What’s not to love about basil? If I had to pick just one plant to grow, basil would take the prize. True, I have a love affair with pesto, but nothing can top a caprese salad and even the scent of brushing against the plant as you walk by can be intoxicating.
Native to SE Asia and the South Pacific, basil is in the mint family. There are thirty different species but the most commonly cultivated in the U.S. is Ocimum basilicum. Its genus name Ocimum is a Greek verb meaning, “to be fragrant” and species basilicum means “king or prince.” I rest my case, oh king of herbs!
Basil is easy to grow, garden pesky wildlife avoid it, and the 1-3 foot plants look great in ornamental, vegetable and container gardens. There are varieties with interesting leaf shapes and flavors such as cinnamon, lemon or anise as well as the beautiful color of purple leafed basils. My favorite for its large tender leaves is Genovese Basil. (For a broader list of basil varieties and more cultural details see the University of Minnesota Basil Fact Sheet at http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/components/M1219.pdf or http://www.ngb.org/year_of/index.cfm?YOID=10 )
Basil needs at least 6-8 hours of sunlight and well-drained soil, ideally with a pH of 6-7.5. Seeds can be planted outdoors after spring frosts are history and temperatures range between 55-60F. Alternatively, you can start basil seeds indoors about 4-6 weeks earlier. If you shop early, basil seedlings can be found at most nurseries. Depending on your desire for pesto, two to eight basil plants will yield plenty of pesto if you treat them right.
Once established outdoors, add a couple of inches of mulch such as grass clippings, compost or ground up leaves around the base of each plant to maintain the moisture provided by weekly watering. Container plants may need to be watered more frequently.
You can begin snipping leaves and stems once the plant is established, leaving at least two-thirds of the plant for future growth. By pinching off the flowering ends first you will send energy to the rest of the plant and keep the leaves tender and flavorful. This pruning also encourages an attractive form and keep your basil plants from becoming woody.
Now, the best part. Basil is delicious fresh in a sandwich, in salads, sauces, pasta, pizza or scrambled eggs. It can be dried, or the true prize, in my mind is Pesto:
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/3 cups pine nuts (also good with walnuts)
2 medium garlic cloves
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Make a paste of the first four ingredients in a food processor and then slowly add the olive oil. Season to taste. Stores well for a week or freeze in ice-cube trays and then transfer to an airtight container in your freezer for later use.