Whenever I’m uncertain about what to prepare for dinner, I head for my garden basil supply. Before long, one of them asserts itself and I know just what to cook. Sometimes, the licorice and fennel scents of ‘Siam Queen’ stand out, inspiring me to harvest its leaves for a fresh vegetable stir-fry. Other times, the spicy notes of ‘Cinnamon’ basil put me in the mood for cinnamon basil scones. Or ‘Genovese’ basil’s mint, clove and thyme aromas might call to me, turning my thoughts to an extraordinary chicken, spinach and basil quiche.
With more than 50 varieties available in a range of colors, flavors, textures and forms, basil (Ocimum basilicum) offers rich possibilities for adventurous gardeners and cooks. Imagine the striking contrast you can create in your garden or on a dinner plate by pairing the purple-bronze leaves of ‘Red Rubin’ basil with sunny ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds, for instance, or by mixing purple-streaked ‘African Blue’ basil with the green leaves and purple flowers of ‘Siam Queen’ basil.
Finding room to grow a bunch of basils won’t be difficult either. A member of the mint family, this exuberant annual will thrive in the kitchen garden, ornamental border, herb bed, pots and planters. Here’s all you need to know to begin your exploration of the bountiful world of basil.
• Basil Varieties: 10 Basils You'll Love
• Lemon Basil Pesto Sauce
• Basil Pesto Pizza
Grow Your Own Basil
In the garden, this classic summertime herb responds to sunlight and warmth. For a bountiful crop with full-flavored leaves, choose a site that receives at least six hours of direct sun each day.
Unlike many culinary herbs, basil needs fairly rich soil. Before you plant, work a generous amount of compost or well-aged manure into the soil. This not only will provide nutrients for the plants, but also will improve drainage in clay soil and increase moisture retention in sandy soil.
Sow basil seeds directly in the ground, or set out transplants, only when nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees. Basil seedlings are very sensitive to frost. Plant the tiny seeds just beneath the surface, or scatter them on the soil, then cover with a thin layer (1/8 to 1/4 inch) of compost or vermiculite. Be sure to keep the soil evenly moist, because the seedlings can take up to 30 days to germinate.
Basil seeds also can be started indoors about four to six weeks before you intend to plant the seedlings in the garden. Basil is easy to transplant at most any size, but 2- to 6-inch tall seedlings work best. The exception is ‘Lemon’ basil, which should be directly seeded where it will grow, as it does not adjust well when transplanted.
Thin or transplant the seedlings to stand 6 to 12 inches apart in the garden, depending on the variety. Compact varieties even can be spaced a bit tighter to form a miniature hedge.
For those big, lush leaves we all love, see that your basil receives plenty of moisture—about the same amount needed for spinach or lettuce. Ideally, the soil will be consistently moist; basil plants can suffer if the soil remains dry for extended periods. To help keep soil evenly moist, mulch plants as soon as summer warmth settles in.
For a bountiful harvest right up until frost, give your basil a midsummer boost by side-dressing the plants with compost or a nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer.
You’ll harvest more basil from a lush, bushy plant than you will from a tall, lanky one. To help your basil attain its more productive form, pinch off the top cluster of leaves when the plant reaches 6 inches tall. Always pinch above a leaf node (the joint in the stem where the leaves grow). That way, new branches will form and grow where the nodes remain.
When the plant has several branches and is 12 to 18 inches tall, cut it back by two-thirds. (You can use that first big harvest to make several batches of pesto or other basil delights.) The remaining plant will re-grow and be ready to harvest in another two to four weeks, allowing you to harvest continually throughout the summer … and the more you harvest, the bushier and more productive your plant will become.
Basil tastes best before it blooms; after the plant flowers, its essential oils (and flavor) diminish. If your plant gets ahead of your harvest and it flowers anyway, don’t despair. You still can use the leaves in cooking until the flowers form seed. Simply strip off the flowers and toss them into salads or sandwiches. And the entire plant—leaves, stems and flowers—also can be used to make tasty basil vinegar.
The flavor of basil is always best fresh. To keep basil fresh-tasting and close at hand after harvest, put it in a glass of water on your kitchen counter—just as you would a floral bouquet. (Don’t refrigerate basil; it will darken and last only a few days at best.) Submerge the lower stems in water to just below the bottommost leaves. By changing the water daily, your basil bouquet will maintain its fresh flavor for up to 10 days.
For longer-term storage, chop or tear the leaves, then cover them with olive oil and keep in a refrigerator for up to several months.
You also can freeze chopped basil either as a homemade pesto or in ice cube trays filled with water or stock. After the cubes have frozen solid, pop them out of the tray and store them in plastic freezer bags. Remove one or more cubes as needed to flavor soups and stews, or to bring a touch of summertime flavor to winter stir-fries and sautés.
Did You Know?
When you rustle your hands over a basil patch, the enticing aroma awakens your senses and appetite. That's because basil is rich in volatile oils, which give it fragrance and flavor. Each variety has a different chemical composition that provides its unique flavor. Mediterranean types like 'Sweet', 'Italian' and 'Genovese' usually have high concentrations of methyl chavicol, resulting in a sweeter flavor. Others contain more methyl cinnamate (cinnamon), citral (lemon), camphor, thymol (thyme) or eugenol (clove). So depending on the variety, you can taste the basil's basic flavor heightened by subtle accents of lemon, lime, clove, cinnamon, licorice or even mint.
A frequent contributor to The Herb Companion, Kris Wetherbee gardens, cooks and writes in the hills of western Oregon.