If you enjoy fresh basil leaves torn up and sprinkled over a tomato dish or maybe nestled inside a mozzarella and salami sandwich or pesto sauce with your pasta (am I making your mouth water?), you’ll wonder why you haven’t thought of growing your own basil before!
However, if you’ve only used dried basil up to now, why not try some fresh leaves from the grocery store? You’ll be amazed at the difference fresh basil makes to your dishes. My guess is you’ll be converted!
First a Little History
The word basil is derived from an ancient Greek word for royalty, and it’s considered to be a “magnificent” herb, often referred to as the “King of Herbs.”
Native to tropical regions such as central Africa and Southeast Asia, it has been grown for over 4000 years in various civilizations including ancient Egypt and Greece, where it was believed to possess various healing and almost magical properties.
Today, basil is used all over the world in various cuisines for its sweet and pungent flavor. The leaves are often added towards the end of the cooking process because their flavor is quickly destroyed by excessive cooking. They add an incredible punch of flavor to Italian favorites such as pesto and tomato sauce. And basil is also often used in Asian cuisine to season soups, vegetables and meat dishes.
Types Of Basil
You might want to try growing a few different types of basil and experiment to see which ones you prefer. The varieties are numerous, so here are a few of the more popular varieties:
- Christmas Basil has a fruity flavor that can be used in salads and drinks.
- Cinnamon Basil is excellent for baked treats such as cookies.
- Dark Opal Basil and Purple Ruffles Basil add a pop of color to dish garnishes and floral arrangements and can also be used to spice up a salad.
- Holy Basil is a variety that is seen as sacred in the Hindu religion and can be used in teas as an immune system boost.
- Lemon Basil and Lime Basil have a zesty, citrus flavor that is perfect for marinating fish and chicken dishes. They can also be a delightful addition to iced teas and margaritas.
- Sweet Basil (also called Genovese basil) is a popular choice for Italian cuisine and is the variety most often found in grocery stores.
- Sweet Thai Basil has a spicier flavor, similar to anise and cloves and is perfect for curries, soups, noodles and stir-fry dishes.
How To Grow Basil
You can start basil from seeds or buy young plants from a garden center. Like most herbs, basil plants can be grown indoors or outdoors. If grown outside, basil is best grown in raised beds or in containers that allow for good drainage.
Since basil is native to tropical regions, it tends to be sensitive to cold. If you live in a non-tropical region, basil is best planted outdoors in late spring or early summer months. However it can be very successfully grown indoors also.
Basil needs a minimum of six hours of sunshine a day, so it’s important to place your plants in a sunny location. For that reason, if growing basil indoors, it will do best on a sunny windowsill. Just make sure the plant is kept away from cold drafts and dry air vents.
Alternatively, when growing basil indoors, if you don’t have a suitable sunny location, the herb can be grown under grow lights with 12 hours of light exposure a day. The light should be positioned 2 to 4 inches from the plant for optimal results. Grow lights are inexpensive to buy and don’t use much electricity.
If you want to get a bit fancy, indoor garden kits are another inexpensive way to grow herbs indoors. Most kits have grow lights attached and some have on/off timers, so you don’t have to fuss with separate pots and lights. Basil is well suited to grow in an indoor garden kit.
Soil And Watering
Basil grows best in moist and nutrient-rich soil that is well-drained and has a neutral pH. To keep your basil “clean,” we recommend you use a good organic soil that is free of chemicals and pesticides
It’s important to water regularly so the soil remains damp but not water-logged. However, try to not get water on the leaves, as this will help keep the plant free from disease.
Adding too much compost to the soil can cause a loss of flavor, so compost should only be added at the beginning of the growing season with no further additions.
As for maintenance, this will depend on your soil. If your soil is rich enough you may not need fertilizer at all. If you feel your plants need some nutrition you can fertilize every two weeks once the plants are mature.
Do not overdo it though, as too much fertilizer will compromise the quality of the distinct basil flavor and aroma; bigger is not better in this case. Light fertilization with a balanced fertilizer such as half-strength 14-14-14 or 10-10-10 is adequate if needed. Alternatively, organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion or liquid seaweed, can also be used.
For full and bushy growth, pinch back the leaves at the tips of the basil immediately after the plant has grown two sets of true leaves. The more often it is pruned, the leafier it becomes.
Pests And Diseases
Basil is a natural insect repellent and is usually safe from pests such as hornworms, mosquitoes and flies. However, it is still susceptible to certain pests such as Japanese beetles, aphids and slugs.
Ladybugs, parasitic wasps and companion plants such as nasturtiums can be used to control aphids, whereas Japanese Beetles will require a more hands-on approach: they can either be hand-picked or dropped into a soapy water solution to help control them. Slugs can mostly be avoided if you don’t use mulch on your plants, since the slugs use it to climb up to the tasty leaves.
Additionally, fungal diseases like fusarium wilt, black spot and grey mold are known to affect basil. By rotating the plant location, having good soil drainage, keeping the leaves water-free and avoiding overcrowding of plants these diseases can largely be prevented.
You can start harvesting basil leaves when the plant is about six to eight inches tall. The best time of day to harvest is in the early morning which will give you the most lush and juicy leaves. If possible, pick the leaves regularly which will encourage the plant to keep growing throughout the summer. Once the plant has flowered, however, the leaves may be slightly bitter. And, yes, the flowers are edible!
You can freeze any leaves that are not used immediately. One method is to first wash the leaves and pat dry, then finely chop them and add a little olive oil. The oil will prevent the leaves from going black. Put the mixture in an ice cube tray and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to a freezer bag for later use.
Basil is a delicious low-maintenance herb that can be easily grown at home given the right conditions. By growing your own basil, you’ll save money, have an endless supply throughout the summer (and winter from your freezer) and you’ll raise your home-cooked dishes to haute cuisine level. Your family will love you for it!
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