Mmmm. There is something indescribably wonderful about the scent of fresh basil. I can’t pass by it in the garden without stroking it and filling my nose with its fragrance.
Basil, botanically named Ocimum basilicum, is easy to grow as long you remember that basil likes it hot. To get a jumpstart, start seeds of basil indoors a few weeks before the last frost date. For me, the last frost date is usually in mid-May. Wait to plant it outside in a pot or in the garden until daytime temperatures are consistently in the 70’s and nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees.
Plant basil in full sun in rich, well-drained garden soil or a good-quality, light potting mix and keep plants slightly moist as they grow. Unlike many other Mediterranean herbs, basil doesn’t like to dry out. If you are growing your basil in a container, plant it in as large of pot as possible and add a layer of mulch to keep the soil moist longer.
Basil also requires regular fertilizing. (If you had to keep growing new leaves because your gardener kept harvesting yours, you would need a little fertilizer, too.) Add compost and either blood meal or cottonseed meal when planting and then feed every couple of weeks with an organic, liquid fertilizer.
Space plants according to the directions on the label, generally 10 to 18 inches apart, depending on the variety. Begin pinching the tops of plants once they grow about 6 inches tall. Pinching encourages side branching and keeps plants bushier.
Unless you plan on making a lot of pesto, two or three plants is plenty to provide fresh leaves for your favorite recipes.
Begin harvesting leaves when plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, generally 60 to 90 days after started from seed. Pick individual leaves if you need a little; cut the top off a large plant if you need more.
Pick the leaves in the morning when the oils are most concentrated. Strip leaves from stems and clean them by submerging them in a bowl of water. Place them on a towel to dry.
Frequent harvesting not only keeps plants bushy, it also prevents them from flowering. When basil flowers, it begins using its energy to produce seeds instead of more tasty leaves. When it sets seed, the leaves begin to lose their flavor.
Basil is frost-sensitive (Remember, it’s a heat lover.) and even light frosts will blacken their tender leaves. Extend the fresh basil season as long as possible by covering plants with sheets when nighttime temperatures are dropping into the low 40’s.
Harvest entire plants when frost is imminent. Stems will remain fresh in water for a few days or pick off the usable leaves. Basil can be dried or frozen but freezing preserves the strongest flavor. Fresh leaves can also be used in vinegars, to flavor oils and, of course, to make pesto.
To freeze, leaves can be frozen on cookie sheets and then placed in airtight containers and kept frozen. Leaves can also be chopped, placed in ice cube trays, covered with water and frozen. Oil can be used instead of water if that is how you would later use them. Thaw cubes as needed.
Of course, fresh is best. Eat fresh basil in sandwiches and salads and wrap leaves around cheese cubes. Add fresh basil to sauces, pasta, soups and tomato dishes. Its flavor blends deliciously with oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme. Wait to add basil during the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking. Cooking longer changes its flavor.
My favorite way to use basil isn’t to eat it at all. I drop a few leaves in cold water or lemonade and yum! It is so refreshing and delicious.
There are many different varieties of basil – as petite as less than a foot to more than 3 feet tall – offering a range of flavors.
Caeser is widely available at garden centers and a favorite of gardeners. This compact sweet basil offers large, tender and very flavorful, shiny green leaves. It is also slower to flower than many other varieties. Caeser is ideal for growing in containers.
Cardinal may be the first variety you grow for its flowers instead of its leaves. Large spikes of red flowers sit atop bright burgundy stems. Looking more like celosia than basil, plants grow 24 to 30 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide. The spicy-scented, bright green leaves are tasty, however, so you can have your basil and eat it too!
Cinnamon shows off purple flowers (if they are allowed to bloom) and its green leaves have a spicy, cinnamon fragrance.
Dark Opal is often grown for its deep purple leaves and dark red stems, especially beautiful in fresh salads and in herbal vinegars.
Genovese is said by some to make the best pesto. This sweet basil is slow to flower so its large, crinkled, bright green leaves can be enjoyed longer, even in hot summers.
Pesto Party also flowers very late so you’ll have plenty of fresh leaves to use in recipes all summer long. This sweet basil has a bushy habit, so it is perfect for containers.
Purple Ruffles displays large, purple, ruffled leaves with stronger flavor than sweet basils. Plants grow up to 20 inches tall. Purple Ruffles was an All-America Selections winner in 1987.
The small leaves of Thai basil have a licorice flavor. Its flowers and stems are purple. Siam Queen is an improved Thai basil. Siam Queen was an AAS winner in 1997.
Sweet Dani boasts lemon flavor and large leaves, exceptional in fish, poultry and vegetable recipes. It’s also tasty in herbal teas. Sweet Dani was an AAS winner in 1998.