Basil is the one herb that I grow every year come rain, snow or whatever Mother Nature tosses at our garden. It is far and away my favorite herb. So here’s how I grow it.
- Spacing apart: 12-inches
- Propagation: from seed or cuttings
- Harvesting: Can be picked starting when plant has 4-5 sets of leaves and should be regularly picked all summer to help stop it from bolting and going to seed.
- Use: cooking – essential with tomatoes and making pesto.
This plant, Ocimum basilicum, has been around for a long time and was originally named by Theophrastus (you know, the guy who co-founded and then replaced Aristotle as head of the Peripatetic school of philosophy back in 323 B.C.) 🙂
There are 35 species in this family of plants, ranging from annuals right through perennials and into shrubs.
The one I’m interested in though is a tender annual here in zone 4 and is perhaps the most important culinary herb in my repertoire. I’m going to ignore for the moment the other members including O. tenuiflorum, the Hindu Sacred Basil. Sacred Basil is used quite extensively in India during funeral rites as an emblem of good luck and is also used in anti-malarial fumigation. Other species such as O. Kilmandschaicum (Camphor Basil) are mostly used for medicinal purposes when treating stomach aches and colds.
And yes, over the years I’ve grown them all (mainly just for the heck of it) but now only grow the common garden basil.
Grow Basil Easily
The first thing to understand is that the seed is extremely easy to germinate. Sow thinly in a warm spot (it doesn’t grow well in cold soil). You can abuse this seed in other ways but do keep it warm if you want to see it grow. Barely cover it with soil. If you cover it too deeply, it will not germinate well. Keep moist – not swampy.
Water with warm water to really bring the seeds along. Grow in as much sun as you can provide.
That’s it. It’s easy and as long as you keep the seeds and developing seedlings warm, they’ll be fine.
Sow indoors approximately four to six weeks before you want to plant them outside or alternately, sow outside after the soil has well warmed up.
If you’re like me and need to get even more plants, you can sow them outside after all danger of frost and the ground has warmed up. I usually sow in the first week of June.
Sow the seeds one-eighth inch deep and thin the resulting seedlings (about two to three weeks later) to one inch apart. Transplant the extra to other rows (trust me, you’ll want extra rows once you taste fresh basil). As the plants start to grow, continue to thin out the extra until the final 12-inch spacing is reached.
If You Buy Your Seedlings Crammed Into A Pot
- You’ll often see small pots of basil sold in stores with multiple plants all bunched together at the bottom. This is because the grower was too busy to separate the tender stems (they demand care) when transplanting and it is much easier to move a larger number hoping enough will survive to give you a potful.
- When you take these home, divide the pot into quarters and you’ll have multiple stems in each quarter. Plant each one and pinch off those that are the weakest (use the leaves!)
- You’ll wind up with one or two good stems from each quarter-pot and then they’ll grow strongly and well. But if you plant the entire pot, you risk losing them to some fungal infection.
- Overcrowding of seedlings is one of the worst things you can do to basil. If you’re not careful, you will lose the entire pot. Don’t sow closer than 3/4 inch apart.
Basil seedlings – transplant when four “true” leaves are showing
Damping off is a potential problem if you sow too thickly, grow cool or overwater. This fungus attacks the seedling at the soil line and the seedlings topple over.
Mix up a garlic tea (one clove of crushed garlic in an inch of water – simmer to release the oils – and cool) and flood the soil with the tea and garlic residue. This should slow down the problem.
Thin out the survivors, put in a warm, sunny spot, increase the airflow around the pot and water only with warm water to put your plants back on the healthy growth track.
The hard part of choosing basil comes in picking the one you want to grow. Regular cooking basil comes in so many forms and flavours now that it is almost an indecency. How is a poor gardener to choose from lemon flavoured, sweet flavoured, Genovese or spicy-flavoured? Do I pick a small leaf, a huge leaf, a purple leaf or just a plain old green leaf? Nobody said being a gardener was an easy job.
An Emerging Problem: Downy Mildew
- Infected leaves first turn yellow in areas restricted by major veins, with time the entire leaf turns yellow.
- Irregular black spots appear on infected leaves as they age.
- Fluffy gray spores grow on the underside of infected leaves.
- The infection starts on lower leaves & moves up the plant.
How Did I Get It In My Garden?
The mildew lives on seeds, plants, and leaves and it arrives in your garden from an infected source or spores are carried in the wind.
Conditions When You’ll See It
Plants may not show symptoms in cool, dry conditions but if the weather turns hot and/or damp, symptoms will follow shortly.
How Do I Treat It?
Ensure each plant has lots of airspace around it so it dries quickly after it rains or dewy mornings.
Use drip irrigation if possible. Avoid splashing water between plants
If you have to use overhead, water in the early morning on a sunny day so the leaves dry out.
Use resistant varieties such as red types (including ‘Red Leaf’ and ‘Red Rubin’), Thai basil (Queenette’), lemon basil (‘Lemon’, ‘Lemon Mrs. Burns’, ‘Sweet Dani Lemon Basil’), lime basil (‘Lime’), and spice types (‘Spice’, ‘Blue Spice’, ‘Blue Spice Fil’, ‘Cinnamon’)
Can I Spray
There are commercially available sprays that are OMRI-listed fungicides that might help BUT most of these are not available to consumers. (none in Ontario, Canada). You’ll have to check your Provincial or State availability.
Having said that, Neem oil might have some impact on it as it is a component of at least one of the following fungicides.
- Actinovate AG (active ingredient is Streptomyces lydicus),
- Double Nickel 55 (Bacillus amyloliquefaciens),
- MilStop (potassium bicarbonate),
- Regalia (extract of Reynoutria sachalinensis),
- Trilogy (neem oil),
- OxiDate (hydrogen dioxide)
- ‘Genovese’. This is a large-leaved type plant from the Genoa area of Italy and is, in my humble opinion, the very best leaf to use for making pesto. It has a spicy quality that is
lacking in all other varieties. I see this year that a new form of this plant, ‘Special Select FT’ has been imported to North America and the catalogues call it “grown for the best pesto in Italy.” Who am I to argue with this? It will have to be in my garden this summer. There is also a compact form of “Genovese’ for those of you who think your garden is too small for a regular basil plant. Personally, I can’t imagine that situation.
- Another variety I’ve grown for a few years is ‘Mammoth’. Now if I tell you that I’ve grown a leaf that is four to five times the size of a regular leaf, you may think I’m being excessive in my zeal
for this plant. I confess. So what? This form give the biggest leaves which, when you think about it, simply makes using it all that much easier.
- There are several lemon flavoured forms,
- ‘Mrs. Burns’, ‘Sweet Dani’ and the species form O. americanum. (no, it is not an American native – it is African – go figure) I’ve grown the O. americanum several times and it makes a delightful addition to summer salads. ‘Sweet Dani’ was an AAS award winner from 1998 so you canhardly go wrong growing it. If you are feeling a trifle more adventurous, you might want to grow “Ararat’, a purple leaved form with strong taste and tones of licorice. This is a bonus for summer time salads.
- You can even grow basil as an ornamental if you can refrain from eating it.
- “Osmin’ has the deepest purple leaves of any of the purple-leaved group. “Purple Bush’ is, what else, a purple dome, bush-shaped basil that is excellent for pot culture or low hedging.
- ‘Spicy Globe’ is a dense, globe shaped tiny bush that makes a wonderful accent “period” mark in the garden.
- ‘Dark Opal’ is another dark purple-bronze leaf form and one which makes an excellent vinegar because it turns the vinegar dark purple-red. This variety might throw green seedlings so rogue them out and grow them as regular basil in the herb garden. If you are concerned with possible green seedlings, try growing “Rubin’ instead. Its purple leaves do the same thing to vinegar and its flavour is wonderful too. The last ornamental I’ll suggest you grow is ‘Purple Ruffles’. This variety has ruffled leaves and is a vigorous grower. You’ll have to rogue out the odd green leaved form from this seed mixture too.
‘Being applied to the place bitten by venomous beasts, or stung by a wasp or hornet, it speedily draws the poison to it. – Every like draws its like. Mizaldus affirms, that being laid to rot in horse-dung, it will breed venomous beasts. Hilarius, a French physician, affirms upon his own knowledge, that an acquaintance of his, by common smelling to it, had a scorpion breed in his brain.’
My Favorite Recipe With Basil As A Primary Ingredient
Tomato and Basil Jam
This is good stuff and I “encourage” Mayo to include this on her canning list every year. Well.. encourage might be too soft a word. How about “beg?”
Yeah, that’s more like it
The following amounts “should” make 3.5 pints or 7 half pints
We got 4 half pints in 8/13
- 4 pounds any color tomato
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- zest of two lemons, divided (1 lemon = about 1T of zest)
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped basil
- Cut the tomatoes in half or smaller. You can really chop them finer if you want.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and sugar into a large, non-reactive pot and stir. Let the mix sit for at least an hour.
- After the hour, add lemon juice. Mix.
- Get the canning pot and jars sterilized and ready to go.
- Place jam pot over high heat and bring to a boil.
- Boil for 30-35 minutes, stirring regularly, until all the tomatoes are soft and the syrup is thick. Note: if you use an electric stove, find or make an element trivet to get the pot off the element itself and this will reduce burning.
- Once you’re satisfied with the thickness of the syrup, remove pot from heat and stir in half the lemon zest and all the chopped basil.
- Taste the jam and add lemon zest to taste.
- Fill the jars.
- Process jars in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, take the jars out of the canning pot to cool When you can pick them up with your bare hands, test the tops for sealing. Hide any unsealed jars in the refrigerator so Doug can’t eat it all right away. Any that have sealed can be stored cool and dark for a year. If they last that long, I’ll be surprised.
Traditional Medicinal Uses of Basil
According to “A Modern Herbal” by Mrs. M. Grieve, there are few uses for basil in the ancient literature.
But the web is full of advice on how to use this herb, much of it contradictory.
One resource suggested basil is used as a cure for
- stomach spasms,
- loss of appetite,
- intestinal gas,
- kidney conditions,
- fluid retention,
- head colds,
- warts, and
- worm infections
- tea – here are 20 other herbs to make herbal teas yourself
Another said you can also use it for treating snake and insect bites.
Yet a third said it promotes blood circulation so women used it after childbirth to start the flow of milk.
What I know is that it makes a fantastic addition to tomato recipes. Toasted tomato sandwiches with a sprig of basil are wonderful. Basil added to tomato sauces is like bacon and eggs – they simply go well together.
It is, quite frankly, one of the few herbs I wouldn’t do without.