By Barbara Pleasant
It’s hard to imagine a summer day that cannot be made better by basil. From a momentary sniff of its fragrant foliage to a slice of tomato-basil pizza, fresh basil is well worth the small trouble needed to grow it. Plus, growing your own guarantees that you will never be without basil, and any extra can be puréed into a pesto base that will store in the freezer for months.
Basil loves warm weather, and new plants can be started from seed or set out as purchased seedlings anytime during summer’s first half. A fast-growing annual with zero tolerance of frost, basil comes in a range of varieties with different leaf colors, textures and flavors, and plant size varies with variety too. Green-leafed Genovese or “sweet” basils look like the fresh basil you buy, and the plants are easy to grow and very productive. Red-leafed basils are also fun to grow, but then every basil variety has some special characteristic that sets it apart. If you only have room for containers, dwarf Spicy Globe basil will grow into an upright plant with a lollipop top of bushy basil stems.
You don’t have to choose just one basil to grow. In pots or beds, combinations of different basil varieties always flatter one another; and as with all things in gardening, diversification works to the good. If one variety is unhappy, chances are another will do a little better.
Ready to have a big basil summer, and store up a supply to enjoy during the winter? To make sure you get the most from your basil-growing adventure, here are ten things to keep in mind along the way.
1. Savor the aroma. Basil’s botanical name, Ocimum basilicum, translates as “kingly or royal smell,” or the herb having aromatic properties suitable for royalty. Whenever it comes to mind, pinch a leaf, roll it into a ball between your hands, and inhale. In addition to a moment of pleasure, basil aromatherapy can steady frazzled nerves and promote clearer thinking. If your nose has been stuffy, it can help that too.
2. Harvest in the evening. This is not a hard-and-fast rule—you can help yourself to your homegrown basil whenever you like; but when you need to cut today and cook tomorrow, it’s best to harvest basil in the evening. Research from Michigan State University found that basil cut after six in the evening will keep its quality twice as long as stems cut at six in the morning.
3. Stretch the season by harvesting often. Basil plants become bushier each time they are cut back, and most plants benefit from pinching once a week, starting when they are 8 inches tall. When closely managed, a healthy sweet basil plant can produce more than 15 cups of leaves in the course of a summer. But if you wait too long between harvests, basil plants will switch to flowering mode and you will be pinching off more flower buds than leaves. Blooming basil stems are edible, but they lack the summer-sun flavor of basil leaves.
4. Short-term storage. If you have only one or two plants, it may take a few days to accumulate enough basil to make your favorite dish, or process a batch of pesto. Stem cuttings will keep for several days in a jar of water stored in a cool, shady place indoors, but they will stay in good condition more than a week when stored at temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees. A cooler, kept chilled by a couple of frozen plastic water bottles that are switched out daily, makes a good holding chamber for bunches of basil.
5. Be gentle. Basil bruises easily, so postpone washing the leaves until just before you begin working with them. After a thorough rinse in cool water, pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.
6. Make basil vinegar. Early in the basil season, make basil vinegar to use in salads and other cooking. This is a great use for red basil, which makes a beautiful pink vinegar. Fill a clean pint jar halfway with loosely packed clean, dry basil leaves, then fill with a clear vinegar and screw on the top. Keep in a cool, dark place for a month. Strain the vinegar into a clean container, and add a fresh sprig of basil.
7. Root some cuttings. Most varieties of basil can be propagated by rooting stem cuttings in water—a great way to have fresh young plants when older ones insist on flowering. A glass jar will suffice as a rooting container, but a dark-colored vase that shields the roots from light will help the stems root faster.
8. Provide pretty partners. Sooner or later your basil will insist on growing only new flower spikes and few new leaves. It’s time to put them to work as edible ornamentals. Potted basils can be sunk in the garden, buried up to their rims, for instant special effects. Red-leafed and burgundy-blushed Thai basils look great with gray-green sage or dusty miller, or you can use them to echo pink from petunias or impatiens. Marigolds or yellow plume celosias make great neighbors for green basil in bloom.
9. Make pesto. The best way to preserve a bumper crop of basil is to purée it into a pesto base, stored in the freezer. A pesto base made of only basil, oil, salt and an acidic liquid (lemon juice or vinegar) gives you plenty of versatility as a cook; though I do suggest making two different batches—one made with olive oil for traditional European dishes, and one with sesame oil for times when Asian flavors are on the menu. Here are two simple recipes.
10. Let the plants stand through winter. Though they may look like the dead sticks that they are, basil stems retain a bit of fragrance as long as they are left intact. On some late winter day when you need a lift, pull one up, break it into pieces, and breathe. One last time, your basil will make you feel happy.
Barbara Pleasant is not just an expert, she’s passionate about everything garden. She’s the author of four books, including Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens and is a contributing editor to Mother Earth News and the Herb Companion magazines. Her work has garnered her multiple awards.