Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Growing basil; Terminal Leaves

I recently left a tip about basil and plucking the terminal leaves on The Kitchen Witch's blog. As a new basil grower, she had not heard of this tip yet, and I had not heard of it either two years ago when I first started growing basil in my Aerogarden. (If you don't have an actual garden but want great herbs, consider an Aerogarden, those things work like a dream, and don't take up a lot of room or take a lot of work. Lots of fresh herbs all the time!!) (we got one for our wedding, as requested, b/c we lived in a small apartment, and man, was it heaven)

Anyway, the whole point is, with basil you want to encourage a lot of growth. I mean, you want to make that big batch of pesto that you have to freeze, right! And you want to be out there picking it three, four times a week when you have the tomatoes in season, right? So we have got to get these suckers cooking.

Well, pinching back the terminal leaves does just that. It encourages bushier plants by forcing the plant to produce more growth farther down the stem instead of producing a flower at the top of the stem as it naturally would if you let it go terminal and flower. So what you want to do is, in each bunch of leaves, if you can catch them as your basil grows crazily, pinch of each inner set of two leaves when they appear. Don't worry, because the basil will continue to grow at a rapid rate all over the rest of the plant and you will have plenty to harvest.

An illustration:
In this photo, you can see two sets of what could develop into terminal leaves that I am about to mercilessly pinch off. Directly above the huge basil leaf dominating this photo, in the center of the bunch of symmetrical basil, are two symmetrical leaves that I should have pinched off when they were budding. Don't know how I missed them. Must have been inside when it was raining for days. Nevertheless, they have to go.

Here's a little action shot for ya, showing you how it is done. Notice how, to the right of my fingers, there is a cascade of lighter green symmetrical triangles or diamonds stacked on top of one another? That is a set of terminals that is going to turn into a flower and that set of leaves will produce no more. (I don't know if "terminals" is really an appropriate term w/r/t gardening or basil, so don't borrow it.)
Now those leaves are gone and it is on to the next problem. Directly above where those two leaves were are two others that need to be plucked - they are in the center of a bunch and should have been plucked when they were more like babies.
Yes, I am still using newspaper mulch in the garden and yes, it is still cutting my weeding time down miraculously. It only took me and Mr. Siren about 45 minutes to weed last weekend after about three straight days of rain!!! I mean wow!

Now see the difference? Both of those sets of center leaves are gone now. The plant will have to produce leaves farther down the stem, which will make it bigger and bushier. It starts producing side stems, etc. Look at this photo compared to the original photo for comparison:
I also moved on to the left side of the plant, because I saw some terminal leaves there as well:
Ok, see those suckers right there in the middle? They gotta go. Pinch 'em off.
And . . . the aftermath:

So, I hope this has been informative. it is pretty easy once you do it one or two times. The hardest part about it is keeping up with your basil plant. But once you have been doing it for a week, you begin to see what it is all about. Because your plants begin to get bigger, and bigger, and grow faster, and faster, and pretty soon you don't have the time, energy or attention for all of that pinching. We are now harvesting these plants about three times a week for various stuff. Pretty soon I am just going to have to make some pesto for fun. Tonight we had it on homemade pizza. yay!

Bon appetit!


Cynthia said...

I loved this post! I just started growing basil as well and only heard that I had to pick the top leaves but wasn't sure how. This post was highly informative :D


TheKitchenWitch said...

Ummmmm....all I can say is that even after your helpful advice, my basil is the ugly stepsister to yours. Gorgeous! Thanks so much for the tips--my black thumb needs them. xoxo

Natty said...

I've long wondered how to keep a basil producing! Fantastic tip here. Does this apply to any other herbs?

Siren said...

well Nat, i posted about cilantro bolting, which is not similar, but sort of similar. When cilantro begins bolting, it is about to start flowering, which is the same thing the basil will do if you don't pinch the leaves.

As I said in the cilantro post, the topic is HOTLY contested about whether pinching off the feathery leaves works to keep the plant producing the nice flat leaves you want to eat. The proven method is just to sow rotated cilantro crops. I did that and my second set has bolted much more quickly than the first plant. Now that I have let the first plant go it is entirely flowery; I'm going to save the seeds