How to Grow Pest-Free, Healthy Basil
You know the scenario ...... You carefully purchased the best potting soil money can buy, you even bought a brand new pot to plant your beloved baby basil plants in; the pot color even matches your house, for cryin' out loud! You put the stones for drainage in the bottom of the pot like the "experts" said - and now, the crowning glory ..... you scrupulously inspected each sweet basil plant at Home Depot until you found "the one" and you proudly place it in it's new color-coordinated "newborn" nursery! Such a proud mom (dad)!
Fast forward two weeks. Things are going fantastic. Your new little offspring is now twice the size it was the day you brought it home from the basil "baby hospital". You've meticulously watered it (unlike last year, when you forgot about it and went on vacation!) and made sure that it received lots of snuggly warm sun all afternoon. You are so proud! Your dreams are filled with basil recipes - Sweet Basil Vinaigrette, Roasted Tomato Basil Bisque, Mint Basil Syrup, Caprese Style Italian Chicken ..... Basil Rathbone ...... Hold it! Rewind ..... Basil Rathbone? ..... wait a minute, what's he doing in your dream?
It's now four weeks into your newborn's life, and one bright, cheery, sunny morning, you walk out to your garden and ... ARGGGGGGGGHHHHHH! Your flourishing little green baby has been half consumed by some no good, dirty rotten, floor-flushing, blood-sucking ........ BUG! Does this scenerio sound vaguely familiar? I thought so. Bugs have been the bane of every gardener since Adam and Eve, and they always seem to strike just when you let your guard down, even for a minute! Since our recent Sweet Basil Vinaigrette post, Chris and I have received a lot of emails, comments and questions about what to do to keep your basil going and growing; so we decided to come up with some tips that will help you with growing your own herb garden. I'm talking specifically about basil today, but these tips apply to almost any herb.
Let's take a look at some things we can do to grow strong healthy plants and wage war against these little Darth Vaders! First, let's set the record straight, bugs are doing what God intended for bugs to do; eat things that taste good. If you and I like the taste of basil, why wouldn't some lowly little starving bug? So ... really ... he or she is just doing their job and staying alive (cue the Bee Gees music?) Here's a little checklist of things you can do before, during and up to basil harvest time to make sure you get more of the basil crop than the bugs, slugs and other garden thugs do; after all, we're smarter than they are, right? A healthy plant will be able to fight off "invaders" far more than a plant that's just struggling to stay alive.
How to prepare my herb garden
- Soil - dirt is the where all the nutrient action takes place, so go for the best you can get; most brand-name soils contain a great balance of organic matter, peat, (for water retention) and other good nurturing things. Today's lawn and garden stores carry a wide variety of quality products. Or you can strap on your Birkenstocks, save your banana peels (and anything else that likes to decompose) and make your own soil - whatever floats your boat! If you really want to get scientific and you live in the U.S., you can also have your herb garden soil tested by your local USDA cooperative extension office. It's an extra step, but very worthwhile. Adding fertilizers, whether organic or made by a company is always a shot in the dark if you don't have a base line to start from.
- Take your Vitties! - just like Mom always told you to take your daily vitamins, you need to "read" your basil plants to see if they are really getting all the nourishment they need. Basil grown in pots especially needs to be regularly fertilized, since a lot of the nutrients get washed out the bottom drain hole of the pot each day. If your basil seems stunted (smaller leaves) or pale green, that's a good sign that it's not getting what it needs. I use Miracle Grow about once every 7 to 10 days, to feed my guys, because they live in pots that are automatically drip irrigated. They hang off the railing of our deck. Fertilization needs will change depending on which part of the season it is and how stressful a summer we're having here in North Carolina, where temperatures can climb into the mid 90's with lots of humidity. Within 24 hours after fertilizing, you literally see the plants, "jump" in growth. By the way, make sure you follow the directions about the concentration level of fertilizer to water; one of my friends recently fertilized (killed) his shrubs because he thought, "If a little is good than a lot is great!" Not a great plan.
- Drainage - most plants don't like "wet feet". Remember that comment about putting pebbles in the bottom of the pot? Actually, that's a good idea. Cut a circle of black weed stop material and place it between the dirt and the stones, so the soil doesn't end up plugging up the drainage hole. Here's one more thing to watch out for; check the drainage hole periodically during the growing season to make sure it's still doing it's job. Sometimes the plant has such dense root growth, that it's own roots choke off the hole, turning the pot into a muddy, stinky "swimming hole" - not good!
More tips on growing basil
- Use your Finger - Plants are a lot like you and I. We need a certain amount of liquid every day, throughout the day. But we don't want to drink so much that we wash the good electrolytes out of our system. A good way to check for too much water in your herb garden? Use your finger to check the soil frequently - it should be slightly moist, but not squishy and spongy or crumbly and dried out. Your nose is also a good indicator, if it smells musty, too much water. If the leaves yellow, too much water. If the plant is wilting or shriveling up, give the poor thing a drink, it's thirsty!
- Let It Shine, Shine, Shine - basil loves sunshine, so place your plants where they're guaranteed to get 6 to 8 hours of warm summer sun. Basil is definitely a warm weather herb, so, if you live in a cooler climate, you may want to think about other herbs that are more cool-weather tolerant.This may seem obvious, but most of the people I've seen with underperforming herb gardens are clueless to the amount of sun each herb needs. If you have a garden or deck area that spends most of the day in the shade, basil's not your plant. And remember, just like you and I are different, so are different varieties of herbs. Build a relationship with a nurseryman at your local (probably not big box) garden center .... or maybe a neighbor who has remarkable success in his/her gardens - they love to share.
- Time for a haircut! - When herbs start to blossom or get too "leggy" (tall) it's time to give them a trim. Unless you "scalp" them most herbs will respond well and the part of the plant you leave behind will be stronger, fuller and less prone to little critters.
What's eating my basil plants?
Your Adversaries - if you do all the things we've talked about above, you are setting up your basil for success. The strongest deterrent to pest damage is a healthy, strong plant to begin with, so, right now, give yourself a good pat on the back; you're half way there!
- Bugs - these little guys are as numerous and varied as the stars in the sky. You're going to have to do some study of your plant for a while to identify what type of bug is destroying your precious little basil (or any other herbs). Bugs are also tricky, shy and smart as can be when it comes to attacking your plants. Come out at night with a flash light, check in the morning and late in the afternoon, until you can see them actually "at work", devouring your plants. Here in North Carolina there is a common cast of characters; white flies, mealy bugs (they're the ones who look like a pile of white dust - until they walk away!), aphids, Japanese beetles, caterpillars and on and on. Each insect has a particular set of favorite herbs, time of season they are most likely to attack and ways to combat them. Study the instructions on most commercial organic and nonorganic pesticides and you'll learn a lot. For our herb gardens, I use insecticidal soap spray, which you can get at any garden center, big box store, or hardware store. Some common brands? - Ortho Elementals, Schulz - Garden Safe Insecticidal Soap are the two I've used for the past several years with very good success. If you're a creative DIY person, you can also Google "homemade insecticidal soap" (it's actually a very simple mixture). Be proactive with the soaps and don't wait till half of your plants are devoured. The nice thing about these soaps, is that you can use these sprays right up to the day of harvest without worrying about chemically-tainted herbs. Just make sure and give your herbs a good washing in water before using them, or you might be blowing soap bubbles after your delicious meal! Again, befriend a neighborhood gardener who has a true green thumb and ask the dumbest questions until you become the local "bug lady/man" expert! Here's another website that might help: http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/
- Slugs- If you wake up one morning and discover your basil is beginning to resemble lace, with large "bites" or holes here and there, it's probably slugs. These guys can do some real damage ..... and they're the "stealth bombers" of the critter world. You don't see them, because all their damage is done at night, by moonlight - and man, can they do damage - whole leaves, big parts of whole plants! If you ever catch them out early in the morning or just before dark, get 'em or they'll get you, and your beloved basils. When you see a slimy one crawling towards your garden, have a box of Morton's table salt available - a slight sprinkle and they're history. Yes, I know that it's a pretty graphic death, but it's fast for them, and pales in comparison to the death and destruction they can cause your herbs. I regularly treat the main areas of my gardens (both herb and flower) with Bug-Getta Plus, by Ortho. I don't put the granules on or near the herbs, but where I think the slugs are residing. It knocks out a large number of them long before they migrate to the basil. A couple of other tricks? A little beer in a small (as in a bottle cap, how convenient!) just level with the ground around the cap. Slugs are attracted and it knocks 'em out of the picture. Oh yeah, and if you notice your dog or your husband staggering around the yard, tell them to stay out of the beer traps!
- The Fungus Among Us - Just when you think you've got every creepy crawly creature under your belt (or gardening clogs!) along comes another "pest" - fungus and leave diseases. As with the 4, 6, and 8 legged buddies, knowledge and observation is a key here too. Again, if you underwater or overwater your plants, remember, you're creating a shangri-la for most plant diseases. We can't emphasis that enough. I use Ortho Elementals Garden Disease Control - it's helps control a wide range of plant diseases. A great resource, of course, as always, is the web. Here's a site, complete with "mug shots" of common diseases from the National Gardening Association.
Again, studying your plants and responding to their needs before they become a candidate for the trash can is always the best path. Happy herb gardening!