If you do any Italian cooking at all, you'll want to include basil
in the herb garden. Basil can't be planted until after the last frost date, but in the heat of summer it will produce abundantly.
About This Plant
There are several types of basil
to choose from. The most common is bush or sweet basil
, a compact plant growing to 18 inches or so during the season. Purple basil adds a splendid burgundy color to the garden. It can be used like common basil, though it's a little less sweet. The purple leaves create a beautiful color when steeped in white vinegar. Recently rediscovered by many cooks, lemon basil adds a lemony basil fragrance to both the garden and the kitchen. Thai basil adds a licorice flavor and tastes great in Asian cooking. Basil is a heat-loving annual herb.
Plant in full sun in moist, well-drained soil.
Start seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost date or seed directly in the garden (about 1/4 inch deep) after the last frost date when soil is warm. Set transplants or thin seedlings to stand at least 10 to 12 inches apart; more room (16 to 24 inches apart) will encourage low, bushy plants to develop.
Pinch off the center shoot of the basil plant after it has grown for 6 weeks to force side growth and prevent early flowering. If flower stalks do develop, cut them off. Mulch is recommended in hot areas since basil likes a steady moisture supply. Basil is generally pest-free. Early cold weather can ruin a maturing crop, so be sure to harvest if temperatures are expected to dip below 40 degrees F.
Basil is at its most pungent when fresh. The best time to harvest is just as the plant starts to bud, well before flowers bloom. Snip leaves or branches at this time and pinch off flower buds to keep the plant productive. You also can cut the entire plant about 6 to 8 inches above ground, leaving at least one node with two young shoots intact. The plant should produce a second but smaller harvest several weeks later.
Since the leaves lose some of their flavor when dried, freezing is the best method for winter storage. To quick-freeze basil, dry whole sprigs and pack them in plastic bags with the air pressed out. To dry basil, pinch off the leaves at the stem and dry them in a shady, well-ventilated area. Check in 3 or 4 days, and if they are not totally dry, finish drying in the oven, otherwise the leaves may turn brown or black. Use the lowest heat possible with the door slightly open, turn leaves for even drying, and check frequently.