Monday, November 25, 2013

Growing Market-Ready BASIL

After 19 years of Market Gardening, I am having a hard time saying good-bye to basil.  :-}  For many years, one of my "hats" has been being known as "The Basil Lady"  ;-D.  But life plans evolve, and in this one case, a sensitivity to basil has grown from too many years of harvesting hundreds of pounds of basil, with bare hands.  So the first rule of growing large quantities of basil is... find some thin, comfortable, washable gloves!

Great basil starts with good seed selection.  My favorite seed source over the years, for basil, is Johnnys Seeds.  I always grow at least 2 varieties, one being the sturdy Nufar.  Why?  Different basils will do better, grow differently, at different points of the summer.  A minimum of 2 varieties will help even out your marketing season!

Good soil preparation is key also.  Plan as if for any greens... loose soil, good pH, good fertility, balanced micronutrients.  Soil testing can help.

Basil is EXTREMELY cold intolerant.  It turns lovely fall colors if the temperature falls below 38... not  at all marketable!  Being in SW Montana... basil takes a lot of preparation and monitoring to keep it growing vigorously and well.  Plan to have your beds in a full sun area, hoophouse or fabric covered beds preferred.  Basil likes humidity, but too much humidity with too little of airflow sets the stage for mold diseases to attack.  We like to space the basil 12" apart within a row, with the rows at least 12" apart.... plants alternating in each row such that they're more like 15" apart on a diagonal.  In other words, Row1 will have basil at 12", 24", 36", etc.  Row 2 will have basil at 6", 18", etc.

For us, 260 basil plants have managed to consistently produce 6-10# of basil per week, from July 1st until frozen out.

We microirrigate our basil... daily when temps are over 90 degrees in the hoop house, but for shorter lengths of time (so the ground doesn't get too wet).  Since Montana air is super dry in summer, we also hose spray down our basil beds twice a day... with the second spraying being at least 2 hours before dark.  Please note that we have water from a deep well... drinking quality.  Spraydowns may not be permitted if you're using surface water to irrigate.  We do not spraydown on harvest mornings, nor do we harvest unless the basil is 100% dry (or it will not keep well at all).

Our basil has always been started indoors mid to late March in Eliot Coleman's soil block recipe, on a heating mat until germinated.  The baby basil grows at about 65-70 degrees.  The temp is lowered to about 55-60 a couple of weeks before planting time, and the plants pinched back for bushier growth.

Basil is fragile.  Rather than keep moving trays in and out to help acclimate it to hoop house, I wait for a cloudy day in late May or even early June, depending on the year, water the beds, plant the basil transplants, turn the water on again for another 30 minutes while I COVER the baby plants with agrifabric for both warmth and shade.  In a couple of days, when the basil are getting over the shock of being bothered (and they are drama queens about it!), I start a week or more process of giving them early morning and late afternoon sunlight... maybe 30 minutes at first, and keep working it up until they are in full sun all day long.  They WILL sunburn if you go too fast on this step.  If cold nighttime temps threaten, the cover goes back on for the night.  It's best to have these covers draped over some low hoops to avoid damaging the basil.  Once the temperatures stay more consistent, go ahead and remove the covers completely, or you'll have a source of bugs and mold under the cloth where it lays on the ground!

Be diligent hunting first thing every morning for GRASSHOPPERS, who adore basil.  Grasshoppers move their slowest at dawn.  If you can afford to insect screen your hoop house, that greatly helps.  "Semaspore", a locally made bran with a bacteria on it that slowly kills grasshoppers, is highly recommended for spreading all around your basil plants (even your farm).  If you sprinkle the bran ON the basil, it tends to glue itself on... not marketable!  Compost any basil the grasshoppers have eaten and/or defacated on... not marketable.

Be diligent screening for aphids as well.  At the first sign, bring in a couple thousand lady bugs to do their job  :-).  They are far more effective and gentle on basil than any other organic control.

When your basil is finally ready to harvest, there is a double cut method that is needed to both keep your basil growing rapidly, and to make the basil as attractive as possible for market.  With a sharp scissors (I use sewing scissors), snip a basil tip 1-3 nodes down from the tip, RIGHT above the next node (with it's new growing points).  Then hold the cut basil over your alleyway, and cut the stem a second time RIGHT under the bottom leaves.  Remove any poor looking leaves, or any flowers (which are edible but not preferred in the store), and drop into a sterile weighing tub/bowl.  With practice, this goes VERY fast.  I always have ready, in the shade near the basil, a postage scale on a box (ie- off the ground), and a sterile 20 gallon tub with a clean damp cloth inside, waiting for the cut basil.  With practice, I can usually tell when I have 1/2 pound of cut basil in the weighing bowl.  I weigh it, adjust as needed, mark where I'm at (it's a pain to reweigh if you lose track, LOL), dump into the tub, and cover the cut basil with the damp cloth.  This is all best done well before the hoop house/basil heats up.  Wilted basil does not keep nearly as long as cool basil!

If you have more than a pound of basil in the tub, it will generate it's own heat.  Deliver ASAP or put in a cooler if you have one.  We pull out the damp towel out at delivery.

Once you've delivered, it's worth the time to go back and clean up leaves and the bulk of the cut stems off the ground, so no disease takes hold.  Pull out and throw into the garbage (not compost bin) any plants you've come across (and marked!) as starting to mold.  The disease will spread like lightening if you don't.

Hope these tips help whomever become the next "Basil Lady/Guy"  ;-).

Using Essential Oils Safely

This is such an important topic... when using ANY essential oils from ANYwhere.

I've extensively researched, and trust, the purity level of the high quality, therapeutic level essential oils I have used for the last 2.5 years (I can direct you to a source privately).  There are likely several essential oil companies that buy SOME of their essential oils from tested, safe sources also.  I don't know much about other companies, so I can only speak for the one I know well.  It can be very enlightening to compare various essential oils.  Please DO check the ingredient list of any company's essential oils?   They sure don't have to say if they're diluted with water.... but they should list if they're diluted by carrier oils (like jojoba or almond oil), and/or have other additives.

And please do skin test any essential oil for sensitivities you may have, before ever trying it internally?  I do this by rubbing one drop on the skin inside of my elbow.  Have a carrier oil handy if it's too "hot", or starts to cause a rash.  Carrier oil will dilute it.  Water will not!  Check your elbow again in 3 hours.  No reaction?  Then you should be able to use it on the neck, stomach, feet, etc... wherever you need it most... without dilution.  If it was too hot, use it diluted.  If you show a sensitivity, please try a different essential oil that can address what you need.  That's one of the huge perks of essential oils... their chemical complexity lends to multiple "side benefits"  :-).

Many essential oils should be diluted for children, elderly, and those that are sensitive.  A rough guide to a 3% diluted solution is 3 drops of essential oil to 1 tsp of carrier oil.  For an approximate 1% solution, use just 1 drop of essential oil in 1 tsp of carrier oil.  Mixes can be done in a shot glass... stirred... and then use the amount you wish to, and store in your medicine cabinet.  Leftovers should keep for a day or two.