A non-profit organization dedicated to education with regard to the culture and use of herbs
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 MHS 2012-2013 Herb of the Year   
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MHS Herb
of the Year
- Basil

Watering and Harvesting Basil
From the July 2012 MHS Newsletter
By Bonnie Kulke

The summer heat has been going strong for weeks and the lack of rain has not impacted most herbs planted directly in the ground. As you know most herbs are from the Mediterranean area, but basil is native to tropical Africa, the Caribbean and coastal South America.

So perhaps that is why it needs more moisture and does not tolerate drought like sage, rosemary, the scented geraniums and thymes.

Regular Watering is Necessary
Potted herbs are requiring regular watering. If you recall from an earlier basil article, basil needs regular watering so hopefully you are keeping your basil well hydrated in this oppressive heat. Even though I have been watering faithfully my basils are not as bushy and the leaves are much smaller than normal.

It seems especially the “flavored” varieties like lemon, cinnamon and even Thai are constantly trying to flower and their leaves are very small. Only the “Purple Ruffles” planted in a tub receiving afternoon shade is thriving. The common “Large Leaf Green” Basil is doing pretty well and I have been able to harvest nice bunches already. Still the pesto making in quantity for freezing will have to wait a bit longer.

Harvesting Basil
Harvesting basil should be a regular ongoing process. Constantly cutting back big tops to promote new growth is really essential to keep basil producing until frost. As with most herbs, harvest in mid-morning or after dew has dried and the sun has not evaporated all the essential oils from leaves. Using a scissors or sharp knife, cut down deeply into the plant on the stem at a branching of leaves. This will ensure new shoots. Don’t be afraid to cut down to 3-4 pair of true leaves on the stem. It sounds drastic – and is – but this is no longer the time to only cut growing tips. Something I recently learned from Tom DeBaggio’s book is that all basil are pre-programed to grow only so many leaves before setting flowers and seeds. Cutting deeply frustrates Natures’ plan. If you don’t cut deeply enough you will notice that though you have removed the tip that is trying to flower, now you have flowers coming out at the leaf axis, which is not accomplishing your purpose at all.

As mentioned earlier, use a sharp knife or scissors to make a clean cut that will heal quickly and in as little as three weeks you will again have a nice top to cut again. If you are cutting to make pesto, cut just what you need for your recipe. If you like to have some cut for fresh use on the counter as you cook, cut nice stalks, remove bottom leaves and place in fresh water, which is changed daily.

Drying Basil
If you are drying your basil, make sure leaves are clean of dirt and grit, remove darkened or insect eaten leaves and wilted leaves. If you must wash, rinse very quickly in fresh cold water and dry in front of a fan to evaporate liquid. Then carefully strip leaves off stem and place on elevated racks on clean paper towels or on clean screens with leaves in single layer not touching each other. Dry quickly in warm, dry place out of sun with good air circulation.

A Little Basil History
According to Wikipedia, the traditional Italian sauce called pesto originated in Genoa in the Liguria region of Northern Italy. The traditional method of preparation is to pound or crush the ingredients in a mortar and pestle.

Today pesto recipes refer to any herb sauce made with nuts, oil, garlic and cheese. You can find mint, cilantro, rosemary and oregano pesto recipes to name a few. A good basil pesto recipe is usually quite simple: basil, garlic, oil, pine nuts and Parmesan. Here is a recipe that I have used for years.


2 cups basil, packed
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T. pine nuts
½ cup olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Combine basil, garlic, nuts and oil in blender and blend smooth. Mix in cheese and store in tightly sealed jar in refrigerator or portion into freezer containers and freeze.

Tomatoes and basil are a match made in heaven and bruschetta is a family favorite when garden fresh tomatoes are available.


8 oz. fresh Mozzarella, cut in bite size pieces
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 cup thinly sliced sweet onion
Salt and pepper to taste
3 T. olive oil
12 slices crusty French bread
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled

Toss cheese, tomatoes and onion in bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add 2 T. oil, the basil and toss well. Toast the bread till golden on both sides. Rub firmly with garlic cloves and drizzle lightly with remaining oil.

Divide tomato antipasto mixture evenly over toasts and serve immediately.

Keep these and other basil recipes handy so that when you have fresh basil on hand, you are ready to make some great foods.

Next time: Basil is a culinary herb but also has beauty and aromatic uses.

Growing Basil from Seed

Garden Companions of Basil

Cooking with Basil



2011 - Mint
Labiatae (aka Lamiaceae)

2010 - Dill
Anethem graveolens

2009 - Bay Laurel
Laurus nobilus

2008 - Scented Geraniums and Edible Flowers
Scented Geraniums - Pelargonium

2007 - Herbs de Provence
Herbs de Provence
Lavender - In Your Kitchen and Throughout Your Home

2006 - Rosemary
For centuries, rosemary has been used as a symbol of friendship, love, loyalty, and remembrance.

2005 - Oregano/Marjoram
There are 36 different species of Origonum, which includes many fragrant and ornamental herbs.

2004 - Lemon Herbs
For the 2004 Madison Herb Society Herb of the Year, we’re revisiting Lemon Herbs. There are many and they come from a variety of herb families.

 2003 - The Alliums
The Alliums - an Introduction - learn the basics of edible alliums Onions, Onions, Onions - Culiinary uses for and growing onions.
Garlic - a culinary favorite, growing and harvesting garlic
Chives - an overview of this tastyherb

2002 Herb of the Year - Dill
Dill - Anethum graveolens
(a-ne thum gra ve o lenz) - is a member of the carrot (Umbellelliferae or Apiaceae) family that also includes parsley, fennel, and caraway.