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Cultivating Basil - Growing and Caring for Fresh Basil

Apr 4, 2008
Few herbs demonstrate the difference between fresh and dried as distinctly as basil. Fresh basil bursts with aroma and flavor while dried pales pitifully in comparison. This and the ease with which basil can be grown even under the poorest of circumstances make it the perfect herb to plant. If you only ever grow one herb make it basil. If you grow a full herb garden make sure to include a selection of different basil varieties.

Picking a Basil

The first concern you should have when growing basil is choosing a variety. There are innumerable basil varieties available. There are those that possess the traditional flavor and aroma of basil, others that are prized for their striking purple leaves, and still others that exhibit flavors and aromas such as lemon, anise, and "Mexican spice." It is best to go to a store with live basil plants for sale so you can see the available varieties for yourself. The store owner won't appreciate you plucking leaves and tasting them so a good way to identify the qualities of an herb without damaging the plant is to smell it by gently rubbing a healthy leaf to release its aroma. Select the basil that strikes your fancy - they all grow about the same.

Planting Basil

If you've ever planted anything; growing basil will be easy. Pick a spot that will allow it to grow to about 2 feet up with 1 foot clearance to the sides. Basil, like many of the most popular herbs, is native to the Mediterranean region so it likes lots of sun and well drained soil. It also wants plenty of water but don't plant it where it will sit in a puddle. Make sure that your soil is loose and drains easily. If you're growing your basil in a pot regular potting soil will do nicely. Once you've worked the soil, take the plant from the container and loosen the root ball. Dig a hole about twice the depth and width of the ball and hold the plant so that the top of the ball is just below the surface. Rake the soil back into the hole making sure that it fills in under the roots. Tap the soil down and around the base of the basil but not too firmly. Finally, soak the soil down nicely and you're done.

Basil also starts easily from seed but its best to start with plants, especially if you've never planted basil before, so you can pick the varieties that most appeal to you. At the end of the first season your plants will produce plenty of seeds for next year. Start them indoors a couple of weeks before last frost then transfer the seedlings as described above after all danger of frost is gone.

Caring For the Basil

It is here that herb gardening and flower gardening diverge. Caring for flowering plants usually employees techniques designed to emphasize the size of both the leaves and flowers. Herbs cultivated for flavor have quite a different purpose. The bigger and lusher an herb grows the less flavor it will have. Unless your herbs are obviously malnourished it is not generally recommended that you give them plant food. Smaller, denser plants will develop more concentrated and complex flavors. Most herbs, including basil, will thrive under neglect. Aside from occasionally watering them, there is very little that you should need to do for successful basil plants. Towards the end of the summer your plant will begin to sprout flowering stalks at the top of each branch. Simply pinch these off so you will continue to have plenty of healthy leaves for cooking. When you're finally ready to let it go to seed at the end of the season, you can collect plenty of seeds for next spring from these stalks.

Harvesting Basil

Here's the pay off. Three or four healthy basil plants will provide more than enough for your favorite recipes all summer long. Clipping fresh basil is easy. Pick the longest branches and clip the branch about half-way down right above a leaf cluster. Never harvest more than a third of the plant and give it a week or so of healthy growth between harvests. You can harvest basil as soon as the plant is established and until first frost.

As you can see, growing and harvesting basil is easy and the rewards in the kitchen are certainly worth the effort. There is simply no substitute for fresh basil.
About the Author
Ray Eddings is a freelance writer and passionate herb gardener. You can learn about basil history and lore at http://herbs.diamondrocket.net.
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