If you don’t like basil, there must be something wrong with you. Ok with cilantro, there is that genetic thing where some people are repulsed and such. But basil is divine. It is probably because of basil that I love the warm season more than the cool season.
For many crops, I enjoy growing the odd balls. I will even prefer the odd balls. But for basil I want the old fashioned “sweet genovese”. This is not to say it’s not worth trying the others. They have their purpose. But we MUST have plenty of space for future pesto and basil mozzarella sandwiches.
Because we love diversity, some words shall be spent on the OTHER varieties and species. There is a fairly exhaustive list on Wikipedia.
The Ocimum basilicum cultivars are the most familiar. There are a few large-leafed varieties. “Mammoth” is the most popular, but not to be overlooked is the more delicately flavored “lettuce leaf”, which is great in salads. Many nurseries misname and confuse “mammoth” and “lettuce leaf”.
Other varieties have a tighter growth form like “boxwood” or “fino verde”. There are some types of basil that sport eclectic flavors like “cinnamon” or “licorice” basil. Finally there are several purple varieties like “purple ruffles” which obviously sports the larger ruffly leaf like the above mentioned “lettuce leaf” basil but in purple.
There are the citrusy basils like the species Ocimum americanum (formerly known as O. canum). There is a lime and a lemon version of this species. Another group of basils, the Ocimum ×citriodorum cultivars, has the “Thai lemon” and a cool-looking variety called “Greek columnar” (this one you can only obtain through cuttings).
There are several other species worth mentioning. One of my favorites is the “sacred basil”, Ocimum sanctum. This native of India is essential for authentic Thai recipes and is used in worship (as the name denotes). It’s also just pretty, with purple tinged green leaves, slightly adorned with fine hairs.
A common one found in nurseries is the “African blue” basil, Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum. This sterile, cutting propagated variety makes large shrubs when given room.
“Spicy Globe Basil”, sometimes erronously named “Greek Globe Basil” (it’s a native of Chile not Greece) Ocimum minimum, develops into gorgeous plants in the form of tight round balls.
In March you can start planting seeds. With the exception of sterile varieties that don’t grow from seed (like “African blue”) you really shouldn’t be getting your plants from the nursery. I have said this before. And yes, I really think you should always try to direct seed. However, with basil, there is no excuse. Plants WILL bolt way sooner and be weaker if planted from pots rather than spending their whole lives in one spot.
Basil likes reasonably amended garden soil but is fairly undemanding. They will be fuller-looking if there is some compost and manure and maybe if you think about it, splash some organic food on them. But they don’t need much care. What DOES help is mulching the base of the plants. Basil has shallow root systems and some insulation from our summer sun is always a kind thing to do.
Plant in full sun. There is nothing more pathetic than etiolated basil (etiolation is when plants don’t get enough light and they look stupid, stretched out and…lame). People tell me all the time that they have tried putting plants in full sun, but they get toasted. This isn’t because plants are in full sun. This is because of a number of other reasons: crappy soil, salts in the soil, poor watering habits, etc.
Trim plants regularly (this will be easy because you will want to be USING the leaves all the time). Snip away any developing flowers. If plants flower too much they will go to seed. Plus, the more you snip, the more the plant branches out and gets bushy.
Plant with tomato and pepper. Not a good companion with beans, cucumber or cabbage. If you are like me, you might have entire rows of basil.
Right before frost, this is what you do: invite your friends over. Have lots of cocktails, or cheap beer (whatever blows your skirt up). Everyone helps picking the basil clean, and mixing the ingredients for your favorite pesto. Try using hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, in addition to the traditional pine nuts. Label everything in nice half-pint jars and send everyone home with some pesto.
If you are stingy, you can freeze pesto, or macerated basil, and it keeps its flavor well if you store in a good container. It will last until next season.