And now it’s confession time: If I could grow only one herb, just one herb, for the rest of my life, I would grow basil. Basil has been my top pick (Ha!—get the pun?) for both growing and eating since the beginning of Pickle Creek Herbs, some 12 years ago.
Basil is the taste of summer, warmth, and the assurance that all is right in the world. I’m guessing that I’m joined by many others in my basil bias, since Genovese (sweet) basil is our top-selling herb seedling, and people are always saying how good the basil smells while perusing the plants at our market stand. Basil’s aroma and flavor make it a very lovable plant!
So Much Variety!
There’s another reason why I would pick basil as my one-and-only herb, and that is the impressive variation in taste and appearance that can be found among the basil plants. In its list of basil cultivars, Wikipedia describes more than 30 varieties, and I know of still others not included on that list. For starters, there’s the typical sweet basil varieties that you see in the grocery store. Genovese is a famous representative of this group. And then there’s the large-leaf sweet basils, such as the beautiful Italian Large Leaf or Napoletano, that really shine in Caprese salad. Opposite the large-leaf varieties are the small-leaf varieties that give punch to pestos. Greek basil is a famous member of this group. Then there are the citrus basils, including Lemon and Lime, and the purple basils, such as Red Rubin and Dark Opal. Not to be overlooked are the Thai basil varieties, which are often featured in Asian dishes, and of course there are the holy basil, or Tulsi, varieties such as Kapoor or Krisna, which make relaxing herbal teas that keep you young both inside and out.
In fact, I like to joke at markets that we have a basil for every personality. I like to ask people, “Which basil are you?”
Genovese: You’re sweet and good in everything.
Napoletano, Italian Large Leaf: You’re larger than life and perfect in simple salad fare.
Greek: You’re powerful, peppery, and a saucy knockout.
Thai: You’re exotic, spicy, and a great Asian dish.
Rama, Krishna, Kapoor Tulsi (aka Holy Basil): You’re a relaxing and reverent cup of tea.
Lemon, Lime: You’re a refreshing and citrusy twist on an ordinary dish!
Red Rubin, Dark Opal, Purple Ruffles: You’re the dark and stunning side of sweet basil.
Cinnamon, Anise: You’re the basil that takes everyone by surprise.
In the Kitchen
Another reason I’d choose basil as my one and only is that it’s the herb I use the most when cooking. I think I could find a way to add basil to just about any culinary dish. One of the more interesting things I do is infuse basil into chocolate. I also make a Strawberry Basil Balsamic Vinegar that makes a fabulous salad dressing or shrub (vinegar soda). You can now find ice creams and other sweets that feature basil, and in my opinion a cocktail bar is not a well-stocked bar at all unless it serves at least one drink featuring basil.
I also cook with basil in all the classic ways. Basil shines in any kind of Italian dish, including pesto, pasta sauce, bruschetta, and Caprese salad. I also like to sneak a little basil into a wide variety of soups (especially tomato-, pepper-, and squash-based soups). Another thing I do is mix freshly minced basil into butter to spread on a wide array of grilled, steamed, or roasted vegetables, including zucchini, eggplant, and green beans. Basil butter is also amazing on grilled sweet corn. Of course, basil-infused olive oils make for superb sauteed or roasted vegetables, pasta sauces, salad dressings, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and I always keep a go-to bottle of Greek Basil & Garlic infused olive oil next to my stove for cooking and a bottle of Genovese Basil & Roma Tomato olive oil on my table for drizzling.
One tip for cooking with fresh basil: When adding to soups or sauces and other cooked dishes, try to add it last thing to preserve its fresh flavor. This is another place where basil-infused olive oils come in handy, especially when you can’t get fresh basil or when you’re running short on time, because the infusing process does a great job preserving that fresh basil flavor in the olive oil. Another great way to save the fresh basil taste for later is to chop it up and freeze it in water (in other words, to make basil ice cubes). Then in the winter you can drop these little cubes of fresh herb flavor into your sauces and soups. You can also use dried basil as well, though in general I prefer fresh herbs to dry and I save dried basil for heavy dishes such as a meat lasagna.
In the Medicinal World
In the medicinal world, basil has been known to treat headaches, coughs, diarrhea, constipation, stomach aches, worms, warts, asthma, and kidney malfunctions. Scientific studies have established that the components of basil essential oil have potent antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties. In addition, basil shares some of those same anti-aging compounds founds in sage and rosemary. We make a Lime Basil Soap that I like to keep next to the sink for handwashing because of its antimicrobial and anti-aging properties and its fresh, summery scent.
In the Garden
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a member of the Lamaciea, or mint family. It requires full sun and well-drained soils to be all that it can be. Basil also grows well in containers. There’s even a Compact Genovese bred specifically to grow well in containers. Almost any container is suitable provided there are drainage holes.
Basil likes to be trimmed regularly—you’ll want to pinch off the flowers (called dead-heading) before they have a chance to form seed pods. Once a basil plant produces seeds, it acquires a stronger, almost bitter flavor. If you find you have trouble keeping up with the flowers, just harvest more of the plant (and maybe make yourself a pesto). You can harvest up to half a basil plant at a time, and it will come right back.
Overall, basil is a pretty easy plant to grow. It likes to be kept watered, but it does not like to have wet feet (hence the earlier recommendation for planting basil in full sun and well-drained soil). It’s one of the most temperature-sensitive herbs we grow. Even near-freezing temperatures can burn basil leaves, and basil is almost always the first garden plant to die as temperatures start to drop in the fall. If your fridge is too cold, you basil leaves will even go brown and then black in storage. I’ve also seen basil plants that look a little worse for the wear in the early spring sometimes from just being out in too much cold wind.
Usually when my basil plants look a little sad, it’s because they’ve been too wet or too dry or too cold. A few days of optimal sun, temp, and water seems to perk them back up. However, basil can be susceptible to disease. Fusarium wilt is said to be the most common of these, although I have to say we’ve never had that problem in all our years of gardening and so I thankfully do not have intimate knowledge with this disease. Fusarium wilt is a soil fungus, and it’s fairly easy to spot: First the plants wilt for no seeming reason, and then they turn yellow and die. If you have wilt, you’ll want to get rid of the plant immediately and then try to avoid planting in the same spot for a couple of years.
Another common soil-borne disease is bacterial leaf spot, which presents as brown spots on the leaves. As long as your plants get enough air flow and are not overly wet, this disease is pretty easy to prevent. A new disease that is not very easy to prevent and is best avoided altogether is basil downy mildew. It spreads easily by air, and the best thing is to try not to bring contaminated plants into your garden. You can spot basil downy mildew by looking at the undersides of the basil leaves of plants with sad-looking leaves. It appears as gray fuzzy spots (reminiscent of mildew). Wet weather helps downy mildew spread and flourish, and thus there is another reason to keep basil in full sun with dry feet!
Possible annoying pests include aphids and other small bugs. They’re pretty easy to spot (you’ll see them crawling around on the plant!), and they’re pretty easy to get rid of with a little insect soap. Overall, basil should be pretty easy to keep healthy. I think that as long as your soil is healthy and well-drained, your basil plants should have no trouble staying healthy as well.
One thing about growing basil—and that may be another reason I love basil—is that it will be gone once the fall frost comes. So every year it’s a reminder to enjoy and love basil and the summer while it is here. It’s a great lesson to make the most out of life in the garden while I can!