Monday, January 30, 2006

The Versatile Basil Plant

If you are considering planting an herb garden, then you should think about starting with basil. It is a unique herb in that it comes in more than 20 varieties. If you are buying it at the grocery store, you probably will find only sweet basil on the shelves. Even at a health food store, there likely are no more than three or four choices. If you are growing your own basil, then you can try out as many varieties as you would like. They are inexpensive to care for, so you can feel free to experiment.

Basil plants will grow to about three feet tall max, so you will need to be sure that you have space for them. Still that is not a tall plant, and if you have an open window area, you can even grow them inside. Otherwise, you can grow them on your porch or on the edge of your garden. These plants are wonderful for the garden. They attract beautiful butterflies, who nibble from their leaves, and they bring in some good insects as well. They also work well as a companion plant to tomatoes and asparagus, so planting them near those crops can be a great way to boost their ability to survive. Keep them away from the cabbage and snap beans, however, as the basil can interfere with those plants.

If you are planning to plant basil, you need to live in a warmer climate or be prepared to bring the plants indoors. It is impossible to grow basil in colder areas. Instead you will need to be sure that you grow them in warmth where they will have plenty of sunlight. Basil loves water, but it also loves soil that drains well. If you are going to grow basil indoors, you will need a drainage basin on your pot or to take it outside (or to the bathtub) for a daily watering because it does not like water that puddles.

Regardless of the final destination of the plant, you need to start the seedlings indoors. Plant the seeds about six weeks before you plan to move the crop outdoors. Check your almanac for information on weather patterns in your area. The seeds will need a minimum of two weeks inside, but six to eight weeks is preferable. You also can consider planting them in the ground, but you will need to be absolutely sure that no more cold weather is coming.

The plants ultimately will need to be about 12 inches apart. For the initial planting in pots, you should put each plant in its own pot with enough room to grow. Once you move them outdoors, be sure to give them plenty of space to grow on their own without interfering with each other.

Once the plants are outdoors, it will be your job to take care of them. They attract both slugs and snails, but these are not on the list of healthy attractions. They will destroy your basil. You can control for them easily by crushing a few eggshells and putting them in a ring around each basil plant or in rows alongside them if you have a large number of plants. The eggshells will keep the slugs and snails at bay.

Watch the plant carefully. Pick the plant's leaves anytime you want to add to spaghetti or plenty of other dishes. If you want to pick the flowers of the basil plant, then you should do so just as they begin to flower. Basil works as a wonderful aid to cooking in addition to being a natural mosquito repellant. You can take the leaves, cut them, and then rub them on your skin to keep the bugs at bay. Basil also works dried in wreaths or other flower arrangements. If you are experimenting, try the lemon or cinnamon basil. Both of them work really well for potpourri and are symbols of well wishes.

Basil is definitely a plant to consider if you are just starting your garden. You may find that you will be able to plant and grow basil to season your food or for other household uses. The basil plant is versatile in the garden and the home, making it an excellent choice for a small garden where space is key.

By Julia Mercer

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