Basil (Ocimum basilicum) conjures up wonderful images of summer brunches sipping on wine and dining on bruschetta spread with pesto, salads drizzled with basil dressing and tomato, basil and rocket pizzas. When the fragrance of basil fills the garden we know that it’s not long until summer arrives.
To the ancient Greeks and Romans, basil was a sign of hostility and madness and they believed that to grow a truly fragrant basil, one had to shout and swear angrily whilst sowing its’ seeds. In Italy, a woman would place a pot of basil on her balcony to signal that she was ready to receive her lover. And in Haiti, shopkeepers would sprinkle basil water throughout their store to bring prosperity. So, not only does basil help to relieve pent up anger and bring greater wealth but it also manages to find you a romantic interlude. What a truly amazing plant!
Basil is available in a myriad of colours, sizes and shapes. There’s the wonderfully fragrant Thai Basil, richly coloured Red Rubin Basil, versatile Lemon Basil and the essential Sweet Basil. There are basils with leaves that are frilly or flat, purple or green, large or small. Some grow as small as 30 centimetres tall and others, like the formal and upright Columnar Basil, will grow as tall as 120 centimetres tall. Most basils are annuals but there are a few that will even grow all year round.
The fresh leaves from basil can be harvested at any time and, in late summer, can be dried by hanging in a dry area ready for winter use. The flower heads and stems are also worth harvesting since their flavour is actually more intense then the leaves. Basil can be preserved in vinegars and oils, kept in the refrigerator in a jar of water or frozen for use in casseroles and stews.
Basil is one of the best of all companion plants but possibly the most under estimated. It is widey known for its’ ability to improve the flavour and growth of tomatoes when they are planted side by side and the flower heads encourage bees into the garden to help with pollination. But, even more impressively, planting a number of basils throughout the garden is an excellent deterrent for white fly, aphid, fruit fly, mosquitoes and houseflies.
Except for a few, most basils are frost tender annuals and prone to leaf spot in cold weather. They prefer warm to hot climates and it is best not to be tempted to plant basil until the nights are consistently above 10 degrees Celsius in mid-spring. Basil is easy to grow from seed planted in late spring when the soil is warmer and, if a few seed heads are left on, will probably self-sow throughout the garden
To get the best flavour and aroma from basil, plant it in full or partial sun with some protection from wind. The soil needs to be rich, moist and well drained and preferably not too acid. Build up the soil with plenty of compost and manures and a little lime when preparing the beds. Basil also grows well in large tubs and hanging baskets provided it is in premium potting mix with controlled release fertiliser added. Basil loves to be harvested so that it can grow more lush and flavoursome leaves but the more leaves you take, the more you should feed it with a high nitrogen liquid fertiliser.
Basils are the perfect plants for cooks, gardeners, landscapers, organic gardeners, outdoor entertainers and plant collectors. Basil has something for every one.