Growing Fresh Basil in the Garden

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Cooking with basil.
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Bevy of beautiful basils, from small-leafed to ruffled- purple varieties, fill a basket to overflowing.
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Basil leaves.

Tips on growing fresh basil in the garden.

Basil Recipes

Basil Cream Sauce Recipe

Fresh basil may well be the signature herb of summer,
perfuming our gardens and flavoring our foods with its
delightful clovelike essence.

Historically, basil has been associated with emotions
ranging from love to hate. Various religious sects have
used it ceremonially to pave the way to both heaven and
hell; according to early 20th-century herbalist Maude
Grieve, “Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a Basil
leaf on his breast. This is his passport to Paradise.”

Cooking With Basil

Not surprisingly, admiration for this delicious and
aromatic herb eventually won out over ancient fears of its
mystical powers; today, few basil lovers ever get enough of
it to eat. Fresh basil leaves are closely associated with
traditional Italian foods, especially pasta and tomatoes,
and basil also has deep roots in the cuisines of Thailand
and India, where the first plants probably originated.

Contemporary basil-crazy cooks find many ways to use it.
Basil pairs well with pasta or tomatoes, but it also works
nicely with a number of other vegetables, from asparagus to
summer squash.

The quirky thing about basil is in the cooking — it
should be added only at the end of the process because when
cooked, it quickly loses its bouquet. This characteristic
may be one reason that pesto — a thick, pureed sauce of
fresh basil leaves, olive oil, garlic and nuts — is the
most popular way to make use of a copious supply. Basil
also can be used raw in marinades, as a wrap or in salads
to delicious effect.

Preserving basil for winter use can be tricky. It blackens
when bruised, cut or frozen, and loses much of its flavor
when dried, so handle it carefully. In summer, many
gardeners freeze small containers of prepared pesto for
wintertime treats. Other great ways to save a little basil
magic are to make and freeze basil cream sauce (see our
low-fat version of Basil Cream Sauce Recipe in this issue), or to freeze individual leaves.
Just rinse and gently pat the leaves dry, lay them out on a
cookie sheet and pop them in the freezer. After an hour or
so, when they are frozen crisp, quickly transfer them to a
labeled storage container and place it in the freezer.
Basil vinegar and basil-infused oil are tasty options for
hoarding the herb’s flavor, too.

Choosing Basil Varieties

Choosing varieties and growing fresh basil in the garden. The best culinary basils are called sweet basils,
classified botanically as Ocimum basilicum. My personal
favorites are the small-leafed globe basils “Spicy Bush” or “Minette,” which fit into tight spaces and are very slow to
flower. For flavor, it’s hard to go wrong with any variety
described as a “Genovese type.” I love small-leafed “Piccolo” or “Fino Verde,” too, but I know better than to
get stuck on a favorite. Plenty of good ones, including
subspecies that carry scents of cinnamon, lemon and even
anise or camphor, are available. All of these are fun to
grow, though I have settled upon lemon basils as the only
scented strains for my garden. A few plants of a
dark-leafed red or opal basil, such as ‘Red Rubin,’ add
lovely color to the garden, too.

What’s That Smell?

The rich aroma of basil will envelope your garden on a warm
summer day. Chemically, basil’s floral scent is due in part
to the presence of linalool, which some insects find
repellent. In India and Africa, people sometimes rub
handfuls of basil on their skin to repel insects. This may
or may not work to repel North American mosquitoes, but why
not try it? Being bathed in basil’s beautiful scent would
make any work session in the garden more enjoyable.

A warm-weather annual, basil can be grown only in summer in
most of North America. Seeds are easy to start indoors a
few weeks before your last frost (or simply buy seedlings
when you are ready to plant in late spring).

Basil germinates best at about 70 degrees. If you have a
long growing season, sow a second crop in early summer,
because the plants you start in spring will deteriorate
before the season ends. In my Zone 7 garden, I plant basil
a third time in early August to make sure I have plants to
carry me through the fall. Once summer heats up,
direct-sowing the shiny black seeds where you want them to
grow works well. Outdoors, expect a germination rate of
about 60 percent. Plants are bushy, so space seedlings at
least a foot apart.

Whether grown in beds or containers, basil requires warm,
well-drained soil. In cool climates, the plants must have
full sun; where summers are long and hot, partial afternoon
shade is welcome. To support basil’s fast growth, fertilize
your plants every few weeks beginning in early summer with
a liquid plant food such as a seaweed/fish emulsion
product.

It also is crucial to pinch plants back regularly after
they’ve grown at least 6 to 8 inches tall. This helps
induce branching. It’s an aromatic and joyous job because
each time you pinch, you release fragrance and harvest
sprigs for your kitchen. As summer wears on, continue
pinching stem tips often to delay flowering. If your plants
get away from you and cover themselves with flower spikes,
just prune them back by one-third. Within a week or two,
you should see a fresh crop of new stem tips emerging.

To use your pruned-off flower spikes, dry them in a warm,
airy place and add them to potpourri sachets or dream
pillows (they’re too woody to use for cooking). Basil dies
at the first hint of frost, but the plants should remain
fragrant for several weeks afterward, reminding you of the
pleasures of summer while the world is aglow with autumn’s
glory.

Mystery Wilt of Basil Plants

Sometimes, basil plants suddenly wilt to death due to a
soil-borne fungus called fusarium, which injures the roots
and main stem. To diagnose this disease, look for a dark
brown patch on the main stem near the soil line. The
fusarium strain to blame is specific to basil; it’s a
little different from the fusariums that bother beans,
tomatoes and other crops. There is no cure, but one of the
first-ever hybrid basils, “Nufar,” shows good resistance to
the disease. Rotating your basil to a new space each year,
planting fusarium-free seed, and maintaining excellent
drainage and air circulation discourage the disease.

Excerpted from Barbara Pleasant’s forthcoming book,The
Whole Herb.