If you grow nothing else, you should grow basil. After all, nothing tastes quite as delicious as a homemade pesto—and buying those individual packs of basil leaves to make it sure can add up in cost. (Basil is also one of the 10 herbs you should grow inside year round.)
Sweet basil, the most common variety with a subtle anise flavor, is a busy annual that grows 1 to 2 feet high with glossy leaves and spikes of white flowers. Many cultivars are available with different nuances of taste, size, and appearance, including cultivars with cinnamon, clove, lemon, and lime overtones, as well as purple-leaved types such as ‘Dark Opal’ and ‘Red Rubin’. (Take a look at these 17 different varieties of basil). One of the most popular herbs in the garden, basil adds fine flavor to tomato dishes, salads, and pesto.
Here’s everything you need to know to grow your own basil.
(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)
How To Grow
Plant seed outdoors when frosts are over and the ground is warm, start indoors in individual pots, or buy bedding plants. If you start plants indoors,
Grow a few basil plants in containers so you can bring them indoors before fall frost. Or make a second sowing outdoors in June in order to have small plants to pot up and bring indoors for winter. As frost nears, you can also cut off some end shoots of the plants in the garden and root them in water, to be potted later.
Basil can be subject to various fungal diseases, including Fusarium wilt, gray mold, and black spot, as well as damping-off in seedlings. Avoid these problems by waiting to plant outside until the soil has warmed and by not overcrowding plants. Japanese beetles may skeletonize plant leaves; control pests by hand picking.
Begin using the leaves as soon as the plant is large enough to spare some. Collect from the tops of the branches, cutting off several inches. Handle basil delicately so as not to bruise and blacken the leaves.
You can air-dry basil in small, loose bunches, but it keeps most flavorfully when frozen. To freeze basil, puree washed leaves in a blender or food processor, adding water as needed to make a thick but pourable puree. Pour the puree into ice-cube trays and freeze, then pop them out and store them in labeled freezer bags to use as needed in sauces, soups, and pesto. Pesto (a creamy mixture of pureed basil, garlic, grated cheese, and olive oil) will keep for a long time in the refrigerator with a layer of olive oil on top.
Related: How To Preserve Your Basil Crop
This widely used herb enhances the flavor of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. It is great in spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, and ratatouille. It’s also excellent for fish or meat dishes, combining well with lemon thyme, parsley, chives, or garlic. Try it in stir-fries or in vegetable casserole dishes. Fresh basil leaves are delicious in salads. Try the lemon-and lime-scented cultivars in fresh fruit salads and compotes. Basil is also a staple ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine; cultivars such as ‘Siam Queen’ give the most authentic flavor to these dishes. Basil vinegars are good for salad dressings; those made with purple basils are colorful as well as tasty.