Grow Basil and Make Your Own Pesto

Pesto is a wonderful creation. It all starts with basil. We grow the majority of our vegetables and herbs and so can you. Even if you aren’t an avid grower, you can learn how to grow something as simple as basil and make your own pesto. 

That’s exactly what I do. We love pesto, and I grow organic basil during the growing season as well as a small pot along with other herbs on my kitchen windowsill year round. Most herbs are easy to grow. Even when neglected, they still seem to thrive.

Grow from Seed

I grow all of my vegetables from seed. It’s far cheaper than buying seedlings to plant. Another reason I prefer to grow from seed is the opportunity to try different varieties. When you shop at a grocery store, chances are you’ll find the same variety of produce from one store to the next. There is very little food diversity in our food supply chain.

Basil has quite a few choices when it comes to varieties. After all, basil is known as the King of Herbs. Plant it as a companion to tomatoes for added flavor and pest control. Basil repels hornworms (enemy of tomatoes), aphids and mites. Some varieties even repel mosquitoes.

Best Basil Varieties for Pesto

There are around 200 basil varieties; I’m only familiar with about 40. The fun of discovery is one of the best things about growing your own food. It is something you can get the whole family involved in doing.

The three most popular basil varieties to use for pesto include:

Sweet Basil (Biennial)

  • Biennial plants complete their lifecycle in 2-year period.
  • This most commonly grown basil has a medium green leaf color.
  • The leaves are slightly cupped.
  • One added bonus to sweet basil is its mosquito repelling properties.
  • Plants grow up to 12” high

Genovese Basil (Annual)

  • Annual plants must be planted each year.
  • This variety is a classic Italian favorite.
  • It has very large leaves that are a rich green.
  • Compared to sweet basil, the leaves are flatter.
  • This is the variety you’ll find in most grocery stores.
  • Has a nice peppery taste.
  • Plants grow around 24” high, crown can spread as much as 20”.

Large Leaf Italian Basil (Annual)

  • Sweeter taste than Genovese, less peppery.
  • Considered by many to be the best choice for pesto and other Neapolitan dishes.
  • Leaves are medium green and around 4” long.
  • Plants grow around 18”- 20”high, crown spreads to 18”.

Easy to Grow Basil

Basil, like all Mediterranean herbs, loves the sun. Plant in full sun and water as needed. Don’t over water.

Pinch the Crown of the King 

The key to growing basil is to pinch off the crown. Once the second leaves (ones that follow the first two that emerged from the soil) have matured, you will see two tiny leaves growing out of the crown. Pinch them off. You’ll be rewarded by your basil plant sprouting new stems and spreading out.

Each time the new shoots grow four new leaves, pinch off the tiny two formed in their crowns. This process will ensure your plant continues to grow. Don’t throw away the pinched leaves. They harbor some of the best flavors, so use them in a salad, pesto or a sauce. Yum!

Harvesting and Making Pesto

Harvesting basil leaves can be done two ways. One is to simply pick leaves as you need them for cooking. The more you pick, the more your plants will grow. If you wish to make pesto and are going to make a batch to also freeze, you can cut the stems. Just be sure to leave plants with several stems so they will continue to produce.

Don’t Bruise the Basil Leaves

Basil leaves bruise easily and that beautiful green look we all love so much will wilt to dark, almost black. This can be avoided by being gentle whenever you pick leaves, wash by swishing in a large bowl, then draining in a colander. Gently spread leaves out on paper towel and allow to dry.

Washing Stalks of Basil Leaves

  • Cut basil stems leaving the leaves intact.
  • Fill the kitchen sink or a deep bowl with cold tap water.
  • Hold the end of the stalk and gently dunk the basil a few times, gently swishing in the water.
  • Gently shake the water from the leaves and place stalk on several paper towels to drain.
  • Once the leaves have dried off, you can pick them from the stems.
  • You may want to place the leaves on fresh paper towels to ensure the water has drained off.

You’re ready to make Pesto!

Best Pesto Recipe

  • 2 cups packed fresh organic basil leaves
  • 1/3 cup organic pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated organic Parmesan (if prefer stronger taste, substitute with Romano)
  • 3 organic garlic cloves, minced (should be about 3-4 tsps)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin organic olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  • Place basil and pine nuts in food processor. I prefer using a Ninja bullet. Pulse several times to chop up the leaves and nuts.
  • Add cheese and garlic. Pulse a few times to mix well.
  • You may need to scrape the sides with a spatula and pulse a couple of times.
  • Add the olive oil and pulse until well mixed.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.

Storing in Refrigerator

The pesto will become dark when exposed to air. If you’re using a container to store the pesto in the refrigerator, pour a small amount of olive oil on top until it’s covered completely. This will prevent the pesto from turning dark. When you use it, simply pour off the oil and blend any leftover into the mixture.

Freezing Pesto

If you have a bumper crop you’ll probably have enough to make extra pesto. You can freeze pesto and use it as needed. Make the freezer batch according to the recipe, but leave off the cheese. You’ll add the cheese whenever you remove the pesto from the freezer to use it.

Some people like using ice trays to freeze the pesto and once it’s frozen, pop out the pesto cubes and put them in a freezer bag. I prefer to vacuum seal and toss in the freezer.

Other cooks prefer to store pesto in small flat plastic containers. Much depends on the size of your family meals. The good news is it doesn’t require a lot of pesto to make most pasta dishes. Pesto is also a great sandwich spread.

Get Started Today!

You can get started growing basil today with a few seeds and a couple of grow pots. Within 60 to 90 days, you’ll be harvesting leaves and enjoying fresh homegrown and homemade pesto. Enjoy!

photos: Pexels, Thomas Angermann, Lucadea, Becky SternLori L. StalteriRachel Tayse and Karl Sullivan.

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Sally Painter

"Everyone can have a beautiful home decor. It just takes a little creativity," says author and freelance writer Sally Painter. This former commercial and residential designer is also a Feng Shui practitioner and believes that, "Everything you choose to put in your home should resonate with you emotionally. If it doesn't - get rid of it!"