Basil, also known as Sweet Basil, is the common name for Ocimum basilicum, a popular, sweet herb of the Mint Family, grown for its flavorful foliage. Basil is originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia, where is grown as a perennial. In cold area is grown as an half-hardy annual because it is a tender herb, very sensitive to cold, with best growth in hot, dry conditions and should not be planted outdoors until the weather is warm.
Basil is a low-growing herb that grows to between 30-60 cm tall, with opposite, light green, silky leaves 3-5 cm long and 1-3 cm broad. The foliage releases its wonderfully spicy fragrance just brushing against it. The flowers are insignificant, but very popular with bees and butterflies, edible, white in color and arranged in a terminal spike. If the plant is allowed to flower, it will produce seedpods containing small black seeds, which you can save and sow in the following spring.
There are over 40 known varieties of basil. Varieties can grow to a height of 75 cm and are about as wide. Foliage colors range from pale to deep green, vivid purple and even purple laced with goldish yellow foliage. Texture varies from silky and shiny to dull and crinkly. Flowers appear in summer as whorls on the ends of branches and are either white or lavender, depending on the variety of the plant. Some of the unusual fragrances and flavors that basil varieties can have include: cinnamon, lemon and anise. Here are some of the most used varieties: Sweet Basil - the most popular variety that grows to a height of 75 cm, Cinnamon Basil - with a cinnamon flavor that grows to a height of 45 cm, Lemon Basil - with mild lemon flavor, that grows to a height of 30 cm, Purple Basil - similar to sweet basil, but with purple leaves that is one of the more tender varieties and grows to a height of 75 cm, Red Rubin Basil - similar to sweet basil but very darkly colored leaves that grows to a height of 75 cm, Thai Basil - very spicy, used in Indian cooking that grows to a height of 90 cm.
It is an attractive plant suited for every type of garden, a plant that works well in vegetable, herb and flower gardens, as borders plants, in containers or raised beds. Basil also makes a great kitchen windowsill plant and looks great in hanging baskets also, either alone or in combination with flowers. Place pots planted with basil around your deck or terrace to enjoy its aroma when you pass by.
Basil thrives in hot weather and if grown in colder areas it will grow best if sown under glass in a peat pot, then planted out in late spring or early summer. It grows best in a well-drained soil, in a sunny place. Although basil will grow best outdoors, it can also be grown indoors in pots and will do best in strong sunlight, on an south-facing windowsill or in a greenhouse.
The easiest way to start basil seeds is to sow them directly into the garden. In colder zones, start basil indoors in mid-spring. Seedlings should not be planted outdoors until all danger of frost has past and the plants have four true leaves. Basil can also be propagated from cuttings, with the stems of short cuttings suspended for about two weeks in water until roots develop or from rooted suckers.
Once plants are established, pinch out the top to encourage a bushier plant. Frequent harvesting of the outer leaves will prolong the life of the plant. Basil leaves have the best flavor just before the plant flowers so this is the best time to harvest. The ideal time to harvest basil is on a sunny morning immediately after the dew has evaporated and before the day becomes too warm. When harvesting basil, cut it back to about 0.5 cm above a node. Leave enough foliage on the plant so it can continue growing healthy. You can delay flowering by pinching or clipping off new flower buds. If a stem successfully produces mature flowers, leaf production slows or stops on any stem which flowers, the stem becomes woody and essential oil production declines.
Picking the leaves off the plant helps promote new growth, largely because the plant responds by converting pairs of leaflets next to the topmost leaves into new stems. Basil will usually have to be pruned every 2 to 3 weeks to keep in beautiful shape. If the soil is rich, a plant cut back will develop successive crops of foliage until fall. At that time, roots of strong plants can be lifted and potted up to be moved indoors for a winter supply. If its leaves have wilted from lack of water, it will normally recover if watered thoroughly and immediately placed in a sunny location. Yellow leaves towards the bottom of the plant are an indication that the plant needs more sunlight or less fertilizer.
For a direct-seeded plants, sow seed thinly in a well-prepared seedbed. Introducing well rotted organic compost or manure into the soil at least a month before sowing will help the plants to develop well. To prevent the soil from crusting, cover with a fine layer of soil mixed with vermiculite or peat and keep the soil surface moist. Plants should emerge in 8 to14 days.
Basil grow best in a protected, full-sun position and need a well-dug, well-drained, rich soil. Plants started indoors and hardened off in late spring can be planted outside to their permanent location and spaced about 30 cm apart. Since moisture is important to a good developing, you can add an organic mulch around the plants to help aid soil moisture retention and prevent weed establishment, keeping the plant healthy this way. Basil prefers a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Fertilize basil sparingly as this decreases the fragrant oils. Do not over fertilize, or flavor will be sacrificed for new growth. Basil will not tolerate moisture stress, so provide a regular supply of water. It also hates water on it's leaves and stem, so make sure to water at the base of the plant avoiding showering the leaves and stems.
Basil is ideally suited to container growing in general purpose compost. Water regularly and feed the plants with a small amount of fertilizer every month. As the season progresses, move them round the garden to the sunniest and most protected position. Basil will grow well indoors on a sunny windowsill.
Preserve Basil for later use by drying, freezing in ice cubes, putting fresh leaves in vinegar or oil. Putting herbs in vinegar captures their flavor for the months when fresh herbs are not available.