It’ll be May before you see these basil seedlings at garden centers but you can start your own at home during the next month and grow them on warm windowsills or plant them in the garden when the soil is reliably warm. Cold soil is their downfall.
There are about 15 varieties of basil, from African blue to Thai, but most of us rely on Genovese (also called sweet basil) for our main crop. Thai sweet has smaller leaves and retains its flavor when cooking at higher temperatures. ANDREW MESSINGER
This gallon pot of sweet basil was my backup plant in 2020. I found it at a hardware store for $5 in May and harvested it until frost. The plants in the garden got covered by an indeterminate tomato. Wished I’d had more in pots. This summer: more salsa, more pesto, much more basil. ANDREW MESSINGER
You may say bayzil and I may say baa-zil, but I hope that we both agree on one thing: Juicy, sun-warmed tomato chunks mixed with olive oil, freshly picked basil and garlic spooned over hot pasta is truly a feast sublime. What’s pesto without fresh basil?
It wasn’t that long ago that growing your own basil or getting basil plants purchased at the garden center to survive in the garden was a very iffy proposition. It turned out that a large percentage of the seed and plants being sold was doomed to fail because of the presence of a seed transmitted disease. At one point we all thought that this was an herb only to be grown by the horticulturally gifted. But once the seed suppliers and breeders became aware that the problem was on their end they were able to develop new seed stocks, and basil has been booming ever since.
Besides having extraordinary taste, basil is incredibly easy to grow unless you plant it out too early. Not only does it add grace to the herb garden or tomato planting, but the numerous shapes, sizes and textures make excellent additions to a garden border, shrub boarder or container garden. Tuck basil plants into unused garden corners, display them among vegetables, edge a flower garden or plant them as an aromatic ground cover along a path where they gently release a pungent, anise aroma when brushed against. Basil even grows fairly well indoors on a windowsill or under lights.
Smaller basil cultivars make superb edging for the perennial border or vegetable garden, or as a handsome foliage contrast in containers of flowers. Plant large maroon-leafed basil between ruby lettuce and leeks for a splash of bright color. Cinnamon basil and orange-scented geraniums in a sunny container radiate the scent of warm orange-cinnamon rolls. Use basil as a foil for bright annuals or summer-flowering bulbs in pots or baskets. The seed racks, catalogs and garden centers are full of amazing varieties. There are sweet, scented, Italian, Thai and Greek basils, each with a different leaf shape and flavor.
Most edible basils are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum. The smooth-leaved types that grow 2 to 3 feet tall are the best known for culinary use. We start the seeds for these types indoors in early March and do successional sowings through late June, so there’s still time to start some. Plus, local garden centers have everything from cell packs up to large pots of basil just waiting for your garden. There are also highly perfumed crinkly-leaved and ruffly-leaved varieties, all of which make superb pesto and double as a smashing focal point in the landscape.
Opal basil’s deep red to purple leaves display a striking color contrast to green-, gray- and blue-leaved plants in the perennial border. Culinarily, opal basil makes beautiful soft pink sorbets and vinegars. Although the flavor is superb, be cautious about using opal basil in delicate-colored foods such as chicken or white cream soups as the basil’s color may lend a dark purple or gray color to food — not very appetizing by most standards.
In contrast to the large types, the tiny-leaved basils produce small, 6-inch mounds and are unmatched as edging plants. These small globe basils have a delicate flavor that is best used fresh.
For an entirely different taste, try a scented basil such as cinnamon, anise or lemon. Holy basil, a different species than culinary basil, is a sacred herb in the Hindu religion. Like many of the other scented basils, its fuzzy leaves are used for tea.
Thai basils, fairly new to the American market, have deep maroon-tinged leaves on purple stems and whorls of intense purple flowers. Although the concentrated anise flavor may overpower all but the strongest foods, this is one of the most beautiful for use in the landscape.
As for culture, basil asks for nothing more in the garden than full sun, well-drained soil and warmth. Too often gardeners will plant it too early and it just languishes in the cold soil and never seems to revive. It doesn’t need much if any fertilizer, and it will die at the first hint of frost. Disease and insects shouldn’t be a problem, but keep a careful eye out for spider mites on the underside of the foliage. These mites will multiply very quickly when it becomes hot and dry in July and August, but twice weekly sprays of strong but fine water on the undersides of the leaves will control the mites very well.
Basil is harvested just as the flower buds begin to form, when the leaves contain the most concentrated oils and provide the best flavor and fragrance. Once the plant begins to expend energy on flowering and seed production, the flavor rapidly deteriorates. Cut or pinch sprigs just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than a quarter of the plant at each picking. Each cut you make like this should result in two stems returning. Seed-started plants that are sown in early March can have their first trimming indoors in mid-May and again outdoors two to three weeks later.
Simple air drying produces tasty basil for use all winter. Rinse the leaves in cool water and gently shake off extra moisture. When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle. Place the bundle in a paper bag, gathering the top of the bag around the stems and tying again. Label and hang the bag in a dry place (out of sunlight) where the temperature doesn’t get above 80 degrees. After two to four weeks the herbs should be dry and crumbly.
To oven-dry, place the leaves on a cookie sheet and put into a 180-degree oven for three to four hours, leaving the door ajar. In the microwave, heat the herbs on a paper towel or paper plate for 15-to-30-second intervals for a total of one to three minutes. Turn or mix as needed until dried.
Once basil is dried, store it in an air-tight container in a cool, dark cupboard. Keep the leaves whole if possible to preserve the oil, and crush or grind only when you use them.
The best way to preserve the just-picked flavor is to freeze basil in water or olive oil. Put a handful of washed leaves in a food processor or blender with enough water or oil to make a slurry. When processed, pour into ice cube trays, make sure each cube has enough water to cover the chopped leaves, and freeze. Once frozen, turn out the cubes and store in a well-labeled freezer container.
Basil vinegar is a staple in many kitchens for salads, sautéing and marinades. Simply fill a jar with washed leaves and pour cold cider vinegar over them. (Use white vinegar to take advantage of the pink color of opal basil.) Tighten the lid and set in a warm pantry or on a sunny windowsill for three to four weeks. Then strain the vinegar into decorative bottles and add a sprig or two of fresh basil for decoration.
Always have a backup plan as well as a backup plant. Even if you grow your basil from seed, buy a plant at a garden center just in case. If you only buy basil starts at the garden center then buy a packet of seed and plant in the garden, again, as a backup. A summer without basil is like a summer without sun.
Come winter you can grow basil indoors in a sunny spot that gets at least four hours of sun each day or under artificial lighting. Use a porous potting soil and keep it relatively moist — not wet. The plants will not get very large or sturdy, but if you clip regularly and sow seeds every two to four weeks you’ll have fresh basil from October till you pick it in the garden again next June. Your soups, pasta, salsa and pesto will appreciate it. And by all means, keep growing.
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