Basil: king of herbs

By Jim Janke

Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an incredible herb. Essential for tomato sauces, basil has plenty of other uses. You’ve not lived unless you’ve experienced chopped basil over fresh tomato slices in summer; bruschetta with tomatoes and basil; pesto made from fresh basil in the blender; basil infused vinegar, salad oil or butter; or (so I’m told) a few basil leaves floating in your bath water.

Basil is easy to grow — both in the garden and indoors — for a year-round supply. Sprinkle a few seeds on the top of a sterile planting mix, cover lightly, and keep moist and warm until the seeds sprout. Transplant into individual containers after the first true leaves appear. Seed indoors in mid-March for transplants ready to go outside in May. Basil doesn’t make the transition from indoors to outdoors easily, though; harden off your transplants by slowly increasing their time outside over a two week period. Or seed directly in the garden in mid-May and forget all the indoors stuff.

Seed again indoors in September, and you’ll have a supply for the kitchen by Thanksgiving. The plants make great hostess gifts all winter.

Grow basil in full sun (or on a sunny window sill). Keep well watered. Larger varieties benefit from pinching to encourage branching. Remove flower heads to maximize leaf production; this will also increase the leaves’ flavor. If plants get too large, cut back to the lower 3 or 4 sets of leaves. Cuttings from established plants are easily rooted in a sterile planting mix or water. Plants in pots tend to have smaller leaves than those growing in the garden. Basil belongs to the mint family, but is not invasive.

Basil varieties are endless. Seed catalogs show lemon, lime, cinnamon, and chocolate flavors, or with Italian, Thai, or French accents; leaves between 1/4 inch and 5 inches long, in serrated, ruffled, and “lettuce leaf” shapes; colors including purple, red, “African blue”, variegated, and all shades of green; and plants between 1 and 3 feet tall.

Our favorite basils: ‘Genovese’ is a large-leafed full-flavored Italian basil. My chef uses ‘Genovese’ in any recipe calling for basil, but especially in pestos. The 2 foot tall plants benefit from pinching.

‘Purple Ruffles’ looks like a coleus from a distance, but tends to stay more compact. This variety is normally grown as an ornamental, although it can be used as an herb. Plants are 12 to 18 inches tall and wide.

‘Green Bouquet’ leaves are tiny, which is useful if you don’t want to chop basil for a recipe or garnish. The plants grow into perfect 8 to 10 inch mounds. ‘Spicy Globe’ is a similar variety.

‘Pistou’ is a recent introduction with slightly larger leaves than ‘Green Bouquet’. My chef skewers the fingernail-sized leaves with mozzarella and cherry tomatoes to make “salad on a stick.” ‘Boxwood’ is similar to ‘Pistou’. Both are 12 inches tall and wide.

All of the above are available in many seed catalogs.

Many cookbook authors consider basil to be the king of herbs. Because it is so easy to grow, basil is an excellent plant for new gardeners to raise from seed. Try it, you’ll like it!

Jim Janke is a Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828.456.3575.

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