By: Tonya Barnett, (Author of FRESHCUTKY)
Basil is a staple in both indoor and outdoor herb gardens. From its diverse utility in the kitchen to its use as filler and foliage in the cut flower garden, it’s easy to understand basil’s popularity. Though several varieties of basil can be purchased at garden centers or can be grown from seed, they are also commonly found at supermarkets. Learning to repot grocery store basil, as well as propagate it, are just a few ways in which consumers are able to get the most for their money.
Potted grocery store basil plants are appealing for many reasons. With their lush foliage, one can’t help but begin to daydream about their use in his/her favorite recipes. However, though plants within these pots might look healthy and vibrant, all may not be what it seems. Upon closer inspection, gardeners will quickly notice that the pot actually contains several densely packed plants. Under these cramped conditions, it’s highly unlikely that the basil will continue to thrive once it has arrived home.
By removing the grocery store basil plant from the pot and gently easing the roots apart, growers are able to reap the rewards of several new basil plants, as well as improve the overall health of each plant. To repot grocery store basil, select small containers and fill them with a high quality potting mix. Place the basil’s roots into the pot and gently backfill it with soil. Water the container well and move it outdoors into a sheltered location or windowsill if conditions are not ideal. Continue watering the new planting until growth resumes and the plant becomes well established. Like many herbs, the more frequently basil is pinched or cut, the more leaves that will be produced.
Once grown to a large enough size, store bought basil can also be used to take cuttings. Propagating supermarket basil through cuttings is a relatively simple process. New cuttings can be placed into containers filled with soil, or simply allowed to root in a vessel filled with clean water. Regardless of the technique, newly rooted basil plants will grow quickly and further supply growers with the freshest garden basil.
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Pots of basil from the supermarket are notoriously shortlived. But there are ways to make them last
‘When you buy a pot of basil, you’re not buying one plant but a clump of more than 20 seedlings.’ Photograph: Tom Merton/Getty Images
‘When you buy a pot of basil, you’re not buying one plant but a clump of more than 20 seedlings.’ Photograph: Tom Merton/Getty Images
Last modified on Sat 6 Apr 2019 18.06 BST
A pot of supermarket basil is an almost universal starting point for timid first timers making an initial foray into horticulture. Coming as modestly priced, ready-grown plants on the shelves of the veg aisle, they seem like the perfect “gateway drug” – a spot of gardening you can do even in the dark days of December. However, after just a few days on the kitchen windowsill most wilt and die. But this doesn’t have to happen.
When you buy a pot of basil, you are not buying one plant, but a tightly sown clump of more than 20 seedlings. This gives the appearance of an extremely healthy, bushy plant in far less time, which looks great on the shelf and comes in at far lower cost. But the reality is that these seedlings soon start to compete with each other for space, causing the plants in the clump to succumb to lack of light, water and nutrients once out of the cosseted confines of an industrial greenhouse.
To fix this, simply take the clump of plants out of their pot and divide the root ball into quarters by gently tearing it apart with your fingers. Trim out the smallest and weakest plants by snipping them off at soil level to leave a maximum of five strong seedlings per clump. Plant up each clump into its own plastic pot, the same size as the original, using a soil-based potting mix such as John Innes No 2. The high percentage of soil in these mixes holds water better than compost and provides a wider range of nutrients. It may also provide a better habitat for soil microbes, which a 2009 Argentinian trial suggested could boost flavour compounds by as much as 10 times.
Give your newly potted plants a generous soaking and place them in a sunny spot, indoors or in a greenhouse, and let them do their thing. They will soon recover, giving you months of fragrant harvests – and four pots for the price of one.
There are numerous types of basil and choosing one comes down to what you’re going to use it for and what your taste preference is. Some varieties are stronger tasting than others, and some are sweeter. Some are better for medicine, while others are perfect in pesto.
Sweet basil is probably the type most people associate with basil. It has large, smooth leaves that are bright green.
Genovese is one of the most common sweet basil varieties, and it’s often the one you see in the grocery store. As you’d expect from the quintessential Italian basil, it’s lovely in pesto and with tomato. This variety is ideal if you are new to growing basil because it’s not fussy. It has good leaf production and a robust clove-like flavor. It takes 60 to 90 days to mature and reaches about 24-inches tall.
Lettuce basil grows large leaves that can get as big as your hand. It takes about 75 days to mature and reaches 2-feet tall. It has a mild, sweet flavor.
As the name suggests, this is the type often found in Thai cooking. It has a distinct licorice aroma and adds aniseed and clove flavor to dishes. Its leaves are more robust than Genovese basil so it can stand up to cooking in things like soup.
There are many different varieties of Thai basil, including Persian, which has a spicy lemon flavor. Siam queen is another variety featuring huge purple blossoms. Both mature in 60-90 days and reach 18-24 inches tall.
There are several types of purple basil, all featuring beautiful dark purple leaves and lilac flowers. The leaves smell sweet and lend nicely to vinaigrettes and salads.
Purple ruffles is a purple variety with a stronger flavor than you’ll find in sweet basil. As the name implies, it has serrated, rippling leaves that make a pretty addition to the garden. ‘Round midnight grows in a dense mound of fragrant, dark violet foliage. It grows 12-inches tall and 10-inches wide. Dark opal basil features dark red stems and lilac flowers. It grows about a foot tall.
Also known as tulsi or sacred basil, holy basil is a versatile Southeast Asian variety can be used in various cooking styles, as a tea, in potpourri, and in medicine. Studies show that it may have numerous health benefits.
It has a strong camphor scent and matte leaves with a red undertone. It gets about 12-inches tall.
Lemon basil is an old fashioned heirloom variety that has an intense lemon flavor that goes nicely with fish or chicken. The plant features narrow, elongated leaves and lemon-scented white flowers. Grows to 18-inches tall and matures in 60-90 days.
Also known as globe basil, this is an heirloom variety native to Southeast Asia. It has small leaves on compact, dome-shaped plants. It only gets about 8-inches tall, making it ideal for container growing.
This hybrid stands out from other varieties because it can get huge for basil – up to 4-feet tall. It’s also a perennial in some areas. It produces sterile pink flowers and has a unique flavor.
Growing basil doesn’t have to be just about producing food. Cardinal basil has beautiful red flowers that add color to the herb garden. You can eat the huge blossoms, but the leaves also have a delicious, spicy flavor. It grows up to 30-inches tall and matures in 60 days.
When you bring cut herbs home, immediately untie them and immerse them in cold water. After you gently shake off the water, place the herbs in a container of water that holds the leaves above the water but immerses the stems, then cover them lightly with a plastic bag. You should keep basil, sage, mint and rosemary at room temperature. They may sprout roots after a week or two. When they do, treat them like herbs with roots attached. Herbs that do not sprout roots stay fresh longer in a container of water in the refrigerator.
You may find herbs in the supermarket with roots still attached. These may be hydroponically grown, or they may have been grown in potting soil that was then washed off. Place them in water as soon as you get them home. After you've soaked the roots for 24 hours, you can pot them up in moist, well-draining potting soil. Firm the soil around the roots, and water the plant well. When new growth begins, you can plant the herb outside in the garden.
A beginner's guide to everyone's favorite herb.
Of all the herbs, basil is most likely to be crowned prom queen.
Basil has charisma. Basil carries an alluring perfume and a kind, gentle demeanor. And if you judge an herb by the company it keeps, well, basil is often seen hanging out with pizza. But for all of basil's understandable popularity, it is also flighty.
Fresh basil (note that we're not talking about the skunky-tasting stuff in the shaker here) is only ever really in season during the summer months. Yes, you can buy hydroponic basil or basil plants in the grocery store year-round, and while that basil is way better-tasting than dried basil, it still pales in comparison to basil you grow yourself.
But as more of us spend time indoors in this time of social distancing, we may not have our usual access to basil in grocery stores. So now is the time to start thinking about growing basil at home, whether you're working with small counter space or a full vegetable garden. Because basil you grow yourself tastes not only of deliciousness, but also of victory.
Here's everything you need to know about growing basil, plus how to harvest the plant and store leaves for later use.
Basil Genovese is the basil you're used to from the grocery store. This variety has large, plump, dome-shaped leaves. It's excellent for pizza and pesto.
Lemon basil, by comparison, has leaves that are tapered and pointed. It's a hardy variety, which means its great for beginners and, true to its name, carries a slightly tart taste. It's great cut into thin ribbons and thrown into a seafood-based pasta dish just before serving.
Purple basil is similar to basil Genovese in the shape of its leaves, but, yes, those leaves are indigo in color. The flavor is somewhat similar, too, but purple pesto always comes out looking a little greenish-brown, which isn't always super appetizing. This stuff is better suited for flavoring homemade salad dressings.
There's also Thai basil and lettuce basil and cinnamon basil and a bunch more, but the three basils listed above—Genovese, lemon, and purple—are the most versatile. That means you'll use what you grow.
While you can start basil from seed—and it's fun to watch those little suckers spring forth from the soil—you're better off just buying transplants and popping them in some dirt.
And, seriously, that's about all you have to do.
If you're planting your basil indoors, just do so in a large pot with a hole in the bottom for drainage (or you can always drill one). Stick a plate under the pot to prevent overflow spills.
Fill the pot with potting soil dig just deep enough so that your mini-basil plant sits flush with the surface soil after you've stuck it in there and returned the dirt.
Then place your basil plant somewhere where it'll bask in sun for about six hours out of the day and the temperature doesn't ever dip below 50°F, according to Penn State. Otherwise that basil is going to wither and die on you.
If you're planting your basil outside, just make sure to follow that 50°F rule. And, if you're planting a few basil plants, make sure to distance each plant about a foot apart. Depending on the variety, basil plants can grow large (for an herb) and you don't want the plants competing for space and nutrients.
Water the basil when the soil starts to feel dry. Sing sexy songs to it. Tend to it lovingly. Because it will soon reward you for your efforts.
You can harvest a basil plant at any time, but, as a general rule, try not to harvest any more than 25% of it in one go. This way, your basil will grow lush and full.
Using a pair of scissors or, hell, your fingers, pluck the leaves from the top part of the plant to harvest. And, while you're at it, pick off any yellowish leaves hanging around the bottom. You also don't want the basil to begin flowering. Although basil flowers are in themselves flavorful, allowing them to flourish can turn the basil leaves bitter.
Pizza. Pesto. Pasta. Caprese salad. Salad dressing. Thrown straight into salad. Stir-fry. Cocktails. Mocktails. Scrambled into eggs. As a burger topping. As a hot dog topping. Blended into gazpacho. Blended into a greens shake. Scattered atop grilled salmon. Strung in a garland around your neck and nibbled at when needed. This stuff is amazing for just about everything.
Yup, there's a catch. Fresh basil doesn't have what you might call an "incredible shelf-life." It's actually pretty poor. Okay, it sucks. Basil can quickly turn brown and slimy if you aren't careful.
Here's your best bet: If you picked more basil than you should have, arrange the extra leaves on a damp (not wet) paper towel. Roll everything up and place it in a plastic bag and throw the bag in the fridge. You'll get a few more (delicious) days out of them.