Good pesto, a sauce which traditionally consists of crushed garlic, basil and European pine nuts blended with olive oil and cheese, is hard to find, and when you do find some, it can be expensive. The frustration of making frequent trips to my favorite restaurant on the other side of town just for good pesto inspired my latest project—an endless basil supply.
This endeavor has been in the making for about three months, and it has finally reached the point I strived for. I am able to supply myself and my friends with sweet basil or pesto any night of the week. I originally started with four plants from seed.
Compared to other plants, basil tends to be a slow starter for me, and I quickly realized that I would greatly benefit from propagating from cuttings instead.
Once I got my four seedlings fairly mature, I clipped off about a dozen or so cuttings. In my aeroponic cloner, the cuttings typically take about a week before they are ready to transplant.
I planted everything in 5-in. square pots, and filled them with expanded clay pebbles. I continued this process for a couple of weeks before I had the entire table filled.
For this set-up, I prefer to keep it simple and use a flood and drain system. I have it water for 15 minutes about every four hours during the light cycle. I am currently using an HID lighting system, although I will ultimately be switching to a T5. I use a 48-site aeroponic cloning system, which I keep filled with cuttings at all times. If there were to be a bug infestation,
I would prefer to remove the infected plants and replace them as opposed to spraying any chemicals. Fortunately, I have not had to do this, much of which I attribute to the grow tent. Keeping an enclosed environment eliminates or reduces several problems that could arise and is a great investment.
This garden is relatively low maintenance for me at this point. I'll drain the reservoir weekly or sometimes every other week. Asides from that, I basically just pick the basil. When I remove leaves,
I make sure to do it just above the internodes (the place on the stem where the leaves meet), so although I am removing growth, I'm promoting new growth at the same time. General plant maintenance is virtually non-existent since I am constantly harvesting and the plants never get large enough to need any supporting or staking.
To eat pesto as often as I like to, buying basil from the grocery store would be cost prohibitive. I estimate that I am harvesting between $30 to $50 a week in basil, based on grocery store costs. The light I am using costs about $30 to $40 a month to operate, which will go down once I use a T5. In the winter,
I actually benefit from using the HID, so I do not count that as an expense. A small portable space heater will draw generally 1,000 watts, while making a minimal impact. I duct the heat produced from the light into my living area, and it is just as effective with the added fringe benefit.
How to Make Basil Pesto
While I'm always looking for other uses for my basil, the majority of my harvests go to pesto. Pesto is cheap, quick and easy to make, provided you have enough basil. To prepare the basil, I remove all the stems and put all the leaves in a strainer. I wash them before preparing out of habit, although it is completely unnecessary.
You can get a cheap electric chopper at just about any major department store, which has been one of the best investments I have made. I fill the chopper with the basil, and rinse it down with olive oil, which prevents it from sticking to the sides. I will usually fill the chopper back up again, and repeat this process.
Once I have a decent supply of chopped basil, I'll toss in a couple garlic cloves. I'll chop those, and taste test to see if it needs more.
Next, I'll put in a decent amount of mozzarella. There are a variety of cheeses that work well and taste excellent, I just prefer mozzarella. The cheese tends to give it a better consistency in addition to better flavor. The last thing I do is put in a small amount of butter, salt and pepper, and it's done.
The whole process takes less than five minutes, and you are ready to go. Many people prefer to add pine nuts; I bypass that ingredient due to allergies, but it would take no time to incorporate.
When all is said and done, I estimate my cost to produce a pint of pesto at around $1, which is a fairly conservative estimate.
A pint of inferior quality that you could find at a grocery store loaded with various preservatives would run you close to $7. If you do not have the space or means to produce basil indoors, you can produce a significant amount outdoors, vacuum seal, freeze and enjoy during the off season.