Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bountiful Basil

There are many different varieties of this tasty Mediterranean herb. They are fragrant and attractive in the garden and a necessary ingredient in many Italian and fusion recipes. They are also considered one of the worlds most healthy foods. Basil is a good source of Vitamins A, C, and several minerals. Additionally it contains flavanoids and essential oils that have been shown to protect cells from a number of different types of damage. And, last but not least, it is reputed to have anti-inflammatory properties. All this only gives us more reason to grow and use bountiful basil.

Basil varieties can be divided into 3 different groups. There are the large leaved Italian types, a group of hybrids that are exceptionally ornamental, and smaller leaved aromatic types. The Italian and ornamental basils need a little more care and attention than the other hardier small leaved basils. But they are worth the effort.

Italian basils are bred for a sweet, smooth, yet robust flavor that is awesome for pesto, pasta, and salsa. You will generally find these basils referred to as Pesto Basil, Italian Basil, Sweet Basil, or Lettuce Leaf Basil. They can be grown in doors in a bright window, or outside in partial shade. Best results are obtained in rich, well drained, yet evenly moist soil either in the garden, the border, or in containers. Basil grown in containers benefit from monthly feedings with dilute fish emulsion. (Available at most nurseries and through many catalogs. Read the label for use instructions, and look for deodorized fish emulsion for indoor plants.)

Basil does very well in containers, and if slugs are a problem this may be the best way to go. Ceramic containers discourage slugs somewhat. A strip of copper tape attached to the outside of the pot will improve the slug and snail repellant attributes of the container enormously. (This tape is available at many nurseries and mail order catalogs.) Basil grown in containers can be moved around in the garden to suit its persnickety whims. It can also be used as a fragrant centerpiece for indoor or outdoor meals. And when weather threatens to turn cold the basil can be brought indoors to extend its life span.

The ornamental basils tend to be a little hardier than the Italian basils, and they will do better in the garden or flower border. However, they would also be perfectly happy to nestle down in a ceramic pot and get spoiled just a little. These basils are perfectly edible, and can be used in recipes exactly like the Italian basils. Only an avid gardener or a gourmet cook is likely to notice the difference. If you want something with a little flash look for Serata, Red Rubin, or Purple Ruffles. These basils rival the beauty of the common coleus, often grown as a house or shade plant for its colorful leaves.

Last but not least, there are a large number of narrow leafed basils available. Many of these have been used in ethnic culinary or medicinal traditions from many parts of the world. If you seek them out you can find basils from Africa, Greece, India, Thailand, etc. Each of these basils has something to offer the gardener, from medicinal benefits, unique color combinations, to ethnic culinary appeal. These basils generally do well planted out in the garden, they thrive in part to full sun, and they generally can take a little drought stress – once they are established.

Most basils are annuals, and once they flower and set seed they will begin to decline and die. The flowers can be pinched out to promote prolonged leaf production. And the flowers themselves are edible, delicious and can be added to salad, pasta, salsa, or even to sun tea. Eventually your plants will decline, especially if they are left out in the cold. Basil is definitely a warm season crop.

If you want to save seed from your basil, let at least a few plants flower and set seed. The seed will be found in the papery capsules that develop after the flowers fade. That seed can be started for indoor plants in the fall or winter, or it can be saved until spring. Plants grown in the winter will need to spend most days and all nights in the house. They need bright light and they will benefit from monthly feedings with diluted fish emulsion. You can pinch out the growing tips to encourage them to form fuller, bushier plants.

Basil seeds are rather small. They readily germinate if kept in a warm moist spot but it can take a month or more before they are ready to be planted in their permanent spot. If you are impatient basil starts are often available from local nurseries, and plants are occasionally available from mail order houses. I also learned a neat trick from my Italian sister-in-law. She grows basil from cuttings rooted in water! She has started basil plants from the bunches of basil offered for sale at grocery stores, from cuttings she has obtained from friends, and from her own plants. Once her plants start flowering she cuts them back, takes cuttings, and starts new plants. She is able to grow basil indoors, year around in cold winter Colorado. If she can do it, I know we can too. Basil seeds, cuttings, or plants can be started to grow outside any time from now until the end of July. By the end of September cuttings should be taken or seeds saved for winter and spring, and then you too can have basil all through the year.

If your local nursery of seed catalog does not carry the types of basil you would like to try, here are two specialty catalogs that ought to wet your appetite: Richters Herbs, (905) 640-6677 (over 40 varieties); Johnny’s Selected Seeds, (877) 564-6697 (25 varieties including the best ornamental basils, and one mixed variety seed pack).

For more information on the nutritional and health benefits of basil see:

Next time we will be taking a look at the marvelous mallows, famous for flowers, food, and medicine. In the mean time, you can probably find me out in the garden, Digging the

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, June 27, 2006. Posted here with permission.

More herb articles:
Stay tuned – Chives and Sweet Cecily will be covered before you know it, as well as lots of veggies, flowers and other good stuff for the garden.

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