Grow Basil, the Easiest Herb
My boy, Brian, 18, (Merit scholar and future theoretical physicist who will one day save the planet from the Borg), never thought highly of growing plants. Whenever I tried to elicit from him the slightest interest in any aspect of gardening, he'd roll his eyes and give me a look that said, "You are so totally lame. Weren't you the Dad on Leave It to Beaver?"
Then, in a deliciously ironic turn of events, he suddenly became very interested. His very pretty girlfriend gave him some seeds and ordered him to grow them. Fortunately for Brian, they were basil seeds.
Of all the herbs he could be asked to grow, basil is the easiest. All at once, my supercool son became as totally lame as me.
Basil Out the Wazoo
Native to tropical and subtropical Asia, basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual that loves warmth and thrives in the hot, humid weather of the South. Its shiny green leaves possess a distinctive clove-like fragrance and spicy-sweet flavor that make them indispensable in the kitchen. The flavors of basil and tomatoes are a match made in heaven, so you might as well grow them together. Basil is simple to start from seed, but most garden centers sell transplants as well.
Now there isn't just one kind of basil. The most common kind, 'Sweet Genovese,' is the one Grumpy likes best. It grows 2-3 feet tall with large, wide leaves boasting the perfect flavor for use in pasta and pesto. 'Siam Queen' grows 2 feet tall and offers a spicy, licorice flavor that's great in Thai and Vietnamese dishes. This year, I'm growing Greek columnar basil from Bonnie Plants. It combines small, spicy leaves with a dense, upright growth habit. You can also grow cinnamon basil, lemon basil, lime basil, and purple-leafed basil. For more info on them, read "Flavor Your Summer with Basil" by Grumpy's colleague, Gene Bussell.
Basil demands just three things to grow well, all of which are easy to supply -- full sun; warm soil and air; and moist, well drained soil. Start with good soil containing organic matter and you won't have to fertilize more than two or three times in a season with an organic liquid fertilizer. Feed it more than that and you'll dilute the flavor. Brian used Herb & Vegetable Plant Food 8-4-4 from Bonnie. It's made from oilseed extract.
Last year, Brian started his basil seeds in a pot in the window in February. That was too early, but his girlfriend made him. You understand. As Locutus of Borg famously stated, "resistance is futile."
Locutus of Borg, Galactic Basil Grower
A too-early start made for this-is-taking-forever germination. Eventually, two tiny seedlings appeared. Brian would dutifully check their progress each day, using measuring tools developed for nanotechnology, to prove they were actually growing. Naturally, as his Dad, I encouraged him all the way with such classic expressions of affirmation as, "How incredibly puny!" and "Your efforts are quite pathetic." This is why I'm his hero.
Brian's basil in in May. Enough for a really, really teeny pizza.
The Sweet Smell of Success
Things changed as soon as the unbearably hot, humid summer weather we all cherish in Alabama set in. His tropical basils grew like weeds. Brian repotted them several times and they grew into small shrubs we put out on our deck. We picked leaves several times a week for cooking and the basils never missed them. In fact, we were harvesting fresh basil all the way to frost. Regular harvesting is the key to making basil plants last that long, because it spurs new growth. You must also pinch off all the flowers, because once basil goes to seed, it's no good anymore.
Brian's basil in July. This is getting out of hand!
As a tropical annual, basil dies with the first frost. So say you have a lot of basil plants, a frost is coming, and you just can't bear to part with all that flavor. What can do you do?
Brian and I tried drying basil leaves between two paper towels weighed down by a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This technique proved as useful as the Encyclopedia Britannica itself. The dried basil lost its flavor. A much better way to store basil over the winter is to make pesto ice cubes. Read "Abundant Basil" for easy instructions.
Cooking with Basil
There is no better way to get young people interested in gardening than to show them how plants can be used in cooking. That's what happened with Brian. I wanted to smoke some lamb chops on the grill using grape wood chips, so I asked him to come up with a suitable marinade. He quickly responded with one made from olive oil, basil, rosemary, oregano, garlic, pepper, and a little salt. He placed each chop in a ziplock bag, added the marinade, and placed it in the refrigerator for 4-5 hours before grilling.Delicious!
Want some other totally excellent basil-flavored dishes? Try these: