Basil: A Culinary Staple that Is Easy to Grow Inside or Out
Basil (scientific name: Ocimum basillicum) is a culinary herb that is easy to grow in your garden or on a sunny windowsill. It is one of the most popular culinary herbs anywhere. Think about it - it's almost impossible to make pasta sauces and pizza without basil. It adds an interesting bite when added fresh to salads, chopped fresh on fruit, and added to mixed drinks.
Basil is related to the mint family and has a slight mint flavor. This is stronger in some varieties than others. Although most people are only familiar with sweet basil, found in almost any garden center or grocery store, there are more than sixty different types, each with a slightly different flavor, aroma, and appearance.
As a general rule the leaves of the plant are very fragrant and round, with a slight point. Some varieties are lower growing than others - perfect for a garden border. Basil makes a wonderful addition to any garden not only because of its culinary uses but also as a medicinal herb as well as a beautiful bedding plant.
Although basil grows in many parts of the world, and is well known in Italian dishes, it is native to Asia. In India basil is a symbol of hospitality, much like the early American pineapple.
Growing and Harvesting Basil Plants
Easy to grow, basil is an annual that can be planted directly in the garden or started indoors in pots.
When to Sow
When all danger of frost has passed, sow basil in a well drained, rich soil in a sunny spot. Soil pH should be 5.5 to 6.5 for best results. With a soil temperature of 70F the basil should sprout in five to seven days.
Once plants have sprouted and gotten their true leave mulch the soil around the plants with good organic mulch. Do not fertilize basil too much - if you have used a good organic compost you probably won't have to fertilize at all. If feel you need to fertilize your plants because the leaves are yellowing do so but not more than twice in a growing season.
Basil likes a lot of sunlight - six hours of direct sun makes it thrive. Give it water every few days in dry weather. If you stick your finger in the soil next to the plant you want it to be wet at least two inches down.
Once the plants are six inches tall, give or take, begin pruning them. Cut the stem near a pair of leaves and pinch off the flowers as soon as buds appear.
Harvest basil in the morning by cutting the stalks back to about ¼ inch above a node. Gather the harvested basil together in small bunches and tie. Hang the bunches upside down in a dark, dry, and well ventilated room until they are dry.
Fresh basil can be kept stems down in a glass of water in the refrigerator. It will stay fresh for quite a while.
Growing Basil in a Container
Growing basil in a container is quite a lot like growing it outside. Be sure to grow them outside in full sun or on a sunny windowsill.
- Plant the seeds in a rich potting soil and sprinkle 1/4 inch of soil over the top.
- Keep the soil evenly moist until the plants emerge and get their second set of leaves.
- After that just water as needed.
Basil as a Medicinal Herb
All basil contains flavonoids and volatile oils which have been shown to impact health in a positive way. It has anti-bacterial properties and researchers have discovered that basil helps to fight many different bacteria, including the following:
- e Coli
Researchers believe that volatile oils restrict the growth of these bacteria and are effective against the antibiotic-resistant strains that have evolved since modern antibiotics have come into common use. Basil essential oil is so effective that it has been used as an antibacterial wash for produce as well as a preservative for many foods.
The plant may also protect the basic cell structure of white blood cells and chromosomes from environmental pollutants, free radicals, and radiation. When you add its anti-inflammatory qualities and cardiovascular protection to the mix, well basil is pretty impressive stuff.
It is interesting to note that flies do not like the scent of basil and when it is grown by exterior doors it will help to keep the flies out of the house in a completely natural way.
Basil as a Culinary Herb
Where would pesto or Caprese salad be without basil?
Basil is an important ingredient in many cuisines. You should always add it at the end of the cooking time to preserve fresh flavor. It is excellent when used to flavor vinegar and oil, and goes well in a variety of soups and sauces.
Some of the items that basil enhances are:
- Tomato dishes
- White beans
- Soft cheeses such as chevre and cream
Some Basil Types
There are many different types of basil but some of the most popular are:
- Thai basil- has a licorice scent
- Sweet basil- the normal basil used in cooking
- Cinnamon basil- has a slight cinnamon flavor
- Lemon basil- has a lemon mint flavor
- Purple ruffles basil- strong basil flavor with purple leaves
- Lime basil- has a slight but pronounced lime flavor
- Blue Spice basil - scented like vanilla
You can use the flavored basils to enhance your favorite recipes. You might want to use the lemon basil with a seafood dish, while cinnamon basil may be perfect with pork and apple. Think of the flavors of the other ingredients in the recipe when you are trying to decide which basil to use.