My affection for herbs and herb gardens has waxed and waned over the years. Growing herbs always seems like a great idea. For the most part, the plants are hardy, attract bees and butterflies, and are useful in the kitchen.
But too many herbs are like children hitting their teenage years—they go native and break training. Herb gardens, planted with the best of intentions, quickly become rank and hard to control because the plants—like many teens—outgrow their spaces, flop everywhere and require constant monitoring to keep in bounds.
But one herb I have never been without is basil. Basil is well-behaved, productive, versatile in the garden as well as in the kitchen, practically problem-free, and as ornamental as many flowering annuals. A number of basil varieties are also a treat for the sense of smell, offering scents of lemon, lime, cinnamon, licorice or mint, depending upon the variety. Don’t go another summer without basil.
Basil is adaptable to a wide range of garden uses. You can grow it in the vegetable garden. Many of the basils are ornamental, both in growing habit and in flower, and fit in well in the flower garden. A number of basils have been bred to remain compact and make excellent edging plants for annual or perennial beds. And the smaller basils are perfect for pot culture. Plant them on the patio or deck, where you can pluck them often for fresh use. (See list at right.)
If the basil plant has a fault, it is that it is very tender. It is probably the least hardy of all annual herbs. A touch of frost is the kiss of death for basil. In fact, the plant will often succumb to temperatures below 40, so don’t get in a hurry to plant it. I would wait until the middle of this month before even thinking about planting basil.
You can buy basil plants, but they start easily from seed, germinating in about three days. Plant in warm, well-drained soil that is not too rich. Commercial growers fertilize basil plants when they are growing rapidly, but in the home garden, basil will make it through the summer without fertilizer. Most herbs, like basil, actually produce higher oil content and thus are more flavorful if not fertilized too heavily. Always put basil in full sun.
If setting basil plants, put them at least a foot apart in the garden. Seedlings should be thinned to a foot apart when they are a few inches tall. While they are young and growing rapidly, you may need to water the plants if dry weather hits; otherwise, basil handles hot, dry weather handily.
I plant basil between my tomatoes, the thought being that since they go together so well in the kitchen, they ought to live together outside. Also, the two go in the ground at about the same time. Make sure the tomatoes stay confined by a cage or stake, though, or they will overwhelm the basil plants by mid-summer. Because basil attracts bees necessary for pollination, it is a good companion plant for cucumbers, squash, melons and other crops that depend on insects for producing fruits.
If you want to grow basil in pots, choose varieties that remain compact, like Spicy Globe or Queen of Sheba.
To use basil fresh, simply pluck the leaves as the plant grows, trying to take no more than a third of the plant at any time. To harvest for dried basil, clip off about half of the plant just before it starts to flower and hang the stems with leaves attached in a warm, dry place. The herb will dry in a week or less. It also can be frozen for later use.
To keep basil growing, pinch the flowers off as they start to develop. But many basils, with their white or pinkish flowers, are ornamental, and you may want to let some flower and keep a few pinched back for use in the kitchen all summer.
Since this is not a cooking column, I won’t go into the many uses of basil in the kitchen. Suffice it to say that it is a staple for most Italian dishes and marries well with tomatoes. It also blends well in salads, adding flavor without overpowering other greens. While some herbs used fresh will overwhelm dishes, you almost can’t use too much fresh basil.
When the chill of fall starts to arrive, expect basil to give up the ghost. But you can keep it around longer if you put it in pots on the south side of the house, where it can capture some extra warmth. Or you can even grow basil in pots in the house if you have sunny windows. Another month or so of basil is worth the effort.
Lots of Basils
Because of the popularity of basils with gardeners and chefs alike, plant breeders have developed dozens of varieties. Almost all can be used in the kitchen, though a few, such as “holy” basil, are used primarily for ornamental gardens. Below are some of the popular types of basils; each type contains several varieties.
Sweet basil The most popular basil and most used in the kitchen. Some sweet basils have very large leaves, such as the varieties Napoletano and Mammoth Sweet.
Fine-leaf or Italian basil Many cooks prefer the smaller leaves and more delicate flavors of varieties such as Aroma and Profumo.
Lemon basil Several varieties flavor dishes with hints of lemon or lime, including Sweet Dani. The lemon basils tend to be smaller than other types.
Thai basil Unlike the milder sweet and fine-leaf basils, Thai basils have a strong, spicy taste that commonly is used in Asian cuisine. Siam Queen would be the easiest Thai basil to find on the seed rack or as plants.
Purple basil Used in cooking, as garnish and in vinegars, the purple-leaved basils are gaining in popularity. Purple Ruffles is the best-known variety. Grow them in full sun for the best purple color. They may be a bit more difficult to grow than other basils.