Indoor herb gardening during our West Texas fall and winter

Last June, I decided I was going to grow basil and cilantro plants from seeds, in a sunny window in the kitchen. I knew that I was a little late getting started on herb gardening, but figured that maybe Mother Nature was busy doing other things and wouldn’t notice I was trying to sneak in a little late. I’m always trying to fool Mother Nature by trying to plant things at the wrong time.

Sometimes it works out and friends say, “Wow! That’s not supposed to be blooming now!” and other times, it just doesn’t work. Starting my basil a month or so after our last frost rather than a few weeks before the last frost wasn’t the way to do it.

However, in early June, teeny little sprouts began to appear in the paper egg cartons I’d filled with potting mix and gently sprinkled with seeds. I’d carefully watered them, said sweet things to them every day and made sure that they had the proper window sunlight and airflow. With all this nice attention, I figured I’d have more basil than we could handle within a month.

Basil seedlings are smaller than they appear in this photo.

My previous experiences with growing basil kept us dripping with pesto for the duration of the summer and fall, and we usually had more basil than I knew what to do with. I dried it and we were supplied with our own dried basil for months during the winter. Those were the gardening days of old. I do miss my kitchen garden in the Hill Country.

One leaf from my basil plants of the past nearly filled my hand.

Mother Nature apparently noticed what I was doing, because well into the sweltering days of summer and months after I’d seen the first signs of green in the soil, barely an inch of total growth happened with my little seedlings. I guess you really can’t fool Mother Nature too often.

With our backyard wood-fired pizza oven heated up and sourdough pizza dough at the ready, we were excited to have pizza on a beautiful West Texas Saturday afternoon. We ran to both of our local grocery stores in hopes of grabbing some fresh basil, and both stores had sold out before we got there. I put out a plea for fresh basil on social media, but was unable to procure even a leaf.

We went to the Fort Davis Outfitters, our closest garden supplier, and managed to buy the two remaining basil plants from the store… little bitty things that gave me pangs of guilt for stripping the teeny leaves from them for our delicious homemade pizzas.

I went ahead and planted what was left of those two plants in soil and figured that since I was still trying to get the seedlings to grow, two more green mouths to feed wouldn’t be a bother. And I’m glad I did.

Mother Nature decided to cut us some slack, and now I’ve got a big, beautiful pot of basil (three of my little seedlings that are now healthy and about a foot tall), two scraggly but leafy plants (also about a foot tall) from the Outfitters, and one pot with leaves that haven’t grown since late June but haven’t given up and died, either.

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There are five herbs that you can (supposedly) grow indoors during the winter: chives, oregano, thyme, parsley and rosemary. Basil isn’t on that list, but I’m hoping it’ll remain on my own personal list throughout the winter. Each of these needs about six hours of sunlight, so if you have a south-facing window sill that can hold a pot or two, you’ve won half the battle already. Fall is a great time to get your indoor herb gardens going … and I’ve got seeds ready to sprinkle. We’ll see what happens.

Fresh Basil Pesto

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed (can sub half the basil leaves with baby spinach)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Romano or Parmesan-Reggiano cheese (about 2 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts (can sub chopped walnuts)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced (about 3 teaspoons)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more to taste

Place the basil leaves and pine nuts into the bowl of a food processor and pulse a several times. If you don’t have a food processor, you can use a blender.

Add the garlic and Parmesan or Romano cheese and pulse several times more. Scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula.

While the food processor is running, slowly add the olive oil in a steady small stream. Adding the olive oil slowly, while the processor is running, will help it emulsify and help keep the olive oil from separating. Occasionally stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor.

Stir in salt and freshly ground black pepper, add more to taste.

Toss with pasta for a quick sauce, dollop over baked potatoes, or spread onto crackers or toasted slices of bread… enjoy the fruits of your herb-gardening labor!

Basil pesto darkens when exposed to air, so cover tightly with plastic wrap and make sure the plastic is touching the top of the pesto and not allowing the pesto to have contact with air. The pesto will stay greener longer that way.

Printed with permission of The Alpine Avalanche

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