic mineral used to improve aeration)
1 part well-finished compost
Moisten the mix and add it to the container, leaving an inch of space at the top to make watering easier. Plant basil either from seed or transplant onto your pot. To conserve water, top with mulch. If you are growing from seed, do this after your seedling has come up. Water consistently as basil grows best when it is watered regularly though it is hardy enough to withstand a mild drought. Additionally, due to its tough nature, it requires little fertilizing once potted in a quality mix. You can fertilize with compost or liquid fish emulsion if you notice a decrease in growth or quality of color.
You can begin to harvest as soon as you have a plant that has enough leaves that it could spare a few; the larger the plant gets, the more you can harvest from it. Pick leaves from the top of the plant to encourage additional bushy growth from the sides and pinch off the flowers as they start coming in. Basil in Texas is considered an annual, meaning it will only grow during the warm season between March through November, so allow your plant to flower when it nears the end of the season so you can collect seeds for the next year.
Basil’s slightly sweet and peppery taste makes it perfect for pesto, which is traditionally made with Genovese basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano. However, because our basil is not yet flourishing right now, we can substitute just about any green to make a pesto. The root of the word pesto is derived from to pound or to crush in Italian as it used to be made with a mortar and pestle before the days of the Cuisinart. One of my favorite combinations is turnip greens and sunflower seeds. However, I did not find turnip greens at the SFC Farmers’ Market last week, so I opted to make pesto with a bag of young mixed greens, including kale, mustard greens and arugula. The recipe below is dairy-free, but feel free to add shredded Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano cheese list for a creamier, richer texture. Note that the cheese will mellow some of the spicier flavors from the garlic and greens, so feel free to add more of either. Have fun with it and experiment.
Any Greens Pesto
3 cups of packed greens
½ cup hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
4 Tbsp. olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Wash greens and dry completely.
In a small sauté pan, toast pumpkin seeds on medium heat until slightly browned, approximately five to seven minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Allow them to cool.
Place greens, pumpkin seeds, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice in food processor. Blend until smooth.
To use: Spread on sandwiches for an extra kick; eat on crackers or mix with already cooked pasta.
Yields 1 cup
— Joy Casnovsky, program director of Sustainable Food Center’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre