Grow Basil For Its Ease & Its Sensory Delights

Grow basil for a garden smell that stops you in your tracks and a taste in your cooking that will earn you rave reviews. This easy herb is a treat for the senses.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: Jing/Pixabay

The world is darn hard enough. Can’t we just grow things that are easy?

Basil is in this category—for me, at least.

I find basils of all kinds germinate easily, produce prolifically for months and even pop up as volunteers where I least expect it. That last one might not be a positive attribute for some gardeners, but I find it charming.

Varieties of Basil

Basil, related to mint, comes in many flavors and cultivars. A few that I love are:

  • Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil, which produces smaller, stouter leaves than sweet basil, doesn’t seem to be bothered by pests and imparts a lemony-basil flavor to dishes.
  • Genovese Basil is the typical, broad-leaved, Italian basil you probably think of first. This year, I’m trying the hybrid Elida, which was developed to be somewhat resistant to fusarium wilt. Grown side by side in my garden, I see the impact of insects chowing on my standard Genovese leaves more so than the Elida. I hope to not have to find out which is more fusarium-resistant.
  • Thai Basil, which I probably shouldn’t claim to love so much as appreciate. Thai basil has a mildly anise basil flavor, and I’m not the biggest anise fan. This is an important herb for several recipes that I enjoy, so I always have a few of these plants around.

Other types I’ve tried include cinnamon basil and purple basil. Neither of those make my favorites list, though they offer nice diversity in the garden, and pollinators enjoy them.

One missing here, holy basil, or tulsi, is in my top-five list of all plants to have in the garden. While it is a basil, it’s a different species (Ocimum sanctum) than culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum), so I’m not covering tulsi here.

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Check out these 10 types of basil that you can grow and use at home.

How to Grow Basil

Basil is equally as happy getting started in the greenhouse four-ish weeks before last frost as it is being direct-seeded into the garden after the chance of frost has passed and the soil has warmed.

I seed basil once or twice throughout the summer, though you can more rigorously succession plant.

Plant basil 12 to 18 inches apart in full sun. I leave a little more space between varieties in the row, as the plants will grow into one another, and I want to give each a chance to thrive.

Basil also does well in pots. Some varieties are specifically for container gardens.

Basil is a nice companion plant to grow. The plant’s aroma deters some insect pests, and when left to flower, beneficial insects flock to these herbs. Consider whether you’d like to grow all of your basils together or to intersperse them throughout the garden, particularly among your nightshades and asparagus.

I keep reading about basil needing lots of water to thrive, though this year’s hot, dry, breezy weather is kicking our butt, and the basil is like, “What drought?”

Straw mulch helps. So have the means to water your basil throughout the season, but listen to your plants.

How to Harvest Basil

Basil is susceptible to cold weather. Its growth will slow significantly when nights dip into the low 50s. The plants will die, turn black and leave your garden looking like an apocalypse film on first approach to the mid-30s.

Row cover is little help. Plan your harvest accordingly.

Basil likes to be harvested often. I think basil just likes attention in general. Harvest at leaf intersections to encourage growth from other branches.

Because of its aversion to cold, basil is tricky to keep after harvest. If harvesting long stems, cut the stems and keep them in a jar of water, like a flower bouquet.

If, like me, you’re harvesting mostly short-stemmed leaf clusters, keep them in a bag with air in it (like a balloon) in the fridge. The air in the bag will insulate against the harsh refrigerator air.

Don’t wash basil until you’re ready to use it.

Here are 8 ways to preserve the basil you grow for use in the kitchen.

How to Use Basil

Cook with basil as much as possible while you have it fresh, as there’s no substitute for summertime basil.

Use your Thai basil in a curry and as a topping for pho. Use any of the basils in Italian sauces, soups—added at the end—cocktails, fresh salads and this aioli. (I tried this aioli years ago, when the recipe was tested for Hobby Farms, and I highly recommend it.)

Basil tossed with fresh peaches or melons is a singular treat.

When you’ve eaten your fill, pesto is the obvious way to preserve basil’s deliciousness. Maybe you’ll spend two hours every summer weekend making and freezing pesto. (Or maybe you know better than to put 24 basil plants in your garden.) Mix it up by making a pistou—pretty much pesto without nuts—adding other herbs or cooking greens to the blend, and using various nuts and seeds.

Basil also keeps dried or frozen.

You can grow two plants or 24 plants in your garden. Basil’s easy-going growing habits and versatile uses in the kitchen make it a favorite in mine.

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