Basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) is used in many cuisines. Fortunately for us, this warm weather annual grows easily and quickly in our Davis climate and can be grown either in the ground or in containers. Basil originates from India, where it is considered sacred, and grows wild in Mediterranean areas. Planted among tomatoes, it helps repel tomato hornworms. A quick stroll down the seed aisle of your local nursery will introduce you to a world of different basil varieties consumed by people all over the world, in addition to the common sweet basil sold as produce or dried herb. To broaden your culinary options, try planting a few different varieties at opposite ends of the garden (to avoid cross pollination and flavor contamination).
Growth and Maintenance
Generally, basil prefers full sun and soil that is well-drained; soil pH and soil type aren't too much of a concern, though the addition of some organic matter will produce bushier plants. Plants can be sown from seed or starts around April when the soil temperature has reached about 60 Fahrenheit degrees. Tender seedlings and starts should be protected from marauding snails if you hope to actually reap any leaves; a circle of copper tape about an inch outside the plant's dripline makes an excellent temporary shield. After this, just keep the soil slightly damp until plants are established, then water about every other day as temperatures in town heat up. Like many plants, basil dislikes water on its leaves and stem, so water the ground, not the plant!
Basil tends to bolt, or produce seed, as the mercury climbs, and this will trigger the plant to end its life cycle. To extend your harvest throughout the summer months, be sure to pinch back any flowers as soon as they appear. This can easily be a daily chore as you race to prevent the plant from maturing. And don't be afraid to pick leaves early on, as long as you prune from the top of the plant and keep some leaves for photosynthesis. The more you prune, the fuller the plant will grow!
By the time you're sick of having fresh basil at every meal, you can start preserving your harvest for the winter months. With all the pruning you'll be doing, this will quickly become a necessity! After washing gently, basil can be dried by tying the stems into bunches and hanging them upside down in a warm, dry, dark place for a few days until dry — hang them in a paper bag if flies and other insects are a problem. Throw all your leaves in a ziplock bag, crunch them up, pick out the stems, and pour the lot into a clean dry jar. For those with freezer space, fresh basil can be chopped in a blender with drinking water and then frozen into basil ice cubes; this method gives you fresh basil for curries and other wonderful dishes you'll share with the rest of us! A shorter term preservation strategy is to layer the leaves in a sterilized jar, lightly salt, then add olive oil to cover. Seal tightly and place in a cool, dark spot or refrigerate. Use the leaves as needed and reseal each time. This will keep up to six months. The oil will become infused with basil essence, making it ideal for dressings and pastas.
Sweet Basil: used in Italian style dishes and salads. It grows to a height of 75cm (2ft 6in)
Cinnamon Basil: a cinnamon flavored basil from Mexico
Lemon Basil: a strongly lemon flavored basil that pairs well with fish
Purple Basil: similar to sweet basil, but with purple leaves and a bit more tender
Red Rubin Basil: similar to sweet basil but deeper purple color than purple basil
Thai Basil: very spicy, and may also be referred to as Holy Basil