Love basil? You'll find links to all of my previous basil posts, as well as my favorite basil recipes, at the end of this post.
Things are looking pretty bad in the basil department.
Realization of the Day:
It's starting to feel like somebody up there doesn't want me making any pesto this year—which sounds better than saying I'm an idiot with a pathetic memory.
Bad things happen to good gardeners; that's just the nature of gardening. But this is starting to get annoying. Three basil strikes by the fourth of May—and basil is one of my few never fail crops. I mean never fail. Basil always does well in my garden. Until now.
More below. . .
Sometime in late March or early April (you'd think I could have at least jotted the date down on the seed packet), on a whim, I direct seeded some Genovese basil seeds in a few square feet of empty space in the greenhouse. While I've had plenty of volunteer basil come up out in the garden in the past, I've always started my basil seeds indoors in containers and then transplanted them into the ground once the weather was plenty warm.
Years ago I read about a couple who moved to the country and started a small market garden business and CSA (basically they sold vegetables and herbs to their former office workers still stuck in the big city—how convenient is that?), and one of their most successful crops was basil. And even though everybody laughed at them, they spent $1,400 on a greenhouse just for growing basil in the summer, because even though basil generally does well out in the heat and full sun, their greenhouse basil was bigger, healthier, and tastier than what they'd been growing in direct sunlight.
I also once read about a gardener who splurged on a two acre shade cloth structure that covered her entire garden. I was instantly jealous.
So anyway, I decided I'd get a jump on my basil planting by direct seeding (which also saved me some work) and see if my basil would in fact do better in the greenhouse. It was early, but I figured the seedlings could easily be protected from any cold snaps. The sun warmed up the soil, and my seeds sprouted in just a few days.
But while I was busy in the barn with all the new bouncing babies (35 lambs born in 28 days, including three sets of triplets) an army of those destructive and ravenous roly poly bugs—I believe the more technical term for them is sow bugs—who love the cool, moist, protected paradise of my greenhouse (especially in the darkness under all the densely growing Swiss chard plants), munched down every speck of my itty bitty, full of promise basil sprouts.
It seems I'd forgotten to liberally douse everything in the greenhouse, including the soil where I seeded the basil, with food grade diatomaceous earth, which, I finally discovered a few years ago, will kill and/or repel those little suckers, along with all sorts of other bad bugs. (Diatomaceous earth is amazing, totally organic stuff that has numerous uses. We buy it in 50-pound bags and even feed it to our animals as a natural wormer.)
Basil strike one.
Then a couple of weeks ago I bought two 4-packs of purple basil plants and two 4-packs of green basil plants from the seasonal Mennonite greenhouse down the road. The few plants I've purchased from them in previous years did okay, although the majority of their seedlings come from a commercial supplier. Pickings are slim way out in the country unless you start your own seeds, which is what I usually do.
A few days later the all the purple basil plants, which had been living in the greenhouse, came down with what I can only assume was some disease; the tops of the plants wilted and fell off at the stem. A few of the stems looked sort of greyish and fuzzy, almost as if they were moldy. It wasn't from lack of water, and it wasn't from too much water, because the lower leaves didn't wilt.
This is my 17th year growing basil in Missouri, most of the time with containers of seedlings in the greenhouse, and I've never seen that happen. Apart from a few nibbles by various insects—and quite a few nibbles two years ago when we were overrun by Japanese beetles—I can't remember my basil ever being being attacked by pests or disease, although this is only the third time I've bought basil plants.
Basil strike two.
Since some of the 8 green basil plants were starting to succumb as well, I figured I'd go ahead and put them in the ground in case being in good soil might somehow help.
I like to fill each of my 4'x8' raised beds with a variety of plants whenever possible, and according to my favorite gardening book, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, good companions for basil are peppers and tomatoes. (Bad companion plants for basil are beans, cabbage, and cucumber, so try to avoid planting these together.) For years I've tucked basil plants in between my pepper and tomato plants, where they will also supposedly act as a natural insect repellent.
A 4'x8' raised bed isn't an ideal size for growing tomato plants (one of these days I'll make a 50-foot long, two or three foot wide bed for my tomatoes), so I tend to cram 6 plants into each one, with two plants sort of side by side, the next one in the middle, then repeating with the remaining three, staggered so as to leave as much room between them as possible.
I marked out where I would put the tomato plants in this bed and then tucked the basil seedlings in the larger spaces around the edges. Putting them in the center of the bed is a bad idea, as they tend to get buried by tomato foliage.
Except for a few big leaves dropping off, the transplanted basil seedlings appeared to be doing okay. They definitely weren't getting worse.
I knew it was probably going to frost last night, despite being 18 days after our 'official' last frost date. And I knew that the floating row cover (I love this stuff) I'd put over the basil plants the last few nights when it got down to 38° probably wouldn't be enough protection. Basil is not cold tolerant and will suffer damage—and even death—well before the temperature drops down to freezing.
And I knew that, if it got cold enough and damp enough, that the old cotton bedsheet I covered the basil plants with instead of the row cover would damage the leaves it was touching—only last night I forgot that part.
Basil strike three!
The plants probably would have fared better if I'd laid the sheet over the floatin row cover, which is what I often do. But keeping either sheets or floating row covers from coming into direct contact with your plants (which often poses no problem) is a better, easy option. Simply find something a little taller than the plants that you can lay covering over: small metal hoops for making 'grow tunnels,' a couple of large wire tomato cages laying on their sides, a few short bamboo stakes, etc.
You definitely don't need a permanent mini greenhouse structure like these (you'll find basic construction info in the comments section), although they were easy to build, didn't cost much, and come in very handy for both cold and heat/sun protection (read about how and why to shade your plants here), though mine are too short to grow things like tomatoes in them.
Since they still have a little green left, I'm going to leave these pathetic plants in the ground and see if they happen to survive. In the meantime, I still have another packet of basil seeds left, which I'm going to start in containers, and I'll probably see if I can find basil plants for sale somewhere else. There apparently aren't a lot of pesto eaters in rural Missouri.
Wish me luck—or at least a better memory.
The good news is that I didn't damage all my tomato and pepper seedlings as well, but only because I haven't had a chance to get them in the ground yet, and because I did remember to bring the two flats of plants into the house last night.
Are you growing any basil this year? How's it going so far? Any growing tips or favorite ways to enjoy it?
Other basil posts:
6/20/09: Harvesting the First Green & Purple Basil of the Season (and the Best Ways to Store Your Fresh Basil
Farmgirl Fare recipes that call for basil:
Purple Basil Pesto and the Easiest White Bean Dip/Spread Recipe Ever (this is my favorite lower fat, fuller flavor pesto recipe that calls for roasted almonds and fresh tomatoes and works with green basil, too)
Savory Tomato Pesto Pie with a No-Fail Biscuit Crust (one of my most popular recipes)
Easy Homemade Italian Sausage with Fresh Basil, Oregano, Garlic, and Fennel Seeds (no stuffing any casings!)
Simple Fresh Tomato Pizza Sauce (no blanching required)
Linguine or Farfalle with Sun Dried Tomato & Artichoke Pesto, Cherry Tomatoes, and Fresh Basil (I practically lived on this stuff last September)
Still hungry? You'll find links to all of my sweet and savory Less Fuss, More Flavor recipes in the Farmgirl Fare Recipe Index.
© FarmgirlFare.com, where when it comes to growing basil, striking out is not an option.