For the highest nutrients in fruits and veg - timing is everything!

A basket of colourful phytonutrient-rich produce picked early in the morning from my polytunnel (1)

 

A basket of colourful phytonutrient-rich produce picked early in the morning from my polytunnel

Since I first began growing organic vegetables for my family over forty years ago - the question of exactly when is the best time of day to harvest those vegetables is also something which has always interested me. If we go to the trouble of growing our own vegetables and fruits - then we naturally want them not just to stay fresh for the longest possible time but also want to maximise their healthy nutrient content. Whether we grow a lot of veg outdoors, are lucky enough to have a polytunnel, or even if we just have a couple of containers by the back door or window-box with some fresh salad leaves - it's important to know how to get the maximum health benefits from your precious hard-won produce by harvesting it at exactly the right time. Science is still a very long way from understanding precisely how everything in soil works and what contributes to manufacturing plant nutrients - but we do know that it all evolved to work together in a natural synergy. That being so - there is no doubt that organic produce is going to be highest in healthy nutrients - whatever some of the arrogant pro-pesticide pro-GMO lobby may say! I'm not just talking here about the outdated concept of so-called "essential nutrients" as we currently classify them (which I'll talk about later) and which the non-organic lobby use for comparison. I'm also talking about the phytonutrients that Nature evolved over millions of years, as it clearly decided that they were necessary for our health too! 

 

I've always felt that the key to growing any plant really well is to take the trouble to understand exactly the right conditions it needs, in order for it to grow as healthily as possible. Healthy plants don't get pests and diseases as their immune systems are working properly. This means we need to understand the ecology of each particular plant and study how it grows in it's natural environment. That applies to all plants - not just food plants. If you've been a reader of my blog for a while, you'll know that as well as being an organic gardener and former commercial grower, I'm also a keen amateur botanist and lover of unusual plants, especially food plants! I've also always had a special interest in eating a healthy, pesticide-free organic diet, as rich as possible in all the healing antioxidant powers of plant phytochemicals. This interest was sparked by one of my childrens' very severe health problems when young. As a result I've been a keen reader of science articles for the last 40 years and I've often come across some quite quirky pieces of information about plants that fascinate or amaze me. I'm constantly in awe of the many things that plants are able to do in order to survive. Recently - many new and astonishing aspects of how they react to their environment have been revealed, thanks to the wonders of modern electron microscopy. Not necessarily what might be of interest to your average supermarket shopper perhaps - but it's definitely of interest to those who want to get the most nutrients possible from their diet! 

 

The question of exactly what time of day crops are the highest in all their nutrients is a very interesting one. Most of us probably know that early morning when it's cool is the best time to harvest most things, before they get warmed by the sun and start to wilt - possibly losing nutrients.  A couple of years ago I came across a particularly fascinating little nugget of information. Contrary to what many people think - plants were designed by nature as modular systems - rather like Lego! This means that each part of a plant can potentially survive to become a new plant given the right conditions. This is why we can take cuttings of shoots, or use tissue culture to make new plants identical to the parent. It also means that each part of the plant goes on functioning as normal for quite some time after being severed from the parent plant, in exactly the same way as the rest of that original plant!  In other words - it can perform all the biological functions of the original plant. And this is where the really interesting bit is - from a healthy eating perspective.

 

To set the scene - plants have all the senses that we have - they just happen use them differently.  Like so many things that some of our sometimes arrogant species thought we already knew everything about - when trying to understand plants our perception of them is a big drawback for us. As humans, we tend to only class things as intelligent if they behave and react to outside stimuli in exactly the same ways that we do and that we can understand. We assumed until very recently that plants are only green things - sometimes edible - that sit there and well - vegetate!  We couldn't be more wrong!  Exactly like us - every cell in their bodies is constantly busy doing all the things it needs to do in order to survive. They can feel, hear, react to sounds and scents, move (roots permitting) and also sense light - and this is the attribute I'll explain the importance of later! Amazingly - they can even perform complicated arithmetic! In the evening - they accurately calculate the amount of energy-giving carbohydrate stores they have and divide it up into hourly portions, so that they have enough energy to function normally during the night - when they can't make energy from photosynthesis using daylight. 

 

One vitally important aspect of plant nutrients from our point of view is that because they obviously can't run away like us - over billions of years plants have also developed an amazing array of natural weapons which they can use when something attacks them. These are the plant compounds that we call phytochemicals. They are Nature's pesticides if you like! The important thing to understand though, is that unlike synthetic man-made pesticides, we evolved to eat them as phytonutrients - so they're clearly beneficial for us too! They are powerful natural chemicals that can have enormous health benefits for us when we eat them. Although not currently classified as "essential nutrients" which are necessary purely just to keep us alive - meaning water, vitamins, some minerals and amino acids(proteins) - nevertheless science is increasingly beginning to recognise that phytonutrients are essential to keeping us alive healthily!  Just as in plants - they are a vital tool in our bodies disease-prevention armoury too. Our ancestors have been eating them for millions of years and the cells in our bodies have evolved to recognise them and use their powerful antioxidant properties at a genetic level, to reverse DNA damage caused by toxins in our environment and to prevent disease. What I find fascinating is that many other organisms seemingly quite distant from us in evolutionary terms also use these same compounds in exactly the same basic metabolic way - this why scientists can use a type of worm or fruit flies to research how phytochemicals affect us. So that makes me think that Nature clearly decided they were essential nutrients - because Nature never wastes a thing! It works on the old adage - if it ain't broke - don't fix it! If a function is necessary for successful life - then it retains it and builds on it to make another, even more complicated organism and so on, ad infinitum. Just like my Lego analogy earlier! That's how we evolved from simple bacteria to us! 

 

Science is now beginning to prove daily just how significant they are and we are only just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg! There are thousands more phytochemicals as yet still undiscovered, which all work together in different synergistic combinations complementing each other. That's why every nutrient is precious and is why it's so important to eat as varied a diet of whole fruits and vegetables as possible and to eat them in the  original combinations which nature designed - not try to target individual compounds and take them as probably unbalanced or possibly even dangerous supplements. They are very powerful chemicals even if they are natural - and when it comes to most supplements - once again man is blundering blindly about just guessing!  I am personally of the opinion that the old fashioned concept of 'essential nutrients' will soon start to become just as obsolete as the ludicrous idea that processed synthetic fats are better than natural fats!  If phytochemicals weren't essential to our health - then would our gut bacteria have evolved to deal with them, or our genes to recognise and utilise them? I'd dearly love to live another lifetime to see what happens when scientists and doctors finally accept how beautifully and completely everything is connected, to understand exactly how to use naturally-grown, organic 'real food' as medicine - and to understand that the answer really does "lie in the soil" to use that well-worn expression! That will truly be going 'back to the future' when doctors finally accept that Hippocrates was right all along when he said "Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food".

 

Am I straying away from my original subject? No - I was just setting the scene for the real nugget that I want to share with you!  Whether you grow your own vegetables or if you buy them - the most important thing you need to know about maximising nutrients, first and foremost, is that they also have a circadian clock exactly like we do. This means they have light-sensitive cells in every part of the plant which tell them whether it's day or night! That light-sensitivity governs their internal circadian clock and all the biological functions which they perform at particular times of day or night. This works in exactly the same way that our circadian clock governs our bodies. As a result - plants have a constant awareness of what time of day it is, just from sensing light.  In other words - plants can tell the time - probably a lot more accurately than we can!  Because of this ability -  plants don't waste precious energy on producing their protective phytochemicals during the night. They start to step up production of them a couple of hours before dawn - in anticipation of attacks by the hungry hordes of insects which will descend on them at daybreak for breakfast!  That way the plants hope to repel them either by a nasty taste or unpleasant smell! How clever plants are and how beautifully Nature designed everything!  

This leads me back to my original question "When is the best time to harvest vegetables"? The answer - which you've probably already worked out by now - is that if you want to eat your vegetables as full of healthy phytonutrients as possible and at their absolute peak of nutrition - then I hope you like getting up early! Don't wait until after work to go down to the allotment to pick your vegetables, or run down the garden just before supper. Get up a bit earlier in the morning instead. Then you can harvest them at the absolute peak of their super-nutritional best!

 

 

But what if you're buying vegetables? Are they really more nutritious if local, seasonal and organic?

 

 

 

Have you ever suffered from jet lag? Did it ever occur to you that perhaps vegetables and fruits might do too? Daft? No! Sorry to the nay-sayers who again make fun of those us who say that we think local seasonal and organic is best! But once again - timing is everything! There is now finally proof that they are indeed more nutritious - and I'll tell you why!  This is aother really interesting point that follows on from the discovery that plants have circadian clocks. Naturally, the circadian clocks of all vegetables and fruits are synchronised to whatever part of the world they happen to be growing in - since their survival totally depends on it. They are living things after all - and all life on earth is governed by the basic circadian rhythms of day and night - even the simplest bacteria and algae. Only common sense really isn't it? Why did no-one ever think of that before, since they have all the basic senses that we have - but just use them in a very different way!

 

So why is this relevant to nutrient content of imported produce? Well - researchers have recently discovered that if the synchronicity of their circadian clock - or day/night pattern is disrupted - then just like us, the daily rhythms and biological functions of plants are also disrupted. Add to this perhaps travelling half-way across the world in dark containers, being held for some time in a distribution centre before delivery and after that being stored on a supermarket shelf in constant light - is it any wonder they become disoriented, confused and quite literally 'jet-lagged'! They then start to gradually lose their ability to protect themselves by producing the phytochemicals which are their immune system. 

 

Interestingly, the scientists doing the research also found that just as our internal clocks can gradually be 'entrained' or re-adjusted so that we can function normally again, it is possible to do this in plants too. The problem is that it can take 3 days or more for their internal clocks to re-adjust, by which time many other nutrients such as vitamins will already have started to deteriorate. The losses of vitamins may be less it they're kept at around 4 degrees C in a fridge - but again any fridge will be dark once the door's closed - so they still won't know whether it's day or night. That means their phytochemical production slows down even more because they need light to know when they're supposed to produce them. They also start to gradually lose their source of the stored energy they need to produce them! Alternatively, if they're kept in constant light they will quickly become exhausted from overproduction of phytochemicals and lack of energy, just as you or I would if not allowed to sleep after travelling a long distance! That's a form of torture for humans and probably any other living organism.  Anthropomorphising vegetables? No!  This is all actually of great interest to scientists who are now looking to improve the storage of vegetables and possibly enhance their phytochemical production, by manipulating the amount and timing of the light which they are exposed to. 

 

So in the meantime - I think it's pretty clear to anyone unbiased that local, seasonal and naturally of course, organic, really is better for our health after all!  

 

You may have read some of this article before, as I first published it in early 2015. 

I thought that it was time to update it now for two reasons. The first reason is that since then, a lot more fascinating information has been discovered about the plants which we depend on for our survival and how their microbiome - or phytobiome as it's known - interacts with their environment. More is being discovered daily, through the wonders of modern microscopy. If you have any interest in food or plants - this is such an exciting time to be alive with new things being discovered literally every day! 

 

The second reason is that I'm heartily sick of some so-called 'experts' and a headline-hungry media, who often seem to love nothing better than to use their high profile or wide circulation to ridicule advocates of organic, local and seasonal, in a cheap and cynical effort to boost their popularity or readership. Their misinformation is literally affecting people's health!  Some of this is naturally led by the PR propaganda of the agricultural pesticide industry, who are getting increasingly worried that their profits and share prices may soon drop! 

 

The older-style 'experts' I actually had a little more respect for - despite their mistaken belief that chemicals were the great new world. At least they were genuinely-held beliefs and many had experienced the difficult conditions of WW2 rationing, with all of it's shortages. They had also been thoroughly indoctrinated in 1950's agricultural colleges.  The newer breed of 'experts' however are a different proposition and far more clever. Frankly - they are despicable! They don't operate on the basis of genuinely held beliefs - but are driven purely by popularity ratings and money - and they don't give a damn who or what gets damaged in the process!  Yes I am angry - but with good cause! I care about my children's future and hopefully their children's future too. I care about the future of what's left of Nature on this beautiful planet that we all live on. I've seen so much of it tragically destroyed unnecessarily with my own eyes during my lifetime!

 

As I mentioned earlier - there are now a growing number of studies showing that organic is better from every possible point of view. Not surprising since that's the way Nature's always done it! But the 'experts' tend to cherry pick and repeat parrot-fashion the old "essential nutrient" / vitamin and mineral data which are pretty much on a par between organic and non-organic. They also repeat that old mantra - "organics won't feed the world" - now thoroughly discounted! You don't need a degree or to be a scientist to know that. As my scientist son says - you just need to be able to read! It suits the purposes of those cynical 'experts' to ignore the other reasons why organic is better from every point of view. More phytonutrients, fewer pesticide, antibiotic and heavy metal residues, antibiotic resistance, animal welfare, soil health, environmental issues, climate change.....etc. etc...I could go on - but there's another article in that lot! Watch this space!

Study on how plant circadian clock affects their metabolism:  http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)00629-5

 

(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

What's The Crack About Eggs?

 1. Hens enjoying looking for juicy bugs in one of their large grass runs  2. They have a lovely snug house & hay-lined nest boxes to lay their eggs - not cruel wire cages!  3. Result - Happy hens & the best organic eggs on the planet. Pure & healthy - the perfect food!
1. Hens enjoying looking for juicy bugs in one of their large grass runs  2. They have a lovely snug house & hay-lined nest boxes to lay their eggs - not cruel wire cages!   3. Result - Happy hens & the best organic eggs on the planet. Pure & healthy - the perfect food!

Hen chat with Gerry Kelly on the Late Lunch Show - on how to have the healthiest eggs ever!

Hens are healthier when they enjoy a variety of vegetables - just like us! Hens enjoying their breakfast of bolted lettuce - too bitter for us to eat but they love them!
Hens are healthier when they enjoy a variety of vegetables - just like us! Hens enjoying their breakfast of bolted lettuce - too bitter for us to eat but they love them!
Sylvia dustbathing  upside down to clean her feathers! Nigella says thank you for visiting!
Sylvia dustbathing upside down to clean her feathers! Nigella says thank you for visiting!
The hens really love their warm, soft, hay-lined nest boxes! And this is the result - delicious poached eggs for a healthy lunch.
The hens really love their warm, soft, hay-lined nest boxes! And this is the result - delicious poached eggs for a healthy lunch.

How to Grow Brilliant, Bold & Beautiful Basil -  for your best & fastest-ever crop!

 (And how to harvest and preserve it too)
Basil looking lush and ready for it's first harvest Two rows of Basil beside French beans - split supermarket pots on left, module sown on right
Basil looking lush and ready for it's first harvest Two rows of Basil beside French beans - split supermarket pots on left, module sown on right
Basil is possibly the one herb more than any other that most people want to grow, but many find it difficult. It's really not - when you understand it! Basil is a sensitive soul. Like most of us - all it needs is a little warmth, TLC and understanding - and then it will repay you in spades! It's always been one of my most important summer tunnel crops - I freeze masses of it every year which lasts us right through until the next year's starts to crop. It's a herb with such a 'feelgood factor'. We love to use it in pesto sauce for pasta and for pizzas, or for tomato sauces made from our frozen homegrown tomatoes, in herb oils for salads etc throughout the winter, or even in desserts, bread & cakes! It's sacred and revered in many cultures as a health-promoting with antibiotic and antiviral properties. I'm positive it keeps winter colds away, particularly combined with the amount of garlic I use in pesto! But even if it doesn't - it tastes fabulous and is such an aromatic, mood-lifting reminder of radiant summer sunshine - even in the greyest depths of winter!  
 
As with all crops, organically grown basil will be naturally far higher in good phytonutrients than non-organic. A Newcastle University study published in July 2014 found that organic crops were an average of 69% higher in these health-promoting natural plant compounds, and concluded that eating organic fruit and veg was actually equivalent to eating an extra 1-2 portions of them a day! So it's medicine really - of the most delicious and irresistible kind!
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I was one of the first certified commercial organic growers in Ireland over 30 years ago and I used to grow a whole tunnel full of basil every year. Basil has a wonderful aroma - but believe me - by the time you've got half-way through picking a whole tunnel full - the scent of it is pungent and extremely nauseating! I supplied the Dublin food Co-op back in those days, a few shops and I also had my weekly organic box delivery scheme in Dublin. It was always the most popular herb I grew - even then I never had enough of it to go round and had a waiting list!  Basil was rarely if ever available in supermarkets then, particularly if grown organically - and organic still isn't. Even now, some of my early customers call me every summer to see if I might possibly have a surplus - although I grow just for ourselves now and no longer sell any produce. A couple of months ago, after one of our monthly 'From Tunnel to Table' radio features - Late Lunch Show presenter Gerry Kelly, who is also a keen gardener, asked me how to split up supermarket basil, after seeing some which I'd done in pots here. Growing supermarket-bought basil is something that I've been asked about a great deal over the years when giving talks on organic gardening, so I thought it was time I gave it an article all to itself. It's such a wonderful plant it certainly deserves the five star treatment! 
 
Commercial organic growers are of course never allowed to use any non-organic basil or any other plants to grow on for producing organic crops - they must not even have non-organic plants on their holding. The rules are very strict - I know that as I was one of the people who helped to formulate and put in place the Irish Organic Standards back in the mid 1980's. Under the terms of their licence, growers must raise all their own plants from organic seed. When I eventually gave up commercial growing though, I was able to have a bit more fun with my gardening - experimenting with various methods of getting the very earliest crops of many of my favourites. As a consequence - I developed this method of growing the very earliest basil from those pots you can buy in some supermarkets. The little bit of non-organic compost they will have been raised in is soon remediated by potting them on into a good certified organic one - so the tiny amount of fertiliser that may be in the small supermarket pot doesn't bother me too much. The same goes for any possible - but unlikely traces of anything else - one has to be pragmatic here and a healthy, living organic soil can actually deal with a certain amount of non-organic material! Basil also grows so fast in the warm summer weather that it very soon outgrows any leafy area that may have possible small residues once it's being grown organically  It's much more energy-efficient to raise basil plants this way early in the year too. Home gardeners could never afford the winter heat and vital bright light that commercial herb producers use to get really early crops. It can help to give you a head start on the season - which needs to be as long as possible here for the amount of basil we use all year round! 
 
There's still time to use this method now even in July to get a really good crop before autumn weather puts a dampener on them. In fact it's a great way to grow a large amount of basil very quickly and cheaply at any time of year - as it skips about 4-6 weeks of growing time, particularly in early spring. It's also good for people who may find growing from seed a bit of a challenge. It's generally Sweet Genovese Basil that you see on sale in supermarkets - and I think it's the very best one for the classic Pesto Genovese. For the more unusual kinds of basil like the Giant Red Lettuce Leaved one you can see below though - you will still have to rely on specialist herb nurseries for plants, or grow your own plants from seed.
 
 
Buying pots of Basil from the supermarket for splitting
 
Below are some step-by-step photographs I've taken over the last 3 months - illustrating exactly how to do it. I wanted to just clarify a few extra points here that room in captions doesn't allow! I've tried to make this as comprehensive as possible, without being too lengthy - but forgive me if I've either gone on too long - or left anything out! When you've been doing it as long as I have it's easy to take some things for granted!
 
It's best to start off with a good-sized potful of the smallest seedling plants you can get. This is firstly because they will obviously have less time in non-organic compost but secondly because they tend to split up and move a lot more readily when still fairly small. Where to buy? Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's sell the freshest and best potted basil I've found, in decent sized pots. Some other supermarkets sell plants in smaller pots, but often those plants are taller, have been on the shelf for some time and haven't been looked after too well - either under or over watered from the top - which basil hates. Those generally don't transplant as happily as smaller ones. M&S pots are generally smaller and will give you 4 -5 good clumps, depending on how they split. Sainsbury's pots will usually give you 6 clumps - as the pots tend to be larger and the seedling plants are often slightly smaller than M&S ones too, which I prefer.
 
As soon as you get the plants home, release them immediately from their straight jackets - those suffocating plastic sleeves they've been in while on the shelf in the supermarket! They will immediately relax and breathe a sigh of relief! Then put them somewhere draught free - in good light and give them a drink if they need it - by sitting them in a shallow saucer of water for a couple of minute and then draining. Never, ever leave basil sitting in water - it's the surest way to kill it fast as it rots the roots! When you split the clumps up you will obviously have to water them around the stems initially, in order to settle the compost in around the roots. But after that - never water from the top again. Definitely do not give a 'thorough drench' it as I saw one 'expert' recommend and don't use a watering can from above either as I've seen some others recommend. Always waterbetween plants that are planted in the ground - never direct a cold hose at the base of the stems - another sure way to kill it. How often? When it needs it is the answer! You can't prescribe a once or twice weekly watering any more than you can organise the weather sadly! It just needs a nicely moist, but not wet soil. If it's too wet & cold it will start to turn yellow and die - if it's too dry it will be tough and run up to flower quickly, instead of producing those lovely lush leaves you want. This is something you'll just have to learn to play by ear.
 
When dividing - always be careful not to handle basil by the stems as they bruise easily and this can potentially cause disease. Use an 'open' claw like hand around the actual root ball, just below the stems. Turn the pot around - look for a gap where it seems likely to split readily and ease it apart very gently.
 
For initial potting up I use a good free-draining peat-free certified organic potting compost. Klassman-Deilman certified organic peat-'free potting compost is the one I prefer as it's made from composted green waste grown specifically for it and it grows really healthy plants. It's free-draining too and I never lose plants in it. I also use their seed compost for raising all my seeds - it's thoroughly reliable and since I discovered it I never lose even sensitive seedlings and basil can be a bit like that in early spring! Immediately after splitting and potting up shade it for a couple of days with fleece, or put it in a shady but warm spot as it may wilt a little at first, but will soon establish new roots and relish it's freedom.
 
If raising basil from seed I always sow into modules which avoids too much handling such as 'pricking out'. I sow very shallowly and then barely cover the seeds with vermiculite. This promotes well-drained conditions and really good air circulation around the base of the seedling's stem - so they never suffer any 'damping-off' problems. Again I always water the seed tray from below by sitting it in water for a few minutes and then covering with polythene until it starts to germinate. As soon as it does, it must be uncovered immediately or it may damp off. It needs a warm propagator for germination, and then the same temperature for growing on in the warm for a week or two before gradually acclimatising to normal greenhouse or tunnel temperatures. 
 
Where to put it for growing on after potting up? Basil's never really happy on a windowsill for very long. They're generally either too scorching hot and dry it out too quickly - or they don't have enough top light. The plant will keep stretching for more light and eventually become stressed. Stressed plants tend to be far more vulnerable to greenfly and wilting diseases. Outside it's not that happy either as it hates wind and rain. Giving plants the conditions they like is the secret to keeping them happy. Think sheltered Mediterranean gritty slope or sunny Ligurian hillside - and that's a bit closer to what it likes. Not really north-west European gloom or soggy soil!  It might be happy in a warm and sheltered town garden with free-draining soil, or in a large well drained pot in a sheltered sunny courtyard - but if you want to be sure of growing the very best basil, particularly if you want a lot of it, then a polytunnel, greenhouse or tall-ish cold frame with good ventilation is essentially the best environment for it in our climate. 
 
Planting out. When the roots have filled the pots, a couple of weeks after the initial splitting and it's ready to move on - you can then either pot it on into larger pots - about 3 clumps to a 10 litre pot is what I use to crop it in, or plant the clumps into warm, rich, nicely moist soil in your tunnel - about 45cm/18inas apart. Imagine what you would like if you were a basil plant - give it that - and it should take off like a rocket!
 
Harvesting. *Never wait until you want to use basil to harvest it! Always harvest it as soon as it's big enough to use, or it may run up to flower, and become stringy, tough and tasteless! Never allow flower buds to develop unless you want to save seed from a plant. Pick shoots as they become long enough, when the plants are about 15cm/6ins high or so. Always pinch off shoots cleanly with sharp fingernails, or scissors if you want to be 'finnicky' and you don't have many plants. Take the shoot just above a pair of leaves, where there will be more shoots waiting to develop as soon as they are stimulated by picking the shoot above them. It's a bit like pruning. Remember - basil wants to make flowers to perpetuate itself - you don't want it to! It's also necessary to pick some of the larger leaves from the inside or from around the outside of the plant as it becomes bigger - as this promotes good air circulation and prevents possible disease - which can happen in large clumps of plants. Again - pinch off - don't tear them off. Never denude the plant totally though, or you may kill it. It needs it's leaves to photosynthesise so it can make food to grow. Also pick off any yellowing leaves whenever you see them - they're doing nothing for the plant by then and may cause disease if left. (*My article on 'when is the best time to harvest your produce' is a relevant read - it tells you why early morning is the best time to pick your produce.)
 
Preserving basil. Although it's nice to have some basil preserved in oil for salad dressings and drizzling, I think it's wonderful aromatic qualities are best preserved by freezing as fast as possible. You can always make herb oils and pesto in winter when you have more time. Immediately after picking, I lightly wash and dry it, spin it dry in a salad spinner and then freeze it loosely in a large bag as fast as I can. After it's frozen I just pick up the bag - give it a jolly good shake and bang it about a bit (a bit of creative visualisation can be amusing here!).  And there you have it - ready chopped basil! Then squash as much air out of it as possible and 'double bag' it. It keeps beautifully in the airtight freezer bag - preserving that just-picked aroma and flavour. I just dip into the bag full whenever I need to make a pesto or something - no faffing about with tiny separate bags - life is too short! Just a sniff of the open bag in winter is enough to transport you back to summer! (Make sure the bags are strong and won't split when doing this to prevent tragedy - frozen basil stems can be sharp and pierce bags easily!) 
 
1. A nice pot of healthy basil, plenty full enough & ready to split 2. Sit the pot in saucer of water for few minutes for a drink
1. A nice pot of healthy basil, plenty full enough & ready to split 2. Sit the pot in saucer of water for few minutes for a drink
3. Turn pot around & look for a gap in plants where it will split conveniently  4. Split root ball gently into 2
 3. Turn pot around & look for a gap in plants where it will split conveniently  4. Split root ball gently into 2
   
 5. Split the halved potful into 2 again. You now have 4 clumps  6. Fill a pot with compost & make a wedge shaped hole
 5. Split the halved potful into 2 again. You now have 4 clumps  6. Fill a pot with compost & make a wedge shaped hole
 7. Pot up clump filling with compost to same level as it was originally. Firm gently & water in.  8. Do others -You now have 4 new pots full
 7. Pot up clump filling with compost to same level as it was originally. Firm gently & water in. 8. Do others -You now have 4 new pots full
 9. After splitting, shade for a couple  of days with fleece  10. You now have 12 new full pots of basil from 3 originally - ready to plant out
 9. After splitting, shade for a couple  of days with fleece  10. You now have 12 new full pots of basil from 3 originally - ready to plant out
11. Pot nicely filled - roots ready to explore further 12. Remove pot and plant clumps 45cm/18ins apart at same level as top of compost in pot - no lower.
11. Pot nicely filled - roots ready to explore further 12. Remove pot and plant clumps 45cm/18ins apart at same level as top of compost in pot - no lower.
 13. One week on - already growing well despite cold nights. Module raised plants sown  in mid April planted on right of them. Huge difference  14. Basil seedlings sown in organic compost mid April. Pictured 3 weeks later ready for potting on
 13. One week on - already growing well despite cold nights. Module raised plants sown  in mid April planted on right of them. Huge difference  14. Basil seedlings sown in organic compost mid April. Pictured 3 weeks later ready for potting on
 15. Bushy clump of split supermarket pot in foreground, already harvested twice. 2 module sown clumps not yet harvested at rear.  16. A rare Basil - Giant Red Lettuce Leaved - has a deliciously sweet warm cinnamon flavour & leaves big enough to cover my hand!
 15. Bushy clump of split supermarket pot in foreground, already harvested twice. 2 module sown clumps not yet harvested at rear.  16. A rare Basil - Giant Red Lettuce Leaved - has a deliciously sweet warm cinnamon flavour & leaves big enough to cover my hand!

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