The fragrance and flavour of basil has made it one of our most popular culinary and household herbs. It also has many health benefits, especially as a cleansing tonic for the system. There are now so many different types of basil and what fun it is to experiment with the new varieties and new tastes in addition to the culinary stalwart sweet basil – Ocimum basilicum.
All basils are equally easy to grow; they prefer morning sun in hot areas and full sun in cooler areas. Basil does best in fertile, well composted soil that drains well. The basils need more water than other Mediterranean herbs so should be watered regularly, the best time being in the morning. Monthly feeding allows them to produce lush leaves and pinching off the growing tips of small plants encourages bushy growth. Annual basil and some perennial varieties are frost and cold sensitive, while the perennial pink basil and sacred basil will survive winter if planted in a sheltered, sunny part of the garden.
Basil is a good companion plant for tomatoes, reputedly increasing the flavour of the fruit and promoting healthy growth. It also helps repel aphids, white fly, fruit fly and beetles.
Basil germinates easily and is quick to grow from seed, but should only be sown after all danger of frost has passed.
- Prepare the bed by digging in extra compost, rake it level and remove stones and sticks.
- Seed can be sown in rows or scatter sown at a depth of 3mm. Lightly firm down the soil and water gently.
- Keep the soil moist until germination, which usually occurs within seven days.
- Thin out plants until the final ones are 30 cm apart. The thinned out plants can be eaten as micro and later baby salad leaves.
For a constant supply of fresh leaves sow a new batch of seed every six to eight weeks, or bring in new young plants.
Basil is generally pest free but may be attacked by spider mites (especially when it is hot and dry), aphids and beetles. Too much water or poor drainage in excessively wet weather can make it susceptible to botrytis, which manifests as black patches on the leaves and stems. Deal with insects by cutting back the plant or spraying it with an insecticide. Improve drainage by adding milled bark or coarse compost to the soil.
Ideally, one should pick the leaves as they are required because they don’t store well in the refrigerator. Leafy stems can be put in a jug or bottle of water and kept for a few days. To extend the harvest of leaves, do not let the plants flower as this can cause the leaves to become bitter. Remove the flowering tops as they appear. Once your second and subsequent plantings are producing enough leaves for picking then allow the first batch of basil to flower so that you (and the bees) can enjoy the flowers as well.
In the kitchen
Basil is most associated with Italian and Thai cooking and goes particularly well with tomatoes, whether fresh or cooked up as sauces. Add the leaves at the end of cooking. The leaves can also be used in salads and to flavour herb vinegar, herb oil and herb butter.
Basil is also the main ingredient of pesto and a good way to preserve extra basil is to blend the basil, olive oil and pine or almond nuts required for pesto. The mixture can then be frozen and the parmesan cheese added later, when the pesto is to be used.
Basil has antidepressant, antiseptic and soothing properties. The fresh leaves can be made into a cough syrup with honey or an infusion can be drunk to help relieve a cold. Rubbing fresh leaves onto insect bites and stings will help relieve the itching.
This simple recipe is perfect for a hot summer’s day. Simply cut watermelon into chunks, then add sliced red onion, a bit of crumbled feta and a few fresh basil leaves. Make a simple dressing of 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon lemon juice with a pinch of salt. Pour the dressing over the salad when you are ready to serve.