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Basil Is The Best!
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow

Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).

June 17, 2007

There is nothing like the slightly peppery, faintly clove-like, intoxicating fragrance and heavenly taste of freshly crushed basil leaves. I mean, nothing! Basil is my all-time favourite herb—to me it is the essence of summer and the raison d'être for my herb garden. And I think I've finally figured out how to grow it!

Hailing originally from India and now available in over two dozen varieties, basil (Ocimum spp.) was considered to have great healing powers in days gone by. It is also thought to have been an ingredient of royal perfumes, which led to the derivation of its common name from the Greek word basilikon, meaning royal. Oddly enough, the ancient Romans and Greeks would utter curses when sowing basil to encourage germination, which gave rise to the French phrase semer le basilic, meaning “using abusive language.”

The most commonly known basil, Ocimum basilicum, also called sweet basil, is a bushy annual, two to three feet tall, with a square stem (relating it to the mint family) and numerous branches. Its oval, toothed leaves are shiny green to purple in colour, grow opposite each other, and are about one inch long. Small white or purplish flowers appear from June to September and grow in whorls of six at the ends of branches. The smaller bush basil, Ocimum basilicum minimum, is attractive but less aromatic than its bigger cousin.

Basil is available as transplants, but if you like to gow your herbs from seed, start them inside in early May and plan to move them into the garden by mid-June. Basil is susceptible to frost, with the slightest touch turning the leaves an ugly black. This is one of the reasons I grow basil in containers: I can place it for maximum sun exposure during the day, and when necessary, move it to avoid the occasional late frosts that are part of gardening on the prairies.

Basil prefers a moderately rich, fast-draining soil amended with compost. Fast-draining is the key here, a condition I was not able to meet adequately in either my herb garden or in pots set directly on the ground. I solved this problem by growing basil in a pot and placing it on a second inverted pot located inside a third, larger decorative container. When I water the basil, any excess moisture drains straight away from the root zone and accumulates well out of reach at the bottom of the large container, where it does no harm.

Pinch back your basil plants when they reach a height of six inches to encourage bushiness, and harvest individual leaves frequently to stimulate productivity. Also remove flower constantly throughout the summer so that the plant's energy can be directed exclusively to producing more of those pungent and desirable basil leaves.

Fresh basil can be stored indoors for up to two weeks by cutting stems with the leaves intact, placing them in a jar of water, removing all leaves below the water line, and keeping them at room temperature. Basil may also be dried, but loses a lot of its punch in the process. Instead make pesto, a paste of basil leaves, garlic, oil, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese and freeze it for winter enjoyment. You can also preserve basil's unique taste in flavoured vinegars, olive oils, and honey.

An increasing variety of basils is available in transplant or seed form in garden centres. Last year I was able to find the following potted basils in Calgary without really looking: green globe basil (Ocimum basilicum minimum 'Green Globe'), dark opal basil, (O. b. 'Dark Opal'), purple ruffles basil (O. b. 'Purple Ruffles'), and green ruffles basil (O. b. 'Green Ruffles'). There were likely some that I missed. However, if you are bitten by the proverbial bug and want to get your hands on seeds of the more unusual varieties (African blue, anise, cinnamon, lemon, East Indian, Genovese, sacred, to name a few) you will likely have to order seeds from specialty mail-order companies.

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