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How To Grow Basil

Anne K Moore
Photographs by Anne K Moore

Purple-Ruffles-Basil.jpgI cannot walk past some plants in the garden without stroking or pinching.  Some are soft and pettable.  Some just smell heavenly. 

Herbs probably take up most of my sniffing time in the garden.  Basil is one of these plants with heightened fragrance, and it comes in so many shapes, sizes, and aroma intensities.

The Purple Ruffles Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’) shown here is beautiful in a pot in the garden or plucked and put into a glass bottle filled with vinegar or oil.  The spicy Globe Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Minimum’), shown below, makes a beautiful, aromatic edging to an herb garden.  Its bushy growth and tiny leaves is easy to keep trimmed into boxwood-like hedges.

Bush-Basil.jpgThere are many types of basil with fragrance other than the sweet cloves aroma of most basil.  Below is a photo of Cinnamon Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’).  Other flavors and aromas include Lemon Basil (Ocimum americanum) and Anise Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Anise’).

Plain old sweet basil is far from “plain”.  This versatile herb’s large leaves are used in many dishes, including pesto, tomato dishes, in soups, in poaching water for meat or fish, with vegetables, and in salads.  Try it in the Tomato, Feta, Basil Salad Chef Linda has prepared for us this week in her article, “A Herb is still An Herb”.

Cinnamon-Basil.jpgBasil is an annual, so you grow it from seed each year to get new plants.  It is very cold sensitive, so harvest the leaves in the fall before the nighttime temperatures drop below 50 degrees F.  After the first frost, collect the woody stems and use them as skewers for grilling vegetables or meat.

When sowing your seeds in the spring or moving plants into the garden, wait until the danger of frost has passed, the soil has warmed up, and the nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees F. 

For best germination and growing, start seeds indoors using a heat mat to bring the potting mix to 75 - 85 degrees.  You can use a commercial seed starting mix, which is sterile and will give you the best results.  Plant the seeds about an eighth of an inch deep, barely covering with the mix.  Keep the soil moist, not wet.  It helps to cover the pot with plastic wrap to keep the medium moist.  Remove it when the seedlings have germinated and are up.

Good air circulation is very important when the seedlings are young.  Damping off disease occurs when the growing medium is too wet and fungus has a chance to develop, rotting the stems of the plants at the soil level.  They collapse and cannot be saved once this condition hits them.

Set the plants out in the garden in a sunny spot, either in containers or in the soil.  Space them about a foot apart in the garden, closer in a pot.  Basil thrives in well-drained rich soil.  Mulch the plants to keep the soil moist and to keep weeds from invading your herb patch.  Keep the basil plants well watered during the drought days of summer.

Picking and pinching is the way to get healthy, thick herbs.  So, go ahead and pilfer as many leaves and stems as you like.  You’re not just surrendering to your senses; you are helping your herbs grow and develop into bushier plants with more sensuous leaves for plucking.

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