Round Robin: Growing Basil from Seed and More

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

| June/July 1998

Basil Revolution

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia—Several years ago, a friend casually mentioned that she was growing ten kinds of basil. I was appalled—not at her, but at myself because I was growing only one kind and having a tough time at that. Somehow, word of the basil revolution had failed to reach me on this backland farm.

The problem is that basil is a tropical plant that needs uninterrupted warmth at all growth stages. I live in a cold, damp northern climate where summer temperatures don’t reach the high 70s or 80s until late July or August. Some summers, it never warms up. That’s great for perennials that bloom longer in cool weather, but little basil seedlings do nothing. They may even visibly shrink into the ground.

Then I made a discovery so obvious that it had eluded me for more than twenty seasons: grow basil in the ­greenhouse.

We built our lean-to greenhouse our second season here with single-paned, secondhand storm windows and scrap barn boards. It may be leaky—which is good in hot weather—but it serves its purpose well, even providing temporary quarters for day-old chicks in the spring. This is where my early seedlings, started inside under grow lights, harden off. Now, after the chicks depart, it’s where I start basil.

I plant the basil seeds directly into old sap-collecting buckets, tubs, and preserving pots filled with a mixture of compost-enriched potting soil, extra perlite for drainage, and vermiculite for holding moisture. This way, I avoid setback from transplanting. People are surprised when I tell them I don’t sow basil seeds until late June, but when raised in the near-tropical conditions of the greenhouse, basil grows far more quickly than it ever did outside.

Having solved the growing problems, I’m trying hard to catch up with the basil revolution. This year, ‘Cinnamon’ joins my indoor basil garden of ‘Green Ruffles’, ‘Purple Ruffles’, ‘Dark Opal’, ‘Red Rubin’, lettuce-leaf, and the best all-purpose, large-leaved sweet basil, ‘Sweet Genovese’. Outdoors I have the fast-growing ‘Spicy Globe’, a stiff little bush with a nutmeg flavor that’s nice in scrambled eggs. By June 1, I sow this basil, sweet marjoram, and salad burnet in a large truck tire that has been turned inside out so that it has a graceful urn shape. Placed beyond the front porch by the kitchen door, this tire herb garden is convenient when I need salad sprigs.

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