Herb Series : Basils
Herb Series : Chapter 1 : Basils
Introduction to Herb Series
I teach an herb class at work periodically. It is usually overview and just basic care and pest control for any number of herbs. I was in the process of teaching it one day when I realized I wanted to go more in depth with each herb or spice.
Chapter 1 : Basils
Yes I said basils. In days of old, dried or fresh store bought basil was sweet basil. Now nurseries and seed companies carry varieties like sweet, Italian, mammoth, opal, red rubin, purple, lemon, lime, lettuce leaf, spicy bush,cinnamon, anise, licorice. These are found in seed packages and as transplants right alongside the perennial varieties like African blue (bee basil), Aussie sweet, Greek columnar,Indian clove and tree basil. Annual (going through their lifespan in twelve months) basils are grown from seed and can reseed themselves in the garden. The perennial (living three or more years) basils are (usually) sterile and are started by cuttings.
Basils thrive well in pots and in the ground. For best results they need full sun, regular water and feeding. Unlike other herbs whose flavor is diluted by water and food, basils live so fast that they do better with regular care and feeding, making their leaves tender and tasty.
First the seeds. They are started early and, if started inside, do well near a bright window till the night temperatures are in the high 50's to low 60's (around mid March) the basils are ready to be hardened off. I put mine in a warm, shady spot, then a couple of days later in morning sun, then a few days later in full sun.
In the ground the tiny transplants would do well with shielding at nights; a hot cap (wax paper covering) or a milk jug (plastic type not carboard) with the bottom cut out. However these must be removed in the morning.
The nursery transplants, annual or perennial, should be transplanted as soon as possible. If planting them in pots a rich, well draining potting soil in an eight to ten inch (no smaller) pot is good. One plant per pot. In the ground these plants can be a couple of feet tall so they need plenty of root room.
If transplanting in the ground a good soil area is achieved by the use of well blended enriched compost. This will provide good drainage and encourage quick root growth. Mix it 50:50 with your garden soil.
After a couple of months of growth you may begin to harvest. Never take more than a third of the leaves, if more are taken it can stress the plant. To prolong the harvest keep the flowers from forming by feeding the plant a food with more nitrogen in it. (The first number in any fertilizer is the nitrogen content) Nitrogen encourages leaf production and strength. Eventually the flowers will form, there will be no stopping it. At this point two options exist. Option 1 : let the seeds form. Don't harvest anymore and collect the seeds once the seed coverings are brown and the seeds turn black. Store them in a brown paper bag and save them for next year. Option 2 : pull the soil back from the stalk and cut it, leaving the roots to decompose. The plant is still useful for drying, the leaves will be tough and the flavor very strong, too strong. But as herbs are dried they may loose some of that flavor, so this strength will be a bonus. Perennials are harvested even while flowering. Their leaves are slightly tougher already.
Come the end of October, September if its a cold year, it is a good idea to stop harvesting the perennials so that they can grow a bit before winter. Another month and the annuals are ready for removal. The collection of seeds continues as long as the plant sets flowers.
In terms of durability the perennials live up to their description. Unless there is a prolonged cold snap it will survive San Diego winters. The annuals are sturdy by color. The greens are much stronger. The purples sprout later and succomb faster to cold night temperatures. They need the hottest, sunniest spot in the yard.
As to taste. Sweet basil is the one most asked for at the nursery. It's taste is supposed to be finer than say mammoth or lettuce leaf, but they are still good basils. Thai basils are sharper and spicy; lime and lemon basils do well with chicken and fish, but their flavor can be overpowered by mammal flesh (sorry Conehead moment) i.e pork, lamb or beef. The spice named basils: licorice, cinnamon, and anise have more of the scent of the spice than the flavor. The perennial basils flavor is strong and their leaves tougher. I have found that they are good for drying and sauces.
Concerning bugs. Basils are vulnerable to snails their entire lives, cutworms (vile larva of moths, they chew on new sprouts) when newly sprouted and caterpillars when the leaves are nice and tender. Both snails and cutworms are controlled by granular pesticides. One in particular controls both. It contains iron phosphate and spinosyn derivatives. Both are organic and will not harm wild or domestic animals. The caterpillars are also controlled by the the spinosyn compounds. Not however granular but a spray that they ingest with the leaves.
If four legged pests are a concern, the plants can be protected by chicken wire or thorny branches spread on the ground. I have also observed people using predator urine to intimidate them.
Basils are a staple in many recipes and are well worth the effort. Once established the annuals will reseed freely and both they and the perennials will provide good basil for a long time.