Basil, since it roots quickly and easily from cuttings, is the perfect plant to build an on-again, off-again gardener’s self-esteem. Not only is it attractive and pleasant to smell, but it is cheap to grow and rather hard to kill, especially when grown dirt-free.
Not being able to stand being plantless, the first thing I do after relocating is to start new basil plants. Although basil seeds germinate quickly, when we moved again recently, I was glad to have stumbled across a live pot for $1.99 from the hurt plants section of a supermarket. Leaving the parent plant in dirt for the time being, I cut off all the stems just above the first set of leaves, and after removing each of the two lower sets of leaves from the cuttings, placed the slips in a glass of water on the window sill. Four days later, I had four nicely rooted clones, which are now each about three inches high even though we did some munching.
I grow my basil clones in devices fashioned from quart-sized plastic milk bottles, with the top cut off just below the handle. After cleaning, I screw the cap back on and punch drain holes between the cap and the handle, then place this section cap-down inside the cube-shaped bottom of the bottle. Then I nestle the roots of the new plants among enough expanded clay pellets (hydroton rocks) to keep them upright and aerated, and once or twice a day just lift the inner container out to drain, setting it gently back down where it came from after a few seconds. This movement of the water lets air get to the roots and keeps algae from forming too rapidly.
Each second-generation plant cost fifty cents, the container was free, and the clay pellets are reusable. The only ongoing expense will be a few drops of liquid nutrient solution added every week or so. In order to keep leaves from shading the others, I pinch them off for eating, and as soon as the plant is big enough to shape, the stems I pinch back are put in fresh water to root. Soon there will be more basil plants than I will know what to do with.
Mmmmm, the plant above has some over sized leaves ready to munch.
Although some scholars consider it unlikely that basil was actually named after the basilisk, there is a small lizard called the Green Basilisk that can walk on water, and that is how I think of my hydroponic basil clones. To me they are plants that can walk on water, and live in it too. If I get busy and forget to lift the inserts out of water for a few days, the basil is forgiving, and won’t dry out and die. There is no guessing how much water to give it, because the water level can be seen through the containers, although I do draw a “fill line” and a “drain” line on the outside of each device to make it easier to see where the roots leave off.
If the plants get too big or root bound, or too much algae grows in the containers, I merely take more new cuttings, rinse off the clay pellets to reuse, and throw the roots away. Sometimes if the containers are not too green, I wash the algae off and reuse them, too, but we always have milk containers on hand, so it is often easier to simply start over.
Plants renewed in this way never get bugs or any kind of plant diseases, and they are fresh, tender, and tasty. Not all of my plant experiments work out, but basil is the one plant I cannot kill, and having it around makes me feel confident, and a bit adventurous.
Published in: Gardening