Savory green pesto sauce, tomato and mozzarella salad, nearly any egg dish, wild-caught Alaskan salmon — these and many more meal options take on a fresh tweak of flavor when basil is part of the equation.
If you've ever headed for the produce section of your grocery store to pick up a small package of basil, though, you know how expensive it can be. Growing your own is super easy, even if all you have in the way of a garden spot is a balcony, deck or patio. Basil (ocimum basilicum, a member of the mint family) grows beautifully in pots or in your backyard garden, offering a pretty pop of greenery that you can snip off and pop into any number of delicious recipes.
Gardener's World features a video clip of horticulturalist Monty Don, who says no other herb goes quite as well with tomatoes as basil, as the basil cuts through the acidity of the tomato to create a perfect flavor balance. Further, tomatoes and basil share the same growing standards and conditions:
"It's worth remembering that basil is not a Mediterranean herb. It comes from tropical Asia. It likes heat, and it likes a certain amount of moisture, too (it doesn't like to be sodden), and the harsher it is, the more water it can take. If you're watering your tomatoes right, you'll guarantee you're watering your basil right."1
Another key point he stresses is that basil, as a "sub shrub," requires a lot of space to grow — perhaps more than it may appear to require. "It's a generous plant," he adds. "It wants to grow strongly and vigorously, especially if given enough heat."
Dried basil will do in a pinch, but once you try fresh, green basil leaves, you learn the flavor is much more intense. Used in combination with other herbs, such as thyme, meats and soups take on a deeper, more complex essence. Interestingly, cold dishes with chopped basil in the mix lend a fresh, spring-like quality. While fresh basil is the most fragrant and flavorful, you can dry basil leaves quickly by following these simple directions:
1. Warm your oven to 140 degrees F
2. Place a single layer of basil leaves on a baking sheet
3. Place your pan in the oven and turn the oven off
4. Let the basil leaves set for 20 minutes, then remove and allow to cool
5. Store immediately in airtight jars or zip-close bags, away from sunlight
Medical News Today2 notes that the pronounced clove scent of the most common variety, sweet basil, is due to its high concentration of the phytochemical and essential oil eugenol. Lime and lemon basil emit a strong citrus scent because of their high concentration of limonene. A Purdue University study3 showed that the essential oils in basil are "rich in phenolic compounds and a wide array of other natural products including polyphenols such as flavonoids and anthocyanins."
The highest antioxidant levels were found in sweet basil. Holy (or sacred) basil (ocimum sanctum, known as "tulsi" in Hindi) is mentioned in Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for "pain, fever, vomiting, bronchitis, earache and diseases of the heart and blood," but its use for treating diabetes, arthritis and asthma4 is supported by scores of pharmacological studies.5
Between the high amounts of vitamins A, C and K and manganese, and several less common essential oils such as cinnamate, geraniol, citronellol, linalool, terpineol and pinene (which may support its purported ability to act as an aphrodisiac in Ayurvedic circles), studies show basil yields a wide array of impressive health benefits:6
- Pain-reducing (analgesic)
- Liver-protective (hepatoprotective
- Fever-reducing (antipyretic)
- Antibiotic/ Antimicrobial10
Choosing the variety (or varieties) of basil you want to grow depends on what you'd like to use it for. According to Rodale's Organic Life, you can start plants from seed in a south-facing window because, again, it prefers a warm, sunny spot. Basil is considered a tropical plant, so it doesn't do well in cool conditions. Because basil plants are light lovers, grow lights or heating mats to simulate the warmth of sunlight — 70 degrees Fahrenheit is about right — really helps until it gets warm enough for them to be transplanted outside.
Planting seeds directly in the soil is another option after the last frost (granted, a tricky thing to determine), making sure the plants will be in full sun and based in soil that drains easily. You can also buy basil "starts," or seedlings, which usually come in a small pot, but they're not intended to stay there for long because the roots like room to grow, among other things.
You could say harvesting frequently is like a shot in the arm to a basil plant. Snipping the right leaves at the right time is key for encouraging bushier growth. One hint for ensuring the freshest taste is to make sure the plant doesn't flower, which triggers an end to the plant's life cycle, called bolting. Once it starts that process, there's not a lot you can do to halt it. Natural Living Ideas explains:
"If you keep your basil in the tiny pot it came in, you are not going to have a large, luxurious plant, even if you provide water and fertilizers regularly. The roots need space to stretch out, so transplant it into a larger pot or plant it out in the garden. Most gardening advice regarding basil supports keeping the plant compact and bushy. But large plants provide more leaves … Even a small quantity of pesto requires quite a large amount of leaves.
If you want a large basil plant, refrain from pinching the tip when the plant is 6 inches tall, as most gardeners advise. Allow the plant to grow fast and furious until it is between 12 [and] 15 inches tall … Remove around 2 inches of the stem tip. This promotes branching from lower nodes. The side branches can be allowed to grow and fill out before their tips are pinched."11
To reiterate, here are some basics basil needs to thrive:
• Full sun
• Well-drained soil that's not packed too hard
• Well-drained soil that's not packed too hard
• Use of compost, aged manure and/or other organic material
• Plenty of water, but not swimming in it
Once your seeds have sprouted, or the bedding plants you've purchased are in the ground (following the aforementioned directions) a few things are necessary to make sure your basil plants keep producing:
• Mulch around the plants to retain moisture, especially in warmer weather
• Harvest leaves to encourage bushier growth
• Pinch off flower buds frequently so plant energy is expended on the leaves
Rodale's Organic Life notes that to keep fresh basil at the ready all year-round:
"Grow a few basil plants in containers so you can bring them indoors before fall frost. Or make a second sowing outdoors in June in order to have small plants to pot up and bring indoors for winter. As frost nears, you can also cut off some end shoots in the garden and root them in water to be potted later."12
You'll discover several different types of basil, some with distinctive flavors or colors compared to sweet basil, the most common variety. Some are more purple or burgundy than green, such as dark opal, which is very aromatic, or the red rubin. Exotic Thai sweet basil cultivars, such as Siam queen with its hint of licorice or anise, can be heated to higher temperatures for certain dishes. Here are a few more basil offerings to consider:
• The lettuce leaf variety of basil has larger-than-average leaves, so they require a bit more space in the garden
• Green ruffles basil looks just as one might expect, looks as lovely in salads as it does in the garden, and grows 20 to 24 inches high in comparison with most other basils, which reach a top height of 12 to 18 inches
• Lemon basil, easily identified when you crush a leaf between your fingers and smell its lemony scent, is wonderful for chicken dishes and grilled vegetables
• Holy basil, which Hindus consider to be sacred, is another variety with a sweet, musky fragrance, often cooked into Indian dishes, as eating it raw it's slightly bitter
Cinnamon basil is one variation that can be used in fruit dishes, such as stewed pears, or in stir-fries and grilled veggies. You'll also note basil varieties featuring hints of cinnamon, clove and lime.
It may seem a little archaic, but to keep pests like Japanese beetles at bay, picking them off by hand is easiest. Other pests include slugs and aphids. The three represent the incredible diversity of pests that can make lace out of your basil leaves. While you want to deal with those smaller critters with haste, you also want to do the job naturally. Chemical pesticides can be much more damaging to the environment, including water, soil and air, than you may realize.
There are safer, more natural options. According to Beyond Pesticides, boric acid formulated from a natural mineral is "an effective insect stomach poison" that, when properly applied, has low toxicity in comparison. Boric acid is another solution:
"While boric acid is somewhat slower acting than other materials, it is highly effective over a long period of time. But remember, all pesticides are poisons designed to kill, and should be handled carefully.
Boric acid should be applied only in areas where it will not come in contact with people … Applicators should wear protective clothing, gloves and a filter mask. Other least toxic pesticides include diatomaceous earth, vinegar, oil of lemon eucalyptus, Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt), neem and horticultural soaps."13
Fungal diseases such as fusarium wilt, black spot or powdery mildew can be treated with a simple, natural solution, Gardening Know How14 advises, containing:
• 1 cup of vegetable oil
• 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap (not for dishwashers)
• 1 quart warm water
• 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar
Mix the ingredients and spray affected plants (or those that likely will be) thoroughly on the tops, bottoms and stems of plants using a spray bottle. Watch the weather to avoid treating if rain is imminent, and avoid spraying blossoms that bees, hummingbirds or other desirable critters enjoy.