There is no doubt that growing herbs and edibles is the fastest growing segment of home gardening today. There is even less doubt what the most popular herb is amongst the hundreds available… Basil. A member of the mint family, Basil is a tasty and easily used herb that fits nicely into our desire for a healthful diet. Basil is low in calories and a good source of fiber, vitamin A, potassium and antioxidants as well as a lesser amount of Vitamin C.
There are a wide (and sometimes confusing) array of different types of Basil with differing growth habits and flavors. Beside the common Sweet Basil, there are dwarf varieties with tiny leaves, Purple, Lemon, Thai, Cinnamon and countless others to choose from. The spicy scent of Basil comes from essential oils found in plant leaves and stems.
The long history of Basil is somewhat questionable but most are thought to originate from Asia and Africa and were planted in early medieval gardens. Over time, Basil has been used for medicinal purposes with affects ranging from euphoric cheerfulness to a remedy for scorpion stings. Basil was thought to have grown on the site of Christ’s crucifixion thus the association with St. Basil. Basil has also been used in love spells, as a good luck charm and in exorcisms. Basil has also played a prominent role in historical art and literature where its fragrance and symbolism has provided inspiration for various artists for generations.
Being tropical plants, Basils are intolerant of cold conditions and do not do well when planted too early in our climate. Warm soils are needed for seeds to germinate, for plant roots to develop and cold, windy conditions in spring often kill otherwise healthy plants. While planting seeds directly into the soil can provide good results, our short growing season means starting with grown plants is a much more popular option.
Some Basil varieties do not produce seeds and are easily propagated by cuttings. A 4” stem is cut from the plant, dipped into rooting hormone and stuck into clean potting soil. A plastic tent will hold necessary humidity and also build temperatures of 80 degrees to help stimulate root development within 2 weeks.
If you choose to start your Basil seed indoors, resist the temptation to begin too early… April 1st is perfect for early plantings. I stagger my plantings to have Basil ready for harvest throughout the season. Use a good seed starting soil in cleaned pots or trays. Tent the planted trays with a plastic sheet to build interior temperatures to 80 degrees. Expect 1-2 weeks for germination. Once they have grown 4 true leaves, transplant baby plants into individual pots that can then be planted outdoors once the threat of frost has passed. If you have the room, plant 2 seeds directly into individual pots and eliminate the need for transplanting later on. Basil loves warm soils so, depending on your indoor conditions, a heat mat may be helpful to build the desired temperatures for growth. I often broadcast seed directly in my garden in June but usually am not harvesting until mid-August. I also have had my seed washed out by heavy rains but usually I have good results. Whether starting plants or when growing seeds indoors, provide as much sunlight as possible to prevent stretched, leggy growth. Supplemental lighting may be needed to grow Basil in our cloudy climate. During our short winter days, florescent lighting placed 4-6” over plants for 16-20 hours per day will dramatically help promote healthy growth.
As your Basil develops it will want to begin to dry out between waterings… similar to most other herb-like plants. Young plants can be fertilized with a ½ strength solution of water soluble plant food every 1-3 weeks depending on available light. The more light, the more nutrients the plants will require. If using organic fertilizers, be sure to used balanced feeds that offer nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. (The 3 numbers found on any container of fertilizer). Fish emulsion, for example, does not offer a complete, balanced feeding.
When planting Basil out in the garden, providing space between plants is important to allow plants to fully develop. Due to the dramatic variances in Basil varieties, spacing may be as little as 6” to nearly 2’. Basil does very well in pots but I do suggest utilizing pots big enough to hold adequate moisture during hot weather. Growing in pots smaller than 10” in diameter may dry out more often than can be easily maintained. Not all potting soils are created equal so be sure to choose a professional, soil-less potting mix.
Good sunlight is critical for healthy growth so a minimum of 4 hours of strong sun (between 10 and 3) is needed and 6 hours per day is preferred. Poorly aerated garden soil is the most common reason for Basil failure. Condition garden soils with compost and choose well-drained garden areas for Basil. Raised garden beds are ideal and make gardening tasks much easier on the back.
I use Bumper Crop compost in the planting hole when I am planting Basil along with Garden-Tone organic fertilizer as a side dressing. I will add more Garden-Tone every 4 weeks as the season continues. Ideally a drip irrigation system would help keep the irrigation water off the leaves but I water with an overhead sprinkler at home.
My success with Basil is largely dependent on Mother Nature. Hot, dry summers are more successful than cold wet seasons but my raised beds help tremendously draining away excess moisture.
All this Basil information is great but the real essence of Basil is found at our dining table where this spicy herb becomes a mainstay of our summer cuisine. My summer harvest is mostly transformed into pesto and bagged into individual portions for use through the year. I bet you all have favorite Basil recipes and I would like to hear from you. I am gathering a collection of basil recipes to share with others, so if you have a favorite, send it to me! The first 25 recipes we select will get a $25 gift certificate to Lowe’s Greenhouse. This summer, at our Basil Festival June 24-26, we will share the collection of culinary delights and provide cooking demonstrations, tastings and tons of fun.
I look forward to your submissions at [email protected] and to Caprese Salad, Lemon Basil and Shrimp Pasta and perhaps a Basil Gimlet.