Basil is high in the Top Ten of the most popular herbs for cooking. Used especially in Italian and tomato dishes, basil adds an extra dimension to the taste of a meal. And growing basil is easy.
If you’ve only ever used dried basil for cooking, you’ll be surprised and delighted by the flavour of fresh basil. If you’re a beginner to herb gardening, basil is a good herb with which to start your herb garden.
Basil can be grown indoors or out so whether you live in the country with a huge garden or whether you have a bedsit in a city, there’s no reason why you can’t grow this lovely and useful herb.
History of Basil
Basil is native to Asia, Africa and central and south America. It seems likely that it was first cultivated in India and was then spread to Africa and the Mediterranean countries by trading ships. The Latin name for basil is Ocimum basilicum. The Ancient Greeks called it the King of Herbs – basilikos means royal in Greek – and they believed that it should be harvested by the king himself and that he should use a golden sickle!
But first one word of advice: as you may have guessed from its origins, basil does like a warm climate. If you live in the north you may be advised to grow your basil indoors.
Growing Basil From Seed
Basil grows well from seed and can be planted from March to June. Use ordinary potting compost to fill a small pot. Water with tap water (less risk of bacteria than from water collected outdoors) and leave to drain. Place about 8 -10 seeds on the surface, evenly distributed, and cover lightly – use clingfilm or clear plastic bags – to create a damp, warm environment. Leave in a warm dark environment until the first signs of seedlings appear then move to a sunny windowsill.
After about 5 weeks, when the seedlings are well-developed, gently tip them out of the pot and separate carefully. Plant each seedling in its own pot and water lightly. Basil can be kept in pots or planted out, about 12” apart, from mid-May into well-drained and well-dug soil in a sunny position.
- Basil seeds can be sown directly into the ground once all danger of frost has passed.
- Late-sown basil will continue to grow through early winter if kept indoors on a warm and sunny windowsill.
- Basil doesn’t like water on its leaves! Water from below.
- Basil responds well to fertiliser. If planting outside, dig compost into the soil before planting.
Aphids and other insects can be removed by carefully washing the leaves with an insecticide soap. If you are an organic gardener, pick the aphids off by hand or wash with a gentle soapy solution.
To Harvest Basil
Pinch out leaves from the top as required. If flowers appear pick them off immediately to encourage more leaf growth and pinch out the growing tips to encourage bushier growth.
To Dry Basil
Collect the leaves just as the flowers are about to blossom as the leaves at this point contain the most oil and will be most flavoursome. Basil is a tender herb and must be dried quickly to prevent it going mouldy. Place a single layer of leaves on a drying tray (a wooden frame covered with a fine wire mesh or cheesecloth) in a warm and non-humid environment. Keep the leaves apart and check regularly for signs of mould.
Basil can be dried overnight in an oven. Lay a piece of kitchen towel on a cooling tray, Place on it a single layer of leaves, well apart, and cover with another piece of kitchen towel. Repeat until you have up to 5 layers of leaves. Leave overnight in an oven heated only by the pilot light, if gas, or by the interior light, if electric. When completely dry, store in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place, and use within a year.
- 1 oz fresh basil leaves
- 1 oz pine nuts
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- ¼ pint virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 oz Parmesan, preferably freshly grated
- Extra olive oil
Place the basil, nuts, garlic and oil in a blender or food processor. Whiz until you have a paste. Season well. Mix in the parmesan. Put the mixture into a small jar and top with a layer of olive oil. Cover and keep refrigerated until ready to use.
Stir into hot pasta and sprinkle with extra cheese for a simple lunch dish.