Can you imagine a garden without basil? Impossible! Its familiar
fragrance, easy care, and many uses make it indispensable in herb,
ornamental, and container gardens – and, of course, in the kitchen.
A Sense of History
Basil has been known and grown since ancient times. According to Gerard
in his Herbal published in England in the 1600s, the smell of basil was
“good for the heart and for the head.” The seeds “cureth the infirmities of
the heart and taketh away the sorrow which commeth with melancholy and
maketh a man merry and glad.” Gerard also advised that the juice of the
plant was good against headaches, if it were drunk with wine, and was useful
in clearing up diseases of the eye.
Back in the first century AD, however, the Greek physician Dioscorides
believed basil dulled the sight and produced “wind.” Others claimed it bred
scorpions and that scorpions would be found beneath a pot where basil grew –
a belief that arose, perhaps, from the prevalence of scorpions in some of
the tropical regions of Asia and Africa, where basil originated, and their
predilection for warm, dark places. Gerard wrote that those who were stung
by a scorpion would feel no pain if they had eaten basil. Culpepper, a
contemporary of Gerard, suggested in his Herbal that basil would draw out
the poison of venomous beasts, wasps or hornets. Today, herbalists claim it
helps to ease flatulence and abdominal pains if taken as an infusion.
Basil made its way to Europe by the Middle Ages and to England and
America in the mid-17th century, where it was used mainly medicinally. It
was not until the 19th century that basil became the ever-present component
of herb gardens that it is today.
The range of basils available is the result of the variability of the
species, basilicum. The species contains a natural diversity of fragrances
and colors; plant breeders have selected for and improved on these different
From Garden to Kitchen
Basil complements many kinds of dishes and combines well with
other herbs, whether used fresh or dried. Of course, the flavour and
appearance of the leaves are best fresh.
Cream together one stick of unsalted butter and one to three
tablespoons of dried, crushed basil or two to six tablespoons of
fresh, minced basil. Place in a covered container or roll into a
cylinder-shape and refrigerate for at least an hour before using.
Make basil vinegar to use in salad dressings. Heat vinegar (any
type) in an enamel pan; pour it into a bottle and add several sprigs
of basil. Let set for two weeks before using.
Blend in a food processor or blender until smooth: 1 cup loosely
packed basil leaves, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic.
Basil and Tomato Bruschetta
Toast 12 one-inch thick pieces of crusty Italian bread over a grill
or in a broiler. Brown on both sides. Remove and brush with 1/3 to
1/2 cup olive oil. In a bowl combine two large, ripe tomatoes,
peeled, seeded and diced with two tablespoons of chopped fresh
oregano and 24 to 36 basil leaves, torn into small pieces. Peel 12
garlic cloves, cut them in half lengthwise, and rub on bread. Top
with tomato/basil mixture and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
If you have any basil left at the end of the growing season consider
drying the leaves. To dry basil, cut the entire plant and hang on a
string in a well ventilated room. When dry, just pluck the leaves
from the stems and store in airtight jars out of direct light.
What’s In A Name?
A member of the mint family (Labiatae), as so many herbs are, basils have
the familiar four-sided stems and whorled flowers of that family; they are
not, however, in the least invasive, as mints can be. The genus name of
sweet basil, Ocimum, is from a Greek verb that means “to be fragrant.” The
species name, basilicum, comes from the Greek basileus, which means “king or
prince.” Basil is often referred to as the “king of herbs,” and no wonder –
it is one of the most useful, and most used, of all herbs.
In frost-free climates, sweet basil (O. basilicum) may act as a perennial,
but in most areas of the country, it is an annual, dying at the first touch
of frost. There are more than 30 different species of basil, but the most
commonly grown are O. basilicum and its subspecies.
Holy basil, O. sanctum (also known as O. tenuiflorum), is a sacred herb in
India, where it is used in religious ceremonies and planted around Hindu
temples; with its pinkish purple flowers, it is most often planted as an
The four basic types of garden basils are the familiar sweet green basil,
dwarf green basil, purple-leaved basil and scented leaf basil. Sweet basil
grows about two feet tall. It has rather large leaves, two to three inches
long, and produces white flower spikes. It is the most widely grown. Its
cousins include lettuce-leaf and Genovese basils – varieties with much
larger leaves – as well as the spicy Thai basil, Siam Queen, a tropical
basil with an intense fragrance and flavor.
Dwarf basil (O. b. ‘Minimum’) is also known as bush or fine green basil. Its
compact growth reaches 10 to 12 inches high. The leaves are small, about a
half- inch long, and flowers are white.
Spicy Globe and Green Bouquet are well-known dwarf types; the former is
aptly named because the plants grow naturally into rounded, globe shapes.
Purple-leaved basils (O. b. purpurescens) are very ornamental. Dark Opal,
Purple Ruffle and Red Rubin are three of the most popular varieties. These
basils tend to have ruffled, frilled, or deeply cut leaves, which are very
pungent; they produce deep pink to lavender-purple flowers.
Scented-leaf basils bring additional aromas to the basic clove-anise of
sweet basil. Lemon basil (O. americanum, O. basilicum var. citriodorum) has
a very distinct lemon flavor. The leaves are grayish green, the flowers
white. The leaves of cinnamon basil have a spicy cinnamon flavor; flowers
are deep pink with purple bracts. Anise basil has a flavor similar to
licorice; its flowers are slightly purplish.
Growing From Seed
Whether you sow seeds indoors or out, remember that basil does not like
cold, or even cool, weather. Sow the seeds outdoors when day and night
temperatures reach about 55 to 60 degrees. When sown or transplanted at the
right time, basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow successfully.
Starting Basil Indoors
Plan to sow seeds four to six weeks before the date of your average last
in spring. Basils do not need a long time to grow large enough to transplant
to the garden.
Fill a shallow container, or flat, or individual two-inch pots with a
commercial seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix and let it drain.
Sow the seeds in rows in a flat or two to three seeds per pot. Cover the
seeds with about 1/4 inch of the mix. Press the mix down lightly and spritz
the surface with water to moisten it and settle the seeds.
To keep the mix from drying out while the seeds are germinating, cover the
containers with sheets of clear plastic wrap, or place each in a plastic bag
and close it with a twist-tie.
Set the containers in a warm location; the growing medium should be at about
70 to 75 degrees F (21 to 23 degrees C).
Seedlings will emerge in four to
seven days. When they do, remove the plastic covering and place the
containers in bright light or direct sun in a south-facing window or a
fluorescent light garden. Give the containers a quarter turn every few days
so the plants grow straight instead of leaning towards the light source.
Keep the mix evenly moist by watering from the bottom: Set the containers in
a sink filled with a couple of inches of water until beads of moisture
appear on the surface. Compost tea or a liquid fertilizer at one half the
recommended rate can be given to seedlings to promote healthy plants.
When the seedlings are about two inches tall and have at least two pairs of
true leaves, transplant those in flats to individual pots. Thin those
started in small pots to one per pot by snipping off all but the strongest
looking one with a scissors. It is not necessary to transplant purple-leaved
basils if you sow them about one inch apart.
If young plants become tall and spindly, pinch the tip to encourage compact
growth. Some of the smaller basils have a naturally branching habit and do
not need to be pinched.
Sowing Directly in the Garden
Sow seeds in the garden when the soil has warmed up to about 55 to 60F (13 to 15C) degrees day and night
temperatures. Sow the seeds about one-half inch deep in good garden soil; if
you cover the seeds with less soil, they may float to the surface after a
heavy rain. Basil germinates readily, therefore you do not need to sow
You can sow the seeds in rows or in groups; drop two to three seeds
in each hole for the latter. Keep the seedbed moist until germination
occurs. When the seedlings have at least two pairs of true leaves and are
two to three inches tall, thin them to stand 10 to 30 inches apart,
depending on the species or cultivar. Begin pinching out the growing tips
for compact growth when the seedlings are three to four inches tall.
To have an uninterrupted supply of fresh basil, most gardeners sow basil
seed several times during the growing season. The National Garden Bureau
recommends sowing basil seed every three to four weeks to harvest fresh
leaves for culinary uses.
Selecting Bedding Plants
Basil is so popular that you can readily purchase plants at garden
centers or nurseries in addition to growing it from seed. The plants may be
sold in individual pots, six-packs or flats. Look for young, compact plants.
Avoid tall, leggy plants – even though you can correct their growth habit
somewhat by cutting them back after you have planted them.
The leaves of sweet basil should be a clear deep green; spots on the leaves
may indicate they have been exposed to the cold. Pass up plants that have
obvious pests, such as aphids, on stems or leaves.
If you can’t plant the herbs the day you bring them home, set them in a
protected area away from the drying effects of direct sun and wind until you
can put them in the ground or in containers.
Out In The Garden
Select a Site. Basil grows best in a location that receives full sun – at
least six hours (or more) of direct sun daily. With less sun, the plants
have a tendency to get “leggy.” Plants in containers require the same
Next, you must prepare the soil. Although herbs are not particularly fussy,
they do need a light, fertile soil with good drainage. Amend what you have
by digging in about a two-inch layer of peat moss and compost before
planting. This is particularly important if your soil is mostly clay.
Transplant. Choose a cloudy, calm day or late afternoon to transplant your
basils to give them a chance to settle in before they have to contend with
the drying effects of sun and wind. It is very important to plant at the
right time, which means not too early in the season. The slightest cold will
set them back. Put the plants in the ground at the same depth they were
growing in the pots.
If you bought six-packs or flats of basil plants, water them first; then
carefully lift each plant out of its cell or separate them from each other
in the flat, keeping as much soil around the roots as possible to minimize
moisture loss. If they don’t come out easily and you need to handle the
plants, do so by their leaves, not their stems (plants replace leaves more
readily than stems). If you started plants in peat pots, set the pots below
the soil line – they have a tendency to dry out quickly when exposed to the
Space plants ten to twelve inches apart; dwarf basils, eight to 10 inches
apart; larger basils should be up to 20 inches apart.
Water the plants immediately after setting them in the ground.
Basil is as ornamental as it is edible. Put it in a traditional herb
garden, in the vegetable plot in the center of a bed of red-leaf and
green-leaf lettuces or edging a bed of tomatoes.
Use both the green- and purple-leaved varieties in borders; the latter are
especially beautiful with perennials such as coral bells, sedum, fountain
grass, dusty miller, and blue salvia. Both combine well with annuals, such
as dwarf or medium-height snapdragons, nicotiana, French marigolds, and
With its natural round shape, the dwarf basil Spicy Globe makes a wonderful
edging for any type of garden: perennial, rose or herb.
Try the old-fashioned technique of keeping flies away by planting basils
around a patio or in containers on a deck.
Taking Care of Basil
Like most herbs, basils do not require much maintenance. In sandy or
infertile soil, fertilize basil plants for continuous growth. If you amended
the soil with organic matter, you may not need to fertilize basil. Basil
plants need about an inch (2.5 cm)of water a week. Water them regularly, if
rain does not provide for the plants’ needs.
Although the flower spikes are attractive, it is recommended to cut them off
as they deplete the plants’ energy resulting in fewer leaves.
The leaves have the best flavor – the most essential oils – when they are
harvested before the plants flower. Cut whole stems rather than individual
leaves, especially if you want to use the leaves as a garnish because they
bruise easily. Cutting whole stems is a tasty way of creating a bushy,
compact plant: Cut just above a pair of lower leaves; the plant will produce
new shoots at that point.
Growing in Containers
Basils are excellent herbs to grow in containers because they add such
attractive colors and textures to the plantings. They look good in pots or
window boxes in full sun. A container of basil by the back door or on a deck
provides easy access for harvesting!
The container should have drainage holes in the bottom or sides. Fill it
with a soilless mix, which is more lightweight than garden soil and is also
free of diseases and weed seeds. It is easy to provide nutrients all season
by incorporating a controlled-release fertilizer in the mix before planting.
With mixed plantings, place most basils near the center of containers or at
the ends of window boxes. Use dwarf basils to edge a container planting or
on their own in smaller, eight-inch pots, and place the pots around a larger planter, marching up steps, or along a
Plant basils at the same level as, or just slightly deeper than, they were
growing in their original pots. Water the container well after planting.
Keep them evenly moist through the growing season; the roots of any plants
in a container cannot reach down or out in search of available moisture.
It is easy to bring container-grown plants inside, but you can also pot
up a few plants from the garden. Cut them back rather severely – to about
three to four inches tall – so they will put out new growth when they become
acclimated to the indoor environment.
Grow them on the sunniest windowsill you have, preferably with a southern
exposure. Keep the soil evenly moist and fertilize them once a month.
Because basils are so easy to grow from seed, it is just as simple to sow
fresh seed indoors at the end of the outdoor growing season. Pot the
seedlings into individual four-inch to six-inch containers and enjoy fresh
basil all winter harvested from your windowsill.
Pests and Diseases
You may find a few aphids or Japanese beetles that like your basil as
much as you do. To circumvent aphids, wash them off the plants with a strong
spray of water from the garden hose. Pick or knock Japanese beetles off into
a jar of soapy water and discard.
Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungus that causes yellowing of foliage,
discoloration of the stems, reduced height and eventual wilting of the
entire plant. If you plant basil in the same garden place year after year
this could be a problem. The best cure is prevention. Because it can
overwinter in the soil, don’t plant basil in the same location every year.
Avoid excessive watering and provide proper drainage in order to reduce the
spread of Fusarium wilt.
This article was written with the assistance
of the National Garden Bureau.
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