Posted: May 3, 2011
If you are like me, I start gardening at the dinner table. Today I’m thinking of homemade Italian spaghetti sauce, gourmet herbal vinegar, fresh garden salad, and Italian pesto. Why, you may be asking, because I’m getting ready to sow the basil seeds, one of the world’s most delightful herbs.
It is hard to imagine a garden without this useful herb. It’s easy to grow in any garden soil or large containers, whether it’s the Thai basil ‘Siam Queen’, dwarf basil ‘Spicy Globe’, the traditional sweet basil or ‘Dark Opal’. One has only to lightly brush the leaves to release the delicious aroma.
Basil has been known and grown since ancient times. In 1600s an English herbalist prescribed it for improved health and “cureth of infirmities and taketh away of sorrow…” Then it made its way to American shores in the mid-17th century where it was used mainly as a medicine. Today it is mainstay of the kitchen herb garden and is often called the “king of herbs”.
Basil should be treated as an annual by starting from seed each spring, with repeat sowing every month. You can sow the seeds directly in the garden or start them indoors about four weeks before last frost. I use a seed starting media in a new pot, watered well and covered with a plastic bag until I see seedlings develop. Keep warm (65 – 70 degrees) in a bright south window. Then plant outdoors in a bright location with at least 6 hours of sun in well-drained soil. Apply liquid fertilizer a couple of times during the season to keep the plant growing. When flowers develop, cut the plant back to about six inches above the soil to encourage new growth, or replant.
Basil is a member of the mint family; you can always identify a mint by their four-sided stems and whorled leaves. Unlike other mints, basil is not invasive and is delightfully ornamental.
There are four kinds of garden basil. The sweet green basil (Ocimum basilicum) which grows about 2 feet tall, has large green leaves 2 – 3 inches long, produces white flower spikes, and is the most widely grown. This group includes the Genovese basils, lettuce leaf and the All-American selection ‘Siam Queen’. Dwarf basil (O. b. ‘minimum’) is known as bush basil. Leaves are small and compact and goes by variety names ‘Spicy Globe’ or ‘Green Bouquet’.
Purple-leafed basil (O.b. purpurescens) is very ornamental. ‘Dark Opal’, ‘Purple Ruffles’, ‘Red Rubin’ are three of the most popular. These varieties have ruffled leaves and are very pungent with lavender flowers. Scented leaf basil is the last group and goes by names of lemon basil, clove basil and cinnamon basil.
Basil plants are readily purchased at garden centers or nurseries. Look for young, compact plants and avoid tall or leggy plants. Leaves should be free of spots or damage caused by insects. Check stems to make sure all are healthy, as disease pathogens will some times attack the plants at the soilline. Space plants 10 to 12 inches apart, dwarf basil at 8 to 10 inches, and large basil like ‘Sweet Dani’ 20 inches apart.
Containers are convenient for growing basil and other herbs when placed near the back door, on porches or in window boxes. Make sure containers have drainage holes and fill with soilless mix and provide nutrients with liquid fertilizer (20-5-20) once a week. Keep evenly moist throughout the growing season.
Basil complements many kinds of foods. Homegrown tomatoes with fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil may not be heaven, but can’t be far away. Some gardeners make basil vinegar for use in salad dressing by heating vinegar in an enamel pan; pour into a bottle and add several sprigs of basil and let set for two weeks before using. To dry basil, cut the entire plant and hang on a string in a well-ventilated room. When dry, remove leaves from stem and store them in an airtight jar out of direct light.
Some information for this article was provided by The National Garden Bureau www.ngb.org.
Alan Michael is the Penn State Educator for commercial floriculture. Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and a diverse workforce.