Lovely, tasty and aromatic. You guessed it – I’m talking about basil! In fact, this savory plant is touted as one of the most widely used herbs worldwide, and it’s certainly one of the most popular in the US! And that’s a lot to say for an herb that’s an annual north of USDA Hardiness zone 10.

Pistou basil

‘Pistou’ has an attractive round shape that’s perfect for small pots or mixed containers.

Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Summerlong Basil

‘Summerlong’ may only be about 10 inches tall, but it packs more leaves per plant than most larger basils.

Photo Credit: Burpee

Boxwood Basil

Originally bred in France for a highly flavorful pesto base, ‘Boxwood’ is a new variety from Burpee.

Photo Credit: Burpee

Queenette Basil

New for 2008 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, ‘Queenette’ grows well in containers and has wonderfully decorative purple stems and flowers.

Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Basil from seeds

Basil is easy to grow from seed: Plant seeds just below the surface (about 1/8 inch) in a warm location and give them sun.

Photo Credit: ©Pennystone Gardens

If it weren’t for its distinctive smell, it would be difficult to recognize all the different kinds of basil (Ocimum basilicum). The herb’s 60-some species and cultivars vary in color, size and shape, and almost every single one of them will add beauty to your landscape, as well as bliss to your palate.

Most basils bloom with small, white flowers, but they can also be pink, lavender or purple, with plants growing anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet tall. Leaves range from a mint color to dark green to purple and grow in size from tiny to large – some are even ruffled!

Native to Asia and India and cultivated for more than 5,000 years, basil has had every opportunity to become entrenched in many cultures. Many people grow it as a perennial in the tropics, as well as an annual in kitchen gardens around the world. It’s well-known for its use in Italian cooking (as well as Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine), but basil is also ornamental and aromatic. In fact, the cosmetic industry uses it extensively in shampoos, perfumes and soaps.

The chemicals comprising the essential oils of different basils are what give each plant a distinct aroma and flavor. Some of the most common chemicals are methyl chavicol, providing a sweet flavor, and eugenol and linalool for scent. Other chemicals in basil attract pollinators, and still others repel flying and chewing insects.

If you’ve never grown basil before, just follow a few basics and you’ll have tasty dishes all summer (and leaves to preserve for later use or as potpourri). Start with one of the varieties of the most popular type, sweet basil. It’s a nutritious plant, low in calories, almost fat-free and a good source of vitamins and antioxidants. There are lots of varieties of to choose from:

  • ‘Boxwood’ is a tight plant, growing just 8-14 inches tall. It’s new for 2008 and makes a great ornamental edging for the patio or would be perfect for a small container by the kitchen door.
  • ‘Cinnamon’ reaches 24-30 inches tall, and like its name suggests, it provides a sweet cinnamon scent and spicy flavor. This herb’s got pink or lavender flowers and large leaves, making it a great addition to your garden, as well as bouquets!
  • ‘Genovese’ grows 18-30 inches tall and is extremely tender and fragrant. It has large, bright green leaves and will give your cooking authentic Italian flavor.
  • ‘Lemon’ (Ocimum x citriodorum) is a large-leafed plant that grows 12-24 inches tall. It’s name says it all – this basil’s got an intense, lemon fragrance and flavor!
  • ‘Pistou’ is a tiny handful that’s just 6-8 inches tall. You can harvest it in about 30 days from germination – great if you need your basil fast.
  • ‘Queenette’ is an essential ingredient in Vietnamese and Thai cooking and is one of the most aromatic and flavorful of the Thai basils. You can expect this tasty variety to reach 16 inches tall.
  • ‘Summerlong’ is a remarkable dwarf basil, growing 10 inches tall. This vigorous plant remains bushy and productive well into fall without going to seed.
  • ‘Well-Sweep Purple Miniature’ is another miniature basil, reaching 10 inches tall. Its tiny, purple leaves are very decorative and add a lot of wonderful flavor to your cooking!

Before planting your sweet basil, find a sunny location and prepare the soil properly. The herb can withstand a wide range of pH but requires an organic soil with available nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Whether indoors or out, basil needs heat and light (4-6 hours of full sun a day), protection from wind, lots of water and well-drained soil. If you’re growing your basil in a container, be sure to increase the pot size when the roots fill it. If sowing seed directly into your garden, wait until nighttime temperatures dip only to about 60 degrees.

Sweet basil is a member of the mint family, so it flowers at the end of summer. Be sure to pinch off the buds regularly to increase the growing time of the edible foliage. Once your basil matures, you can dry it – but you must do so quickly to preserve the greenness of the leaves. Freezing also works well: Just pick whole sprigs, place them in plastic bags and press to eliminate air. Basil also makes a great oil infusion, which you can easily create by mixing with other herbs or garlic.

Though best known for its use in pesto or spaghetti sauce, I think you’ll find that basil also spices up veal, lamb, fish and poultry nicely, as well as adds zest to rice, cheese and most vegetables. You may just start with one variety of basil, but chances are that once you get to know this lovely herb, you’ll find yourself growing more – and find lots more ways to use it!