Spicy and deliciously aromatic basil will thrive in pot or herb garden and give you fresh green leaves for your Indian and Italian dishes.
Really fresh basil leaves are a tasty and fragrant addition to a variety of dishes, and to get this superb flavour you will have to grow the plants yourself. The dried basil you get in the shops bears little resemblance to fresh leaves, which are almost impossible to buy. Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) originated in India, where it is considered to be a plant sacred to the gods. There it grows up to 90 cm (3’) tall but in cooler conditions it is nearer 45-60 cm (2’). It also grows wild in the Mediterranean area, where its spiciness is most appreciated. Although it is a tropical plant, it will sometimes grow outdoors in temperate climates where it is treated as a half-hardy annual. There is a variety of sweet basil called Dark Opal, which is ornamental as well as useful, since it has deep purple leaves, although this is hard to come by. In a cooler climate, you might want to try a slightly hardier type, bush, or dwarf, basil (Ocimum minimum), which grows to 15-30 cm (6-12”).
Choose a warm, sheltered spot in your garden for basil, preferably one facing the midday sun. The soil should be light, rich and well-drained. Before sowing, dig the soil well and add a little well-rotted garden compost, peat or leaf mould.
Basil is usually grown from seed sown in mid-spring. Although you can sow directly into the ground, it is advisable in cooler areas to sow under glass in early spring and plant out in late spring. If sowing under glass, place two or three seeds in a 5 cm (2”) pot filled with a good quality potting compost. If you maintain the temperature at a constant 15°C (60°F), germination should take place in about two weeks. Thin the seedlings to one in each pot and gradually harden them off until planting out in late spring. Plant the whole root ball of the seedling without breaking it up. Plant out at a spacing of 20 cm (8”); this is also the correct spacing for seed sown directly into the ground. If the weather is chilly, cover the plants with cloches at night.
Basil is a relatively carefree plant, with minimal cultivation requirements. Water the bed in dry weather, and hoe to keep down the weeds. In mid-summer, pinch off the flowers and stem tips to encourage a leafier plant. You should always leave at least two pairs of leaves on the plant when you do this, as the bottom pair of leaves is always dying off.
You should be able to cut fresh basil leaves as you need them throughout the summer. Always pick leaves from the top of the plant. Basil is used in many Indian and Italian dishes; try it in recipes for tomatoes, cheese, eggs or fish. Unlike most herbs, the flavour of basil becomes stronger in cooking, so use it more sparingly in cooked dishes than in salads or other cold dishes.
You can also cut leaves of basil for drying. Cut off the leafy stems just before the plant flowers in mid-summer. Tie them in bunches and hang them upside-down in a dark, warm, dry place. When they are dry, crumble the leaves and store them in a tightly-sealed jar for use through the winter.
Keep in mind, though, that dried basil will never give you the marvellous spicy flavour of the fresh leaves. If you have a taste for fresh basil, you might want to prolong the cutting season by growing a pot or two on your windowsill. Basil normally dies in the autumn in temperate climates, but with great care in a warm place you may be lucky enough to nurse a plant through the winter and into the following spring. Bush basil grows particularly well in pots. If you would like to try, lift a few of the outdoor plants very early in autumn, cut them back to just above the lowest pair of leaves, and pot them singly in 12.5 cm (5”) pots of good potting compost. Put them in a light, warm place.
You can buy potted basil plants, or you can grow your own from seed. Sow in early spring, two or three seeds to a 5 cm (2”) pot, exactly as you would for seedlings to be planted out. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them to the largest one in each pot and pot on to 10 cm (4”) pots filled with a good quality potting compost. Place the pots in a saucer of water, and always water from the bottom as pot-grown basil does not like water on stems or leaves. Keep the pot on your sunniest windowsill, and turn it round toward the light every other day. Basil is a pretty and useful herb to have in the kitchen, and its delicate aroma will fill the room when the breeze blows the leaves. When autumn comes, cut the plants back by about half to stimulate new growth.