The fragrance and flavour of basil has made it one of the most popular culinary and household herbs. It also has many health benefits, especially when used as a cleansing tonic for the system.
Although we’re probably most familiar with sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, basil actually comes in loads of different flavours. From cinnamon basil to lemon basil, experimenting with new varieties and new tastes is always a culinary adventure.
How to grow basil — the basics
- All basils are equally easy to grow; they prefer morning sun in hot areas and full sun in cooler areas.
- Basil does best in fertile, composted and well-drained soil.
- Basil does need more water than other Mediterranean herbs so it should be watered regularly. The best time to water your basil plants is in the morning.
- Monthly feeding allows them to produce lush leaves and pinching off the growing tips of small plants encourages bushy growth.
- Basil is a good companion plant for tomatoes, reputedly increasing the flavour of the fruit and promoting healthy growth. It also helps repel aphids, white fly, fruit fly and beetles.
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How to grow basil from seed
Basil germinates easily and is quick to grow from seed, but it should only be sown after all danger of frost has passed. Because it’s quick growing, you can plant basil from September right through to February.
Prepare the bed by digging in extra compost, raking it level and removing stones and sticks.
- Seed can be sown in rows or scatter sown at a depth of 3mm. Lightly firm down the soil and water gently.
- Keep the soil moist until germination, which usually occurs within 7 days.
- Thin out plants until the final ones are 30cm apart. The thinned out plants can be eaten as micro leaves and later baby salad leaves.
For a constant supply of fresh leaves, sow a new batch of seed every 6 to 8 weeks, or bring in new young plants.
Basil is generally pest free, but may be attacked by spider mites (especially when it is hot and dry), aphids and beetles. Too much water or poor drainage in excessively wet weather can make it susceptible to botrytis, which manifests as black patches on the leaves and stems. Improve drainage by adding milled bark or coarse compost to the soil.
Ideally, you should pick the leaves as you need them because they don’t store well in the refrigerator. Leafy stems can be put in a jug or a bottle of water and kept for a few days. To extend the harvest of leaves, do not let the plants flower as this can cause the leaves to become bitter and it shortens the life of the plants. Pinch out the flowering tops as they appear.
Once your second and subsequent plantings are producing enough leaves for picking then allow the first batch of basil to flower so that you (and the bees) can enjoy the flowers as well.
In the kitchen
Basil is most associated with Italian and Thai cooking and goes particularly well with tomatoes, whether fresh or cooked up as sauces. Add the leaves at the end of cooking. The leaves can also be used in salads and to flavour herb vinegar, herb oil and herb butter.
Basil is also the main ingredient of pesto and a good way to preserve extra basil is to blend basil, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and pine nuts or almonds. The mixture can then be frozen and you can add grated parmesan cheese after defrosting.
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Medicinal properties of basil
Basil has antidepressant, antiseptic and soothing properties. The fresh leaves can be made into a cough syrup with honey or an infusion can be drunk to help relieve a cold. Rubbing fresh leaves onto insect bites and stings will help relieve the itching.