Monthly Archives: July 2015

How To Harvest – Sweet Basil

Sweet Basil is one of those plants in your garden that needs to be mindfully tended, otherwise you’ll find a Super Basil Bush growing as fast as it can!  If you like Basil, this is really not such a bad thing and the neighborhood bees will love you for it.

Sweet Basil can be harvested for two types of usage: Fresh or Dried.

Fresh Basil is used in cooking, either added to the dish directly or steeped in oil or vinegar, and as a home remedy for a variety of maladies.  If using your Basil as a home remedy, please research the methods of preparation and use very carefully.

Dried Basil is used mainly for cooking, but some people also use dried Basil to make tea.

The best part of growing your own Basil is that you can have both Fresh and Dried Basil as your Basil plant(s) will produce enough leaves during the growing season for all your Basil needs!

When to Harvest your Basil

Basil grows two leaves on opposite side of a stem.  As the leaves mature, two small leaves will sprout at the base of each leaf.  Left alone, these smaller leaves will from a stem and start producing leaves along this stem as well as the original steam.  Eventually, you have a huge bush that starts producing flowers at the end of the stalks that will draw bees and butterflies and eventually produce a ton of seeds.

Sweet Basil Bush in Bloom

Sweet Basil Bush in Bloom

Leaves that are large and a healthy green color can be picked using your fingernails or sharp scissors at any time for use right away .  Rinse the leaves gently and tear them instead of cutting them to get the best flavor.  Use these in soups, with roast meats and vegetables, in salads, in pesto or just about anything!

Once the stalks starts to develop the flower buds, you will need to pinch these off to keep your Basil producing leaves.  In the picture below, you will see that there are clusters of leaves at the tops of the stalks and a compact bunch of tiny leaves in the center at the base of the opposing leaves.

Sweet Basil Bush with flower buds

Sweet Basil Bush with flower buds

Pinch out the flower buds as close to the mature leaves as you can, but if you miss some, you can get them later.  what you want to avoid for most of the growing season is this:

Flowering Basil Bush - time to do some harvesting for sure!

Flowering Basil Bush – time to do some harvesting for sure!

I have several Basil Bushes in the vegetable garden as they provide some defense against mosquitoes and flies and I do let them bloom so that they attract bees, but they quickly get out of control!

Since Basil grows at the end of it’s stalk, once you pinch off the flower bud the stalk stops growing and those small leaves at the base of mature leaves start to grow into stalks.  So, by getting rid of one flower bud, you will soon have two that are taking its place!  Eventually, you find that every day you spend more and more time trying to keep your Basil from going to seed.

By cutting the stalks back near the base of the plant, you sort of reset the bush back to a manage size.

Harvested Basil with new growth

Harvested Basil with new growth

Even though it feels pretty drastic, in a week or two, you will have a large Basil plant once again.  You can see in the picture above that the woody stalk has sent out some new stalks as well as where I cut back the older stalks.

After a large harvest of Bails stems and stalks, the most practical thing to do is to dry the basil leaves as Basil does not stay fresh for very long.  Here’s a photo of a harvest of just half of one of my Basil plants:

Harvested Basil to be rinsed

Harvested Basil to be rinsed

That’s a lot of Basil!  All of the Basil plant can be used, but the stems take a while to dry out completely, so I just dry the leaves.  Pinch off the leaves that are not chewed by bugs and that are a nice green in color.  Leaves that are damaged or are discolored are sent to the compost heap along with the flowers and the stems.

Put the leaves in a bowl with some water and gently agitate them to get the dust off.  Since I don’t use any pesticides or chemical fertilizers, I know that my basil is as organic as it can be.  I do live in a large city, so rinsing also is getting rid of any airborne pollutants that may have settled on my Basil plants.

Rinsing Basil Leaves

Rinsing Basil Leaves

After a quick bath, remove the leaves and lay them out to dry on clean dish towels in a single layer.  This should be done in a sheltered, but well aerated, space that does not get a lot of sun.  Drying in the sun may seem faster, but the sun leaches out the beneficial properties of the Basil as well as reducing the flavor.  I use the dining room table, which means that we eat outdoors for a couple of days when I harvest.  If I picked in smaller batches, I could use the kitchen counters.

Basil laid out to dry in a single layer.

Basil laid out to dry in a single layer.

Laying out the leaves is rather tedious!  Just remember how much you would be paying for an ounce of dried Basil ($7.57) at the store.  How long would you have to work to buy as much basil as you are harvesting today?

Basil will shrink as it dries, but it is important that the leaves are not touching as they can mold instead of dry if they are overlapping.  In two or three days, depending on the temperature, you can reorganize your leaves and they should take up about half the space as before.

Basil is dry when the leaves don’t really flex any more, usually around 5 days after harvest. They crack when bent or they are somewhat flexible, but still quite stiff.  At this point they should be stored in airtight containers.  I find that ziplock style bags work quite well as long as I label the bag, although I also use mason jars.  I keep the dried herbs in a cupboard to keep them out of the light.  Try not to break too many leaves as this will release the aroma faster and the aroma is what we are trying to preserve by drying all those leaves!

Dried Basil and some onions

Dried Basil and some onions

A typical season harvest of Basil for me is about 4 gallon bags of dried Basil from two plants.  I use a lot of fresh Basil during the growing season and I give or trade 3 gallons of the Basil away to friends and family members every year.  I do have 6 plants in the garden in 2015 and I think I will be giving a lot of Basil away!


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Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening

One of the latest trends in a home garden is the Square Foot Garden.  According to the information online, this type of garden can end world hunger, feed your entire family of 4 for a year for almost no money and be the simplest garden ever to maintain!  How could anyone possibly want to do any other type of gardening?

For many people, Square Foot gardening is a great choice.  It gives them a compact area to focus on and it visually looks like a huge variety of yummy vegetables will be appearing for the family table.  Following the “soil” recommendations, there are almost no weeds and the water drainage is pretty good.  The plants are not over crowed and therefore the garden is extremely well organized, which appeals to one’s sense of tidiness.


Nature is not tidy!

There are many aspects of Square Foot Gardening that appeal to the Home Gardener and if you want to give it a try, you should.  There are disadvantages to the system and you may find that using some of the concepts will be of use in a Better Home Garden, but not all of them.  Please look for two additional posts that will explore the positive and negatives of the system.

Square Foot Gardening as a current concept is the brain child and marketing push for Mel Bartholomew, a retired Civil engineer.  Mr. Bartholomew has brought all of his skills as an engineer to the concept of a home garden and the results are very well engineered.  Mel’s Mix is the recommended filler for the raised bed gardens and he has written several books on the subject, which are available through

If you are looking for an easy to maintain, visually ordered garden and don’t mind spending a couple of hundred bucks on 40 square feet of garden every year, Square Foot Gardening might be perfect for you!

You’ll notice that I have not put any pictures of a Square Foot Garden up.  This is because I don’t do Square Foot Gardening and I don’t recommend Square Foot Gardening for a Better Home Garden.  I DO recommend some of the elements, as they are time tested and have been used by Home Gardeners for generations.  These elements are used in my garden and are discussed in posts on Your Better Home Garden.


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Growing time – Hill or Mound Your Potatoes

Growing time – Hill or Mound Your Potatoes

The potatoes growing in your garden are a quiet bunch as most of the magic is happening under the surface.  The soil under the potato plants is getting a good workout and will be quite easy to work in the next planting season while each plant is making a couple of lovely tubers.

Left to themselves, the tubers tend to grow right at the base of the plant, so if you do not mound your potato plants, you will get three to four large potatoes and a couple of babies.  This is not a great return for the amount of space!  Mounding the plants can double or even triple your yield so it is really worth the minimal time spent.

Young Potato Plant

Young Potato Plant

Here’s the unsuspecting young potato plant, growing it’s leaves in the sun.  Notice that I have put some of the harvested Pinto Bean plants around the base as a little bit of mulch and soil additive; I typically mulch with yard and garden trimmings as long as there are no bugs or disease infesting the trimmed plants.    There are three levels of leaves on this plant, plus a center of baby leaves at the very top.  For the purposes of mounding, let’s call leaves with good stems “leaves”.

Partially mounded, there are two sets of leaves showing.

Partially mounded, there are two sets of leaves showing.

I put some garden soil around the base of the potato plant in a mound or hill.  Since there are other plants growing near the potato right now, I don’t want to get too crazy mounding, but the mound will spread horizontally as well as vertically.  I don’t pack the mounded soil down, as that could damage the stalk.   There also some other potatoes planted nearby which have not shown up yet.  Eventually mounding will be easier when all the potatoes are sprouted and they will all be sharing a large hill in the center of the garden.

Mounded plant

Mounded plant

I mounded garden soil all the way up to the base of the second set of leaves.  As more leaves grow, I’ll keep adding more dirt around the stem, leaving the top two sets of leaves visible.

I’ll mound each plant three or four times and then let them grow and flower.

The plant will start making tubers along the parts of the stem that are underground, which will significantly increase the harvest yield!

When watering the mounded potatoes, be careful not to water the leaves as this can encourage several forms of disease as well as sun burn.  Always water early in the day so that the leaves have time to dry before nightfall and so that the plant has water to keep healthy during the hot mid-day sun.

I water with a slow stream (not a spray) under the leaf area and re-mound any dirt that has shifted afterwards.

As the potatoes start to grow, watch to make sure that they are not exposed to the sun, as this will cause them to turn green.  The green parts of a potato not edible (meaning poisonous), which includes the leaves, flowers and stems.  If you do discover a tuber that has turned green and/or is starting the sprout, separate it gently from its mother plant and replant it to extend your potato crop.

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How To Harvest – Pinto Beans

How to Harvest – Pinto Beans.

Approximately 3 to 5 months after planting your Pinto Beans, the plants should be bearing a lot of bean pods and the leaves should be turning yellow and brown.  Plants should be somewhat droopy.

Pinto Beans are most commonly used as a dried bean, which means that the beans dry in the pod, on the plant.  Usually, the pods are gathered once the plant is dead.

However, you are supposed to stop watering them once the leaves begin to yellow to speed the drying process.  In the typical home garden, most plants are close enough together that getting water to most of the garden and not the beans is hard to do.

Sometimes, the weather will not co-operate.  Just as the bean plants are starting to dry out, here comes the rain!  Large scale farmers worry about this kind of thing all the time.  As a home gardener, you have a solution that is impractical on a large scale, but easy enough for you.

Once the pods are mostly dry, you can pull the plants and lay them out in the sun, or hang the plants in bunches in a cool, dry location.  I lay my plants out in the backyard on the pavement where they will get a lot of sun, making sure that the plants are spread out well to avoid mold or rot developing.

Here is a picture of a plant that has been pulled for further drying:

Pinto Bean pods that need to dry on the plant

The Pinto Bean pod still has visible stripes and spots. This pod needs to dry for a while.

The pods have red stripes and spots while it is still fresh.  These markings will all fade away as the pod dries out.  Additionally, the beans get hard inside the pod.  A dry pod is grey or tan in color.  Dry pods can be stripped from the plant.  Since the roots of the bean plants have the nitrogen nodules, you want those to be back in the soil, so once the pods have been stripped, coarsely chop the plants and work them back into the garden soil.


Dried Pinto Bean Pods

Spread the pods out in a single, well separated layer to dry a little longer.  Beans are ready to be shelled (removed from the pods) when they rattle slightly in the pods when shaken.

When the pods rattle slightly, it’s shelling time!  Press on the ridged edge of the pod and it will pop open.  Working over a large bowl will save you time in retrieving beans that pop out onto the floor.  There will usually be 3 to 5 beans per pod.


Shelled Pinto Beans

Since I planted my Pinto Beans near my Onions (which is not an ideal location) and I planted the smaller bush variety, I am getting approximately 5 to 9 pods per plant.  This works out to about a maximum of 45 beans per plant.

It takes a pretty fair number of plants to grow enough Pinto Beans to feed your family if you are planning on using your beans to make refried beans, but Pinto Beans are great in many other dishes as well.

Ideally, planting at least 10 bushes per person will give you enough beans to make a couple of meals during the fall and winter.  If you find that you really like Pinto Beans, you can plant more than one crop, if your regional climate will allow for the additional months for the plants to mature.  This is called succession planting and is most practical in the southern US.  In the north, it’s best to plant as many plants as you can allow space for, as you won’t have the longer growing season.

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