Plant F-ing: Pesto on Your Porch

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Basil on a south facing window | Photo by Zach Behrens/LAist
Plant F-ing is a new Ask LAist series about growing your food at home with an emphasis on renters who do not have access to the luxuries of a yard and only have windows and patios to work with. If you've got a question, please ask and send it to editor[@]laist.com and our in-house garden guru, aka Hand of Gardener, will answer. Today we'll kick it off with a basic question from LAist Editor Zach Behrens.

I recently bought a one-gallon basil plant at Ralphs (specifically Albahaca Sweet Basil) and I want to know how to best maintain it in my second story place? How much sun should it get, how do I take the leaves off and when should I water it? I also live in Studio City—does that make a difference on what instructions you give me? By the way, the plant was grown by River Ridge Farms in Oxnard.

First, genius, where's the 5 gallon pot to put it in? Soil is everything if you want something that you actually are going to eat. Studio City and everywhere else in SoCal that is not THE BEACH means HOT. So a larger container than 1 gallon is going to have 1.) a more stable soil temperature and 2.) you'll have to water less often. Cats, Foster kids and plants alike prefer stability... er, um, whatever.

Is your soon-to-be basil farm South facing or what? Generally fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra) love sun - at least 8 hours/day. Basil and other leafy things in part-shade will work. The plant responds to the lack light by making bigger leaves. They are smart like that. That's really good if you are going to be eating them.

With watering - even soil moisture is key. That big pot that you have surely transplanted your basil into will pay off on your three-day bender weekends. Larger soil volumes dry out less quickly too, the big honkin' container is now your friend. Ideally your potting soil should be slightly damp, but not soggy. A little mulch (bark, newspaper, old LA Weekly's) spread on top will slow down evaporation between waterings too.

Don't harvest until after the third set of leaves. You can double or quadruple the plant's output by pinching the terminal end. This "less is more" approach causes the two lateral shoots above the node to become dominant (like an LAist co-editor I know) and you will have more of a "bush" than a "stick".

Don't be an impatient, greedy bastard in any case. Never take more than 1/2 the leaves at a time.

Also, do not let the basil set flowers. Once it does the sugars in the leaves change; and the plant will become bitter. Seeds - bad. It IS a good time to go out and buy some more seeds and spread them around in your new 5 gallon or larger pot. This will give you a 2nd and 3rd crop to keep you in "Albahaca Sweet Basil" or wtf-Oxnard-variety-you-like pesto through the winter.

Enjoy that Basil and Vodka Mojito!

Hand of Gardener