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Last Update 08/07/11

Can you imagine a garden without basil?... part 2

Basil makes a grat bedding plant.  

Basil grows well with other herbs.

Different types of basil add interest to the garden.


Sowing Directly in the Garden

Sow seeds in the garden when the soil has warmed up to about 55 to 60 degrees day and night temperatures. Sow the seeds about 1/2 inch deep in good garden soil; if you cover the seeds with less soil, they may float to the surface after a heavy rain. Basil germinates readily, therefore you do not need to sow thickly. You can sow the seeds in rows or in groups; drop two to three seeds in each hole for the latter. Keep the seedbed moist until germination occurs. When the seedlings have at least two pairs of true leaves and are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin them to stand 10 to 30 inches apart, depending on the species or cultivar. Begin pinching out the growing tips for compact growth when the seedlings are 3 to 4 inches tall.

To have an uninterrupted supply of fresh basil, most gardeners sow basil seed several times during the growing season. The National Garden Bureau recommends sowing basil seed every 3 to 4 weeks to harvest fresh leaves for culinary uses.
 


Selecting Bedding Plants

Basil is so popular that you can readily purchase plants at garden centers or nurseries in addition to growing it from seed. The plants may be sold in individual pots, six-packs or flats. Look for young, compact plants. Avoid tall, leggy plants -- even though you can correct their growth habit somewhat by cutting them back after you have planted them at home.

The leaves of sweet basil should be a clear deep green; spots on the leaves may indicate they have been exposed to the cold. Pass up plants that have obvious pests, such as aphids, on stems or leaves.

If you can't plant the herbs the day you bring them home, set them in a protected area away from the drying effects of direct sun and wind until you can put them in the ground or in containers.

Out In The Garden

Select a Site. Basil grows best in a location that receives full sun -- at least six hours (or more) of direct sun daily. With less sun, the plants have a tendency to get "leggy." Plants in containers require the same exposure.

Prepare the Soil. Although herbs are not very fussy, they do need a light, fertile soil with good drainage. Amend what you have by digging in about a 2-inch layer of peat moss and compost before planting. This is particularly important if your soil is mostly clay.

Transplant. Choose a cloudy, calm day or late afternoon to transplant your basils to give them a chance to settle in before they have to contend with the drying effects of sun and wind. It is very important to plant at the right time, which means not too early in the season. The slightest cold will set them back. Set the plants in the ground at the same depth they were growing in the pots. If you bought six-packs or flats of basil plants, water them first; then carefully lift each plant out of its cell or separate them from each other in the flat, keeping as much soil around the roots as possible to minimize moisture loss. If they don't come out easily and you need to handle the plants, do so by their leaves, not their stems (plants replace leaves more readily than stems). If you started plants in peat pots, set the pots below the soil line -- they have a tendency to dry out quickly when exposed to the air.

Space plants 10-12 inches apart; dwarf basils, 8-10 inches apart; larger basils, such as 'Sweet Dani', up to 20 inches apart.

Water the plants immediately after setting them in the ground.


Garden Uses

Basil is as ornamental as it is edible. Put it in a traditional herb garden, in the vegetable plot in the center of a bed of red- and green-leaf lettuces or edging a bed of tomatoes.

Use both the green- and purple-leaved varieties in borders; the latter are especially beautiful with perennials such as coral bells (Heuchera 'Palace Purple'), Sedum 'Vera Jameson', fountain grass (Pennisetum), dusty miller, and blue Salvia farinacea. Both combine well with annuals, such as dwarf or medium-height snapdragons, nicotiana, French marigolds, and petunias.

With its natural round shape, the dwarf basil 'Spicy Globe' makes a wonderful edging for any type of garden: perennial, rose, or herb.

Try the old-fashioned technique of keeping flies away by planting basils around a patio or in containers on a deck.


Taking Care of Basil

Like most herbs, basils do not require much maintenance. In sandy or infertile soil, fertilize basil plants for continuous growth. If you amended the soil with organic matter, you may not need to fertilize basil. Basil plants need about an inch of water a week. Water, if rain does not provide for the plant's needs.

Although the flower spikes are attractive, it is recommended to cut them off as they deplete the plants' energy resulting in fewer leaves.

The leaves have the best flavor -- the most essential oils -- when they are harvested before the plants flower. Cut whole stems rather than individual leaves, especially if you want to use the leaves as a garnish because they bruise easily. Cutting whole stems is a tasty way of creating a bushy, compact plant: Cut just above a pair of lower leaves; the plant will produce new shoots at that point.

Growing in Containers

Basils are excellent herbs to grow in containers because they add such attractive colors and textures to the plantings. They look good in pots or window boxes in full sun. A container of basil by the back door or on a deck provides easy access for harvesting!

The container should have drainage holes in the bottom or sides. Fill it with a soilless mix, which is more lightweight than garden soil and is also free of diseases and weed seeds. It is easy to provide nutrients all season by incorporating a controlled-release fertilizer in the mix before planting.

With mixed plantings, place most basils near the center of containers or at the ends of window boxes. Use dwarf basils to edge a container planting or on their own in smaller, 8-inch pots, and place the pots around a larger planter, marching up steps, or along a walk. Basils combine well with other herbs and with annuals.

Plant basils at the same level as, or just slightly deeper than, they were growing in their original pots. Water the container well after planting. Keep the plants evenly moist through the growing season; the roots of any plants in a container cannot reach down or out in search of available moisture. Smaller containers will require more frequent watering than large ones. If you plant in a window box, remember that overhanging eaves may prevent rain from reaching the plants.

From Garden to Kitchen

Basil complements many kinds of dishes and combines well with other herbs, whether used fresh or dried. The flavor and appearance of the leaves are best fresh. Many gardeners are unable to eat their fresh, homegrown tomatoes without fresh basil and a dash of premium olive oil. Freshly harvested basil leaves added to mesclun or lettuce salads liven up the flavors. Pesto is another favorite use for basil. Create the classic pesto sauce, a combination of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Whip up basil butter. Cream together one stick of unsalted butter and 1-3 tablespoons of dried, crushed basil or 2-6 tablespoons of fresh, minced basil. Place in a covered container or roll into a cylinder-shape and refrigerate for at least an hour before using.

Make basil vinegar to use in salad dressings. Heat vinegar (any type) in an enamel pan; pour it into a bottle and add several sprigs of basil. Let set for 2 weeks before using.

If you have any basil left at the end of the growing season consider drying the leaves. To dry basil, cut the entire plant and hang on a string in a well ventilated room. When dry, just pluck the leaves from the stems and store in airtight jars out of direct light.


Windowsill Plants

It is easy to bring container-grown plants inside, but you can also pot up a few plants from the garden. Cut them back rather severely -- to about 3-4 inches tall -- so they will put out new growth when they become acclimated to the indoor environment.

Grow them on the sunniest windowsill you have, preferably with a southern exposure, or put them in a light-garden. Keep the soil evenly moist and fertilize them once a month.

Because basils are so easy to grow from seed, however, the National Garden Bureau recommends it is just as simple to sow fresh seed indoors at the end of the outdoor growing season. Pot the seedlings into individual 4- to 6-inch containers and enjoy fresh basil all winter harvested from your windowsill.
 


Pests and Diseases

You may find a few aphids or Japanese beetles that like your basil as much as you do. To circumvent aphids, wash them off the plants with a strong spray of water from the garden hose. Pick or knock Japanese beetles off into a jar of soapy water and discard.

Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungus that causes yellowing of foliage, discoloration of the stems, reduced height and eventual wilting of the entire plant. If you plant basil in the same garden place year after year this could be a problem. Seed companies have addressed this problem by selling Fusarium free seed. Be sure to check the seed packet for Fusarium tested seed. The best cure is prevention. Because it can overwinter in the soil, don't plant basil in the same location every year. Avoid excessive watering and provide proper drainage that will reduce the spread of Fusarium wilt. The only variety resistant to Fusarium wilt is 'Nufar.' Researchers are working towards breeding Fusarium resistance into many of the common basil varieties on the market.

Back to start -- Part 1

Special thanks to Eleanore Lewis as the author of this article. Thanks also go to the two Basil experts who reviewed this text before publication. Renee Shepherd, Renee's Garden and James Simon, Rutgers University greatly assisted in providing accurate information.

Source: National Garden Bureau

 

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