Sweet on Basil
No other herb quite conjures up the spicy-sweet fragrance of the summer kitchen garden like sweet basil (Ocimumbasilicum).
Being a summer annual, it grows quickly and easily from seed but if the cook in the home is impatient for fresh leaves, there is also a plentiful supply of seedlings or individual potted herbs.
It is a good idea to have at least three basil plants so that fresh leaves can be picked from each plant in turn, otherwise a single plant is quickly denuded.
Having even more basil plants allows one the luxury of picking for pesto making, infusing the leaves in oil for salad dressings or making insect repellent sprays using excess basil leaves.
Basil grows into a good sized plant, at least 50cm high and wide, and it is both a decorative and useful companion plant in the vegetable garden. The flowers attract pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, the strongly scented leaves repel insects and the plant is reputed to improve the taste of tomatoes.
Basils to grow from seed
Basil varieties available in seed packets are “Sweet Genovese”, the variety Italians grow for pesto, “Large Leaved” sweet basil, and “Thai Basil”.
“Thai basil” has lushgreen leaves, square purple stems and deep purple flowers with an aroma that is a cross between cinnamon and anise. Its flavour is more stable than that of sweet basil when cooked for under high temperatures or for an extended time.
- Sow seed in rows or scatter sow. Planting depth is 3mm. Lightly firm down the soil and water gently.
- Keep the soil moist until germination which usually occurs within seven days.
- Thin out plants until the final ones are 30cm apart. The thinned out plants can be eaten as micro and later baby salad leaves.
These are available from herb stands and provide instant gratification!
“Columnar Basil” is recommended by Doug Watson of Healthy Living Herbs because it is a perennial, with upright, neater growth than sweet basil but with the same flavour and uses. It is frost sensitive.
“Cinnamon Basil” has olive-green, spicy cinnamon scented leaves and pink flowers. Use in dishes requiring a sweet spicy taste, as well as in stir fries.
“Red Rubin”is a new purple leaf variety that maintains its deep colour and has pink flowers. This basil needs more sun than green basils because of the lack of chlorophyll in the leaves. The leaves have a spicy flavour.
“Perennial Basil” (pink or white) has small mottled green leaves with a strong aromatic fragrance and lilac flowers. The leaves can be used in soups and stews. It is semi-frost tender.
All basil varieties do best with plenty of morning sun, and should be planted in fertile soil. Include compost for good drainage and organic fertiliser for extra nutrition.
For a good summer crop fertilise at least once a month. Plants are gross feeders, especially if the leaves are picked regularly.
They need more water than other Mediterranean herbs (like thyme, rosemary, sage) so should be watered regularly; the best time being midday rather than in the evening.
Pinch the growing tips to ensure bushy growth and an abundance of leaves. Cut off the white flowers if you don’t want the plant to go to seed.
In the kitchen
Basil is most associated with Italian and Thai cooking and goes particularly well with tomatoes, whether fresh or cooked in sauces. Add the leaves at the end of cooking.
It is also the main ingredient of pesto. A good way to preserve extra basil is to blend the basil, olive oil and pine/almond nuts and freeze it, omitting the parmesan cheese which is added later.
The leaves can also be used in salads, or to flavour herb vinegar, herb oil and herb butter.
Healing power of basil
Basil has antidepressant, antiseptic and soothing properties. An infusion of the fresh leaves can be combined with honey to make a cough syrup or drunk to help relieve a cold. Rubbing fresh leaves onto insect bites and stings will help relieve the itching.