Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Herbal Garden: Basil

Welcome to the third of my series 'The Herbal Garden'! I'm not sure if I can actually write this one without having to run out and pick up a tasty pizza or beg my hubby to whip up something in the kitchen...mmm, BASIL!

Basil is an annual herb originally from India that quickly migrated to Italy and France, where it became a staple in both cuisines. It is used in salads and soups and is a wonderful enhancement to meats, especially poultry. You'll also find it complements rice, pasta, zucchini, eggplant and anything with tomatoes. Perhaps its most popular use of late has been in Pesto sauce, which is a mix of basil, garlic, oil, pine nuts and cheese varieities. I love taking whole leaves and adding them to marinara sauce...and plopping them all over the sauce of my homemade pizza. See, I told I'm STARVING.

Basil was another of my very first herbal experiments; I even grew these from SEED. What fascinated me most was how many types are available. Its latin name is Ocimum, and its Greek name is baselius, which from what I understand means 'king'. Aptly named, don't you think? It was named Herb of the Year for 2003. There are two main groups: Sweet and Genovese. Sweets are...well, sweet scented; these are the ones that are best used with tomatoes. Varities include:

  • Bush Basil, compact and perfect for pots.
  • Purple Bush Basil, as above but a gorgeous purple color that looks wonderful in salads.
  • Spicy Globe Basil, a bush type with larger 1 cm leaves and dense, globular structures.
  • Dark Opal Basil, with dark purple-bronze leaves that are ideal for seasoning and making basil vinegar (gives it a spectacular red color!).
  • Mammoth Basil, my favorite...HUGE green leaves that get as big as your hand! Lots of fun to use in the kitchen.
  • Sweet Salad Basil, has a clove-like scent about it that adds a special twist to any dish.
Genovese varieites are large-leafed and originate in the pesto capital of the world: Genovese, Italy. They include:

  • Genovese Standard, the most popular and original.
  • Genovese Compatto, specially designed to be grown in pots.
  • Genovese Gecofure, also a pot-design but with enhanced disease resistance.
There are many other types that don't fit into the Sweet or Genovese groups, and here are some of my favorites:

  • Anise Basil, a native of Persia with a licorice flavor and purple foliage.
  • African Blue Basil, has a purpleish/blue cast and camphor scent.
  • Lemon Basil, intense lemon fragrance, great for tea.
  • Sacred Basil, grown in temples, homes and everywhere else throughout India. Clove scented leaves, also known as Tulsi Basil.
  • Lesbos Basil, first found on the Greek Isle. Has the most unusual scent...a mix of cloves, citrus and floral.
Okay, that you've told us about all these great varities, how do we grow the stuff? Well, it's easy...this is another of those herbs that as long as you water them and they don't contract any fungal diseases (most have now been bred to resist them) you'll have a huge crop. Since you can find a better selection of seeds than plants, I suggest growing your own from scratch. Here's the low down on growing them from seed:

  • Pick a spot in the garden that gets full sun.
  • The soil should drain well but not be TOO dry...basil wilts quickly the second it needs a drink.
  • Any pH level is fine for's not fussy about that sort of thing.
  • Wait until the soil temp has reached at least 60 degrees and all danger of frost has annual, basil will brown immediatley when touched by frost and dies soon after.
  • Sow your seeds directly into the ground...or, if you're impatient like me, you can start them indoors four to six weeks before your last frost date.
  • Once they get going, water them frequently. If you forget and they DO wilt, don't lose faith...give them a drink and they'll bounce back before your eyes.
  • Thin your seedlings so they're about 10 inches apart, but read your seed packet as this depends on variety.
  • When buds appear, pinch them off to keep your leaves growing.
  • Harvest frequently to encourage more growth. The more you pick, the more you'll get!
  • Leave some flowers toward the end of the season if you want them to self-sow.

Basil is easily dried and stored...bundle them with string and hang upside down in a closet or attic. They'll be ready for you when you need them! I've also heard tell of them being a fly repellent but haven't tried it myself...if you want to, stuff some dried leaves in a muslin bag and hang them around the house.

Hope you enjoyed this installment...until next time, Happy Gardening! And go get yourself a pizza!

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