Sunday, July 24, 2016

Basil as a houseplant: growing basil indoors all year round

And...we're back!

It's been about a year since I hung up this blog, but my green thumb is back.

For the time being, I figured I'd take a break from the hydroponics and go back to container gardening. There are a number of interesting products out there, from brand new Aerogardens (I see that AeroGrow has released the "Bounty" that contains nine pods, 24 inch extendable arm and full spectrum LED which looks really intriguing) to a relatively new player called Click and Grow, to some interesting products such as this aquaponic garden from Back to the Roots where you can raise both herbs and fish! Still no word from NIWA, but I assume they're still working on their offering as well.

At some point I'll see if I can scrounge up the $$ to get these to review them, but in the meantime I thought I'd go completely old school. No hydroponics, no aeroponics, no aquaponics, just growing basil as a houseplant.

Now it wasn't that long ago that I had more basil than I knew what to do with. You remember those days--I was making margherita pizza and caprese salads and pesto and basil ice cream and everything else I could think of.

Well, I was a little basiled out after a while, but recently I had a craving again for margherita pizza, so at a local farm stand I bought a bunch of it, freshly picked from the farms on Long Island. But then my wife made the mistake of putting the basil in the refrigerator (a no-no), and within a day it was ruined--black, soaked, and mushy.

And so I went to the local supermarket. There were bunches of cut basil from New Jersey and I picked up another bunch. I harvested about 20-30 leaves to use for a pizza, and another 10-20 to use for a caprese salad, but there were dozens of other leaves remaining. This time we didn't put it in the refrigerator, but even so within 24 hours they were shriveled since they didn't have a water source.

And so just like that we were out about $7. But luckily in both cases I had the foresight to save a couple stalks to basil and root them.

Growing basil from cuttings is one of the easiest things you'll do,
  1. Take a fresh branch of basil with lots of healthy looking leaves.
  2. Strip off the leaves at the bottom. This is important because any leaves that fall below the water line are going to grow bacteria
  3. Fill a clean, empty bottle with lukewarm water.
  4. Cut the bottom stem of the basil at an angle, under running water.
  5. Place it in the water, again making sure that only stem and no leaves are below the water line.
  6. Fill the water every few days. Your basil will be thirsty and drink up a lot of water.
  7. Pretty soon you'll see little roots growing out, just like it looks to the right.
Congratulations, it's time to transplant them!

To transplant them, just take a houseplant pot, fill it about 3/4 of the way with regular potting soil. Pour a little water in to mix it into clay (think back to making mud pies as a kid) and then dig a little hole.

Put the plant into the pot so that the newly formed root ball is fully covered. 

If you're putting more than one plant, make sure they're spaced out enough so both have room to grow.

Fill the rest of the pot with dirt, and water it, covering enough of the stem to ensure that the plant is stable, will be able to take root, and won't fall over. You may need to try this a few times, as whenever you add water the loose soil will shift, Don't worry too much about over-watering at this stage--remember that the plants just came from a 100% water environment. Just like a baby needs to adapt from amniotic fluid to solid food, your plant needs to acclimate itself to its new home.

Place it in a sunny window and make sure to water it every few days. Some of the leaves might wilt or die because of the shock, but basil is especially resilient and as long as the stalk is thick and green your leaves will come.

Congratulations! You're the proud owner of a new houseplant. And the next time you need a little or a lot of basil, you can go right to your window to pick it. In fact, all of the tips I've shared in the past apply here. Prune it often (even if you don't need the basil, prune it anyway), and make sure to prune from the top and cut the plant just above where one stalk splits into two. 

I'd suggest keeping them separate from other houseplants until you're 100% sure there aren't any little critters sneaking a ride--as we've seen, once fungus gnats, spider mites or aphids discover herb plants, the plants don't have much of a chance, if not of surviving then of being able to be served at the dinner table.

From time to time you'll need to fertilize, just use regular Miracle Gro plant food.

As much as I love hydroponics, the nice thing about going "old school" like this is that you don't pay for electricity, for grow lights, for seed pods, or anything like that. And instead of dumping unused basil in the garbage, I'm keeping it alive so that the money I spent on the original basil will end up paying for itself over and over again. As long as you remember to water them and feed them, they'll serve you for a very, very long time.