Gardening 101: Basil

Make basil a mainstay of your kitchen garden this season.
Gene B. Bussell

The classic herb of summer, basil brings fragrance, beauty, and flavor to any garden. Used fresh, it makes delicious pestos and is an ideal partner for homegrown tomatoes. Plus, it thrives in the South with little care, so it’s great for new gardeners.

Cindy and George Martin, owners of The Tasteful Garden in Heflin, Alabama, are pros at growing herbs, heirloom tomatoes, and peppers. They’re passionate about basil, a cornerstone of their mail-order business.

Cindy has three favorites—‘Lime,’ ‘Mammoth,’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’—because they enhance the flavors of her best recipes. She especially likes using ‘Purple Ruffles’ and ‘Red Rubin’ to infuse vinegars with flavor and beautiful color. “The ‘Mammoth’ basil offers just that much more of the wonderful scent, because the leaves are as big as your hand,” Cindy says. “It gives you the ability to use large quantities.”

Grow It Yourself

Growing this versatile herb is as much fun as cooking with it. You can buy plants from your local nursery or start your own from seed. Try ‘Genovese.’

Basil likes warm soil, but it needs a little protection from hot Southern summers. Eventually, all basils will bolt (send up flowers), and then the leaves will toughen and lose flavor. This will happen sooner if plants get too much sun. So plant them in a spot that has sunshine till midday and shade in the afternoon.

Basil will grow in the ground or containers, but it can get large, so if you prefer pots, they need to be at least 18 inches in diameter with only one plant per container.

Basil likes well-drained soil with some organic matter (such as com-posted manure) added as you plant. Mulch with pine straw to keep roots cool and the soil slightly moist. “Basil doesn’t like soggy feet,” says Cindy.

Clip regularly to force new leaves to grow and prevent flowering. Cut about one-third of the stem at a time, making each cut at a leaf node.

You can plant basil now. George and Cindy suggest planting a second crop in July so you’ll have plenty for pesto till fall. George’s best advice? “Don’t worry over it too much. Gardening is supposed to be relaxing, not stressful. And remember, basil’s supposed to be used, to be eaten, to be cooked with, and to be enjoyed.”

Basil Sources 

Check your local nursery for basil plants and seeds. You can also order basil plants from The Tasteful Garden, tastefulgarden.com. Order seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com.