The name basil is thought to derive from the Greek word for king, basileus, and it’s considered the king of herbs in many cuisines, notably Italian. Interestingly though, it’s not native to Italy but rather to India, and it features in many Indian and Asian dishes as well. The spicily aromatic scent of a bunch of fresh basil is almost as delicious as its flavour. It fills a whole kitchen with fragrance and makes your taste buds yearn for homemade pesto, fresh tomato salads and lots more. Sweet basil, as it’s commonly known, is an annual plant, which thrives through the warm months of the year and dies off in winter. Best planted in spring, it’s super easy to grow and does just as well in containers as garden beds.
To grow basil in the garden, give it a sunny spot and rich well-drained soil. Basil makes a good companion plant for tomatoes, as it helps to deter a number of pests and diseases. For container growing, use a good-quality, free-draining potting mix. Basil is available as seedlings or potted plants from spring onwards, but it’s also easy to raise from seed, providing the days are warm – it hates cold weather. If your spring temperatures are on the cool side, sow the seed in seedling trays and place them inside near a window. Plant maintenance is as simple as regular watering and periodic feeding with a soluble fertiliser, to encourage plenty of new growth. Keep an eye on watering during the heat of summer, when it may need an extra splash to prevent wilting.
Basil is a handy herb to have growing close to the kitchen, so you can raid it with the scissors whenever you need leaves for a summer salad or savoury recipe. Pick the tops of the stems, so that you encourage the plant to shoot new growth from the lower leaf buds – this will keep it dense and bushy all summer long. Also pinch out any flower heads that appear until the end of the season, when you can let your plant flower and form seedheads. You can then collect the seed for sowing next year.
If you can’t go all winter without having your basil fix, seek out one of the perennial forms of the plant. Bush basil (Ocimum minimum) grows into a small shrub with smaller leaves and a slightly milder flavour, and will tolerate mild winters. Thai basil has smaller foliage with purple stems and a more intense flavour, with just a hint of licorice to it. As for those basil varieties with dark purple leaves, here’s the thing – they don’t taste as good! So use them to pretty up your vegie patch, but plant plenty of green basil to harvest.
The best system for storing basil is freezing; this prevents it from losing most of its flavour. Package leaves (whole or chopped) in an air-tight, resealable bag and place in the freezer.