Basil in your basement

Basil is the essence of summer. If you’re a gardener, you grow it in your yard for flavorful pesto and you add it in handfuls to your chunky tomato sauce. If you’re not a gardener, but like to have the freshest ingredients when you cook, you buy bunches of basil at the market.

But what do you do in the winter if your local grocer doesn’t stock fresh basil? Dried basil just doesn’t make it. If you have extra from your summer harvest, you can freeze the leaves on a cookie sheet then seal them in a freezer bag, but with a little set-up you can grow a flat of basil in your basement.

First, you will need a little greenhouse in your house. This is not difficult, but you may need to run around a bit to collect your materials: flourescent lamp fixtures, full-spectrum grow-lights (natural light from a window isn’t enough), hooks to hang the fixtures, potting soil, flats (the plastic trays the plant nurseries use to hold the little 6-packs of annuals all summer) or pots, and basil seeds, all of which you can get at the hardware store. Basil seeds may be scarce once summer is over, but you can order them from a seed house like Burpee. You may also need chains or rope, cardboard or styrofoam, an extension cord, a power strip of some kind, a timer, and some plastic sheeting. You can buy pre-made light gardens from gardening catalogues, but making it yourself is a lot more fun.

Next, select a place in your house where a little dirt and water won’t do much damage and that’s big enough to accomodate your mini greenhouse. Two fluorescent lamp fixtures running side-by-side will provide enough light for a flat of seedlings. Flourescent fixtures come in 2’ or 4’ lengths. 2’ is enough for one flat. If you have room, use the 4’ length so you can keep two flats going. 4′ bulbs are easier to find anyway.

Hang the fluorescent fixtures from the ceiling or from a shelf (you need at least a foot of height between the lower shelf and the bottom of your lights) using hooks and ropes or chains. You could even hang them in a big cardboard box if your box is reinforced or strong enough to hold the weight of the fixtures. The lights need to be 2” above the plants as they grow, so either your lights or your pots should be able to be raised or lowered. Once the fixtures are up, click the flourescent bulbs into place. (Line the prongs up with the grooves on either end of the fixture, push the bulb up, and then turn it with your fingers until it clicks in place.)

If your growing area is cold, you will want an enclosure around the lights and flats to hold in the warmth. Plastic sheeting or pieces of cardboard taped loosely around your shelves work fine. It doesn’t have to look elegant. If you are hanging your lights from the ceiling, you will need to slip something rigid such as cardboard or styrofoam on top the light fixtures to hold the sheeting away from the lights themselves.

You will also need a waterproof surface to put your flats on. Line a low cardboard box with plastic sheeting or find a ready-made plastic tray of some sort that is big enough to hold your flats or pots.

Now the easy part: you are ready to plant. Fill your flats or pots with moist potting soil (dirt from your yard harbors diseases and weed seeds and doesn’t work very well). Make little ¼” deep grooves across the flat, about 3”-4” apart, scatter basil seed in the grooves, push a bit of soil over them, and tamp it down gently. Cover the flats with a piece of plastic wrap until they sprout. Put the flats in your greenhouse and plug the lights in. The lights will need to be on 16 hours a day. To make it easier, you can plug them into a timer.

Keep the soil moist by sprinkling it well when it begins to dry on the top, but don’t keep it saturated all the time or your seeds may rot.

Once the seeds sprout, remove the plastic wrap. Again, don’t let the soil dry out but don’t flood it either. When the sprouts start to develop their second leaves, thin them so they stand about 1”-2” apart in their rows. Keep thinning them as they grow and use the thinnings in your cooking. Once the plants get to be about 4” high, you can start to harvest them in earnest. It will take a few weeks to get to this stage, so start your flats early.

These winter basil plants won’t get big like your summer basil, so use the leaves when the plants are small. The plants will begin to elongate and look unhealthy long before they are big. The flavor is not as intense as basil grown outdoors so this basil doesn’t make very good pesto, but it is terrific for soups, light tomato sauces, and salads.

Start a new flat every two or three weeks for continuous harvest.

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