Basil 101

As soon as the soil warms in late May I’m out planting basil and plenty of it because I use a lot of fresh basil during the summer in both recipes and cut-flower arrangements. I love the rich, spicy flavor with just a trace of mint and clove.

Like its cousin mint, basil is easy to grow. It will thrive in garden beds, containers or even on a south-facing windowsill indoor.

There are plenty of choices of scents and flavors when choosing which kind of basil you want to grow in your garden. Some examples are lemon, anise, cinnamon, Purple Ruffles, Dark Opal, Thai, Italian Genovese and several smaller varieties including Spicy globe, Dwarf Creek and Boxwood. Each variety offers something a little different: foliage color, aroma, size or flavor. Basil also makes excellent container plants and is easy to tuck into your flower borders. The green or purple foliage can offset flower colors and the fragrance will be welcome. Plant the dwarf varieties about 6-8 inches apart and large varieties about 12-18 inches apart in the garden. Plant several in a large container and keep it right by the kitchen door.

Basil Planting Tips

  • Basil likes the heat and will sulk in cool weather. Wait to plant until you have daytime temperatures above 70 degrees and night time temperatures above 50 degrees. Even light frosts can cause the leaves to blacken. In the fall use row covers to extend the life of basil or do a complete harvest before it gets chilly.
  • Basil requires 6-8 hours of full sun per day.
  • Plant basil in rich soil with plenty of organic matter to hold moisture and improve drainage.
  • Make successive plantings every two to three weeks at the beginning of the growing season. This will provide an endless supply of fresh basil until the first autumn frost.

Basil Care Tips

  • Mother Nature usually provides enough water for basil but water deeply weekly during dry spells. Plants grown in containers dry out faster so they will need to be watered more frequently.
  • Mulching will help retain moisture but make sure the soil is warm before applying mulch.
  • Top dress the soil around your basil with compost once or twice during the growing season or use an organic liquid fertilizer at half strength.
  • Rotate basil to a new growing spot each year to prevent fungal diseases.

Harvesting Basil

  • You can begin harvesting basil at any time by snipping fresh leaves as needed.
  • Harvest whole stems by cutting just above a pair of leaves. This will produce two stems in its place.
  • Harvest often to keep the plant full and productive.
  • Pinch back flowers to keep the plant from going to seed. This will also prevent your plant from becoming woody and lose flavor.

Basil Use and Preservation

  • Basil is best fresh, but you can preserve the leaves through drying or freezing in ice cubes.
  • Basil blends well with garlic, thyme and lemon and adds a snap to mild vegetables like zucchini, summer squash and eggplant.
  • Use basil in salads along with romaine, mint, onions and cucumbers.
  • Try adding shredded Thai basil to a stir fry right before serving.
  • For a quick side dish sprinkle sliced tomatoes with salt, drizzle them with olive oil, slip a few basil leaves between the slices and chill for one hour.
  • Basil goes well with green beans, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes and spinach.
  • For something sweet make a dessert syrup using 1/2 cup sugar, 1/3 cup lime juice and 1/4 cup water and bring to boil. Place in a blender with 3/4 cup of basil; puree, strain and pour over fruit salads or add to cocktails.
  • The best ways to store basil are in oil, vinegar or as a frozen paste.
  • Basil can also be dried and stored in a tightly closed container. Good drying combos include basil, thyme and Italian flat-leafed parsley, or basil, oregano and thyme. The flavor of dried basil is very mild so be sure to adjust your recipes accordingly.