Nobody Doesn’t Like Basil

Tom Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

A good friend of mine says, "Nobody doesn’t like basil!" In pestos or salads or sauces it has become one of the most widely known and used herbs in modern cooking. And it is the Herb of the Year 2003!

'Sweet' basil is the most common form of the plant found in our garden. Included under the ‘Sweet’ heading are ‘Genovese,’ ‘Italian,’ ‘Mammoth’ and a number of other large-leafed varieties of the Oscimum basilicum species. 'Nufar' is a hybrid Genovese-type cultivar with resistance to fusarium wilt. Colorful 'Purple Ruffles,' 'Osmin,' and 'Red Rubin' make lovely claret-colored vinegars, and are stunning accents in the garden. "Mrs. Burns’ has a superb lemon flavor that is great in salads and pesto. ‘Spicy Globe,' 'Green Bush,' 'Green Ruffles,' 'Greek Mini,’ and 'Purple Miniature' are compact plants which do well in planters and are favorites for landscape edging.

Basil is a warm weather plant very sensitive to cool temperatures; it will be devastated by any hint of frost. Seeds germinate best at temperatures above 70°F. Seedlings should be grown in a warm area as early injury by chilling will affect the later production of the plant. Even one night with temperatures in the low 50's will adversely affect basil plants. Soil temperatures below 50°F. are also harmful. It is best to wait until soil temperatures are at least 60°F. or higher before transplanting basil outdoors. Indoor seeding of basil can be delayed until fairly late in the season due to the rapidity of basil seedling growth and the late safe-transplant date.

Basil prefers a fertile, well-aerated, organically rich soil. Contrary to what is believed by some, the plants should not be starved in order to develop intense flavor because production of basil's essential oils requires plant food. A well-fed basil plant will produce flavor oils in abundance. Water is an important element in successful basil culture. Without sufficient water, basil's "fragrance factory" shuts down.

Basil should be cut for use before the first flower buds open; harvest may begin as soon as the young plants begin to stretch up. The tips can be pinched out to encourage branching. At least one or two nodes (leaf junctures) should be left at the bottom of the plant so that side branches can form. Harvesting the tips of these side shoots can continue throughout the warm growing season. Flower buds should be pinched off as they appear because their formation alters the flavor of the plant.

Because basil is best used fresh from the garden, harvest for lunch use should be done in mid-morning after the dew has dried. For dinner dishes, mid to late afternoon is the best time to harvest. Basil's delicate oils evaporate quickly after cutting, making fresh leaves far superior to stored. Refrigeration causes the leaves to discolor. It is better to store basil in a glass of water at room temperature than in a cooler.

Although pesto and tomato sauce are the classic uses for basil in the kitchen, there is no need to stop there. Sweet basil has a rich, spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a trace of mint and clove. Whole leaves can be tossed into salads. Leaves can also be crushed, chopped or minced and added to a variety of dishes featuring lamb, veal, fish, poultry, cheese and eggs. Basil blends well with garlic, thyme and lemon and adds snap to vegetables like zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and spinach. Sprigs, especially those with flowers, make an attractive, edible garnish.

In the landscape, basil adds interesting colors, textures, and scents. The purple types make particularly effective color accents. The ruffled and dwarf types make lovely edgings along walkways, in the herb garden or in other planting beds.

May 5-11 is National Herb Week – a good time to learn more about basil and other herbs or to take some of them to lunch.

Read other articles on growing herbs or vegetables

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