The Greeks held high regard for basil (Ocimum basilicum), and named the herb Vasilikos (pronounced vah-see-lee-KOHS), which means king. In India, basil is favored as a sacred herb.
Throughout the centuries, the plant was considered the herb of love, yet on the other hand, it represented hatred for your enemies. Superstitious assertions had witches using basil for evil deeds. Others claimed you could attract a beautiful woman with the scent of a basil leaf. The Greeks and the Romans shouted at the seeds as they sowed them, throwing a few curse words in for good measure — believing the basil would not thrive without the ruckus.
Basil should be the king of the kitchen garden, with at least one variety of basil growing in it. The chefs of the house can snip off what they need, whenever they need to spice up their culinary dishes.
The best part about growing basil in your garden is its fresh-from-the-garden taste. Freezing torn leaves, or blending them with water and freezing into ice cubes, is the next best thing to fresh. Popping the frozen cubes into freezer containers can supply you with basil for months after it’s too cold to grow it outside.
You can dry the leaves, but the herb loses too much flavor with that method. Leave the dried basil in spice jars for those who don’t know better, and use fresh whenever you can. If you can’t grow the herbs in winter and you run out of frozen basil cubes, buy fresh basil from a produce market.
Basil needs a lot of heat to grow and be healthy; our mild maritime climate makes it tricky for the first-time basil grower. If it’s too cold, the seeds won’t germinate. If you plant basil starts outside before it’s warm, the plants sit there and sulk.
Our cold-to-cool springs and slow-warming soil make for a late start for this annual herb. Once you understand its basic needs, you can grow basil with ease — and you don’t need to curse or shout at it for the plant to thrive.
Warning: Growing fresh basil is addictive. You may wind up growing the plant year round because you can’t get enough of its taste.
If you’ve never grown seed before, basil is an easy one to sow and germinate. Planting seed early indoors, under lights, and placed on top of a heat mat can get you some fresh basil growing quickly, even during the colder times of the year. Once the end of May or June comes around, you can grow the herb outdoors in full sun to your heart’s content.
Take a small pot and fill with a sterile seed-starting medium. Place a few seeds on top of the soil and lightly cover with more soil. Water the freshly sown seeds by placing the pot in a shallow tray of warm water until the top is glistening with moisture.
In a few days, the seeds will germinate. After they begin to grow, pinch out the growing tips to encourage the plants to be bushier. When the weather is warm enough, acclimate your plants to outdoor life. Plant them in rich, fertile soil in full sun, and after the basil puts on a decent burst of growth, harvest, harvest, harvest.
You don’t need a lot of room for basil. A container can hold several varieties that you can keep by your back door. Terracotta pots work well for container growing. When it is time to cook, just step outside with scissors in hand, snip off as many leaves as you need, rinse them and toss into your latest culinary delight. Cooking does not get any fresher (or tastier) than this!
If you want fresh basil all year round, you will need a heated greenhouse. If a greenhouse isn’t feasible, you can grow your plants indoors. You will need a heat mat, fan (for air circulation) and grow-lights for indoor growing. For best results, adjust the lights so they are always just above the plants.
You can also grow and harvest the herb as a microgreen. Sow the seeds thickly and harvest them when the first true leaves appear on the seedlings. Harvest by using a pair of scissors and cut them down to soil level.
Rinse your microbasil to clean any soil off the greens, then use them fresh in your favorite recipes. If you can’t use them right away, after rinsing them off, pat them dry and let them sit out until the water dries off. Seal them in a container and refrigerate for up to a week.
Another way to keep them growing during the off-season months is by taking cuttings late in the season. Root them for growing indoors under lights or in a greenhouse.
Choosing the Varieties
Which basil varieties should you grow? With so many cultivars to choose from, you can experiment with many variations for their flavor. Most basil varieties have handsome foliage; some have pretty, little stalks of flowers in hues of white to fuchsia pink.
Which ones you choose to grow depends on what you plan to cook. The spicy, fragrant annual goes with just about everything culinary, but especially marries well with tomatoes and tomato sauces. Salad, pesto and more traditional basil dishes might call for the lettuce-leaf basil with its milder flavor than the Italian large-leaf basil.
Cinnamon basil is an excellent choice for flavoring winter squashes. Enhance chicken and fish dishes with the citrusy undertones of lemon basil. Let your nose and taste buds be your guide to the wonderful world of basils.