Such was the banner basil year we had a few summers ago, when just about every public or private garden I saw was brimming with basil. The one basil plant I bought, and foolishly placed in a container with dill and parsley, had all but elbowed out the dill and literally overshadowed the parsley by the end of June. It just kept going, and in early August it began to flower like mad. I kept pinching. It kept flowering.
The weather during the following season was similar, and I bought another basil plant from the same place and planted it in its very own container. It grew. It did OK. But it didn’t have near the chutzpah of its predecessor. Although basil is a member of the mint family and therefore apt to spread, maybe it needs a little competition — other herbs it can boot out of the clubhouse — to be at its best. Which may explain its name, taken from the Greek “basilikon,” which means royal, or king. Unless you’re talking about the three kings from the Orient following yonder star, you don’t hear much about kings playing nicely and sharing.
You can grow basil from seed, although at least one veteran herb grower I know says it’s better to just buy the plants. As with many crops, you can plant the seeds outside after the danger of frost has passed or start them indoors a few weeks before then. One year I started some basil indoors with great results; the next, a whitefly invasion ruined the batch. You do have to be careful with the seed, especially if you’re working with it outside on a windy day. It’s very small and fine, almost powder-like; just lightly scatter the seeds and then barely cover them with soil. If you treat basil seed like tomato seed and plant it a quarter of an inch beneath the soil, you probably won’t get basil. And no, you won’t get tomatoes, either.
Basil needs plenty of sun and a steady supply of moisture, and any flower buds are best pinched off as soon as they emerge. This encourages the plant to “go green,” so to speak, and focus its energy on those flavorful leaves. Ohio State University suggests fertilizing basil sparingly because fertilizing tends to decrease fragrant oils. Some gardeners say basil needs no fertilizer at all, especially if it’s growing in good soil. What basil plants do not like is cold weather, or even cool weather. This spring’s cold snap made my basil plants very crabby indeed, even though they were on a sheltered porch.
Sweet green basil is standard, but it comes in dwarf green, purple-leaved and scented leaf varieties. One garden center I visited this spring had some 10 to 15 basil varieties. The two I finally chose were Nufar, a flavorful variety resistant to the fungal disease fusarium wilt; and Mrs. Burns’ Lemon, which tastes more like lemon than basil.
Basil, of course, is the primary ingredient in pesto and can be used in any number of dishes. It’s great in scrambled eggs, and you can add a couple of leaves to a sandwich. It pairs well with tomatoes and is very good chopped fresh and sprinkled over grilled or fried halloumi, a traditional Cypriot cheese. Just try plugging “basil” into the search function on allrecipes.com and choosing among all the possibilities that pop up. And then you can hope for another booming basil year.
Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.