Simple guide to growing basil in tropical Mumbai, with an easy recipe to preserve fresh basil
Now I am no gardening expert – although my aptitude test did point out agriculture science as top three career choice, this post is about my experience growing basil in Mumbai. Apparently the warm and humid Mumbai climate is well suited for growing basil. It is such a treat to grow basil, even in a small window grill garden like mine. Not only do you get to enjoy cooking with fresh basil, it also fills your garden with an aromatic scent, which is known to repel pests and mosquitoes.
Sweet Genovese Basil
In my first attempt at growing basil, I chose to plant a stalk from a store-bought basil, which worked pretty well for months. It had big, dark green leaves and a potent aroma that even a slight touch could activate. So, of course, I would always give it a little nudge, ever so often. Unfortunately, pigeons took a liking to it too and their constant company killed the plant. What a short-lived happiness!
From seed to harvest – quite a transformation!
If you decide to plant using a stalk:
- make sure the stalk is pretty woody
- the potting medium/soil is enriched with compost
- plant it preferably during the monsoons. The moist climate ensures quick rooting
- cover the pot with a polythene bag. Or place the top half of a plastic soda bottle over the stalk. It creates a greenhouse effect. The moment you see the stalk coming to life, take off the bag/bottle. If it is covered for too long, the plant might burn because of the concentrated heat, especially during summers
If you manage to find a good stalk, this should work well.
The second time around I chose to grow them via seeds. I have learnt a great deal about gardening from the Geek Gardener, so I recommend his website to learn about seed starting. Why reinvent the wheel when an expert is just a click away, right?
The bamboo stick in between is to deter pigeons from sitting on the pot and keep them away.
And aren’t those baby leaves the cutest?
When it comes to maintaining the plant, there are some simple steps I follow:
- Water the roots and not the leaves.
- Water daily during summers and alternatively during cooler temperatures.
- Since we are growing the plant for its leaves, a nitrogen rich (organic) fertiliser is preferred. Add as per the instructions on the packet. I use Garden Guru’s organic pellets for the basil.
- Prune the plant and harvest the leaves regularly. Use scissors instead of plucking by hand so that you don’t unwittingly damage the plant. Regular harvesting improves growth and quantity.
- Harvest the tender, younger leaves on top. Leave the bigger leaves on the bottom untouched – they feed and sustain the plant.
- Don’t let the plant flower. It will alter the quality of the herb. You let it flower only to get seeds and to grow a new batch.
Interestingly, I have been growing basil in shade, more of a diffused and indirect sunlight environment. Our flat is north facing and therefore doesn’t receive any direct sunlight, but it is bright nonetheless. So while most growing guides recommend some minimum sun exposure for basil, I have been able to grow them for fairly good result in the shade-like setting.
When I am not using the basil fresh from the garden, I end up harvesting the leaves every 3-4weeks. I make this incredibly easy, rustic pesto and store it in the fridge. This recipe is adapted from David Rocco’s Dolce Vita. It is simple and a good way to preserve fresh herbs.
Wash and immediately dry the basil leaves using a clean kitchen towel/tissue. Tear the leaves and fill them into a sterilised glass jar. (Kids will enjoy this process, so enlist their help)
Depending on the quantity of leaves, Add 1-3 garlic (left whole), 1-2 cloves, your choice of crushed seeds or nuts (almonds, flax seeds, pine nuts…) and enough extra virgin olive oil to submerge the leaves. Store it in the fridge, preferably on the door rack where it isn’t too cold – you don’t want the oil to solidify. Use within two weeks.
What I like about this rustic pesto is that it can be used in so many different dishes. Besides using it in pasta, use it in sandwiches, salad or make a ridiculously quick snack (crackers topped with tomatoes, pesto and some cheese).
Simple, quick snack with cracker, cheese spread and some pesto
Another variation, this time topped with some leftover salad