Bravos And Blessings from Basil’s Biggest Fans

Our contributing gardeners and cooks give the Herb of the Year a big hand.

| June/July 2003

Brush your fingers over a basil leaf and your hand doesn’t even have to come near your nose for the scent to be captured and the aroma transmitted to your brain. When you picture basil, if you envision the dried green flakes in your spice rack or even the smooth, well-formed leaves of common basil, you’re missing out. Within the basil species exist many more varieties in leaf color, shape and, most importantly, that terrific scent and flavor.

Basil in the Garden

If you live in an area that receives frost and cold temperatures during the year, you probably don’t have the ideal conditions for growing basil as a hardy year-round herb. A warm-weather native that thrives in heat, basil grows as a tender perennial in its native habitats of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America. However, in the United States, basils should be treated as tender annuals—they are easily damaged by frost.

Megan Hall, manager of Sycamore Farms Nursery in Paso Robles, California, says, “Basil is tropical. It likes lots of light, heat and moisture. In a hot, dry climate, basil leaves get tougher, but have more intense flavor. Greenhouse-grown basil, because of the filtered sun, will have softer leaves with a generally less-pungent flavor. Very young basil can be eaten with stems and all; older basil’s stems are quite woody.”

Growing Basil from Seed

Start seeds inside, allowing seedlings to dry out slightly between waterings. Set starts out in the garden when nighttime temperatures are generally above 50 degrees and daytime temperatures are above 70 degrees. You may also start seeds outside when the danger of frost has passed. Choose an area that receives full sun, is well drained and is protected from threat of cold. Pinch back leaves to stimulate side-shooting for a bushier plant. In addition, pinch off flower buds to continually encourage leaf growth.

Potted Basil

Start potted basils from seed or nursery plants rather than from garden plants, which may be buggy and chewed over. Select a pot for your basil that seems too large for the plant, as the plant will likely grow into it. Ensure good drainage to prevent root rot, and make sure your potted basil receives plenty of light, preferably in a south-facing window where it’s sure to soak up direct sunlight. Pale leaves and weak stems are an indication the plant needs more light. During the winter months when daylight hours and sun strength are limited, your indoor basil may show signs of difficulty. Growth will slow, and to compensate you must restrict watering to avoid root rot. This isn’t to say you should refrain from watering completely—simply keep the roots moist but not wet.

Basil Companions

Couple your favorite basil with plants that can appreciate similar conditions and also complement the plant with variety in color, leaf shape and stature. Combine a couple of different basils such as purple ruffles and a dwarf spicy globe with other sun-loving herbs, or show off the splendor of several of your favorites in their own basil patch.

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