If there is one herb Grumpy would have you grow, it would be basil (Ocimum basilicum). It's absolutely indispensable in so many dishes and types of cooking (pasta sauce without sweet basil is not pasta sauce -- can I get an "Amen" from the congregation?). And it's so easy to grow. Why, even my surly, garden-hating teenage son is trying his hand at it. If he fails, he has no shot at going to college.


That's his basil pot above. He started the plants from seeds given him by his girlfriend, and because he was too proud to ask Dad how to do it the right way, sowed them in volcanic ash. The resulting seedlings took two months to grow 4 true leaves. Now that they're planted in actual potting soil, they're growing apace.

Brian waters them every day and fertilizes with Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food 8-4-4, a liquid organic fertilizer made from oilseed extract. He says it smells like apple juice. He moves the plants onto our sunny deck in the morning and then takes them inside the screened porch at night, so bugs can't eat them. He's so cute.

Types of Basil

Dozens of different basils exist out there, some culinary and some ornamental. Grumpy is going to stick to culinary ones and briefly describe a few mainstream types good for beginners that you're likely to find.

'Genovese' sweet basil -- Grumpy's favorite. If you grow only one basil, make this it. 'Genovese' features large, pleated, deep-greern leaves and grows about 2-1/2 feet high. Highly aromatic leaves offer a sweet and spicy taste. Great for pesto, pasta sauce, and salads.

Cinnamon basil -- This kind has a distinctive cinnamon taste and fragrance, so maybe you'll like it in mulled cider. Cut sprigs are said to repel insects and also mean, nasty bears.

Lemon basil -- Intense lemon flavor and fragrance. Use in teas, soups, salads, desserts, and ritual foot-bathing. Grows 2 feet tall. 'Sweet Dani' is a superior selection chosen for great flavor.

Thai basil -- Prized in Thai and Vietnamese dishes for its spicy licorice flavor. Grows 2-1/2 feet tall. 'Siam Queen' is the selection you want. Then go thai one on.

Basil Basics

Type of plant: annual (dies with frost)

Light: full sun

Soil: fertile, moist, well-drained

Fertilizer: doesn't need much in good soil. Use either a dry, slow-release, organic fertilizer like Espoma Plant-tone 5-3-3 or the liquid fertilizer Brian likes. Apply according to label directions.

Pinching: pinch tops of out plants when they're 6 inches tall to promote bushiness; pinch again when they're a foot tall

Harvesting: pick off the largest leaves as you need them, leaving sufficient smaller foliage so the plant keeps growing

Good to know: if you let basil flower and set seed, it stops producing; pinch off the flower stalks as soon as they appear

Saving basil: you can harvest and dry basil leaves at the end of the season to enjoy them later

Pests: none serious

How to start: seeds or transplants