Basil Basics

Hints for Healthy Herbs

    All basil is not created equal—unless you are a snail, and then it is all dessert. However, if you are one of the millions (aren’t we all?) who think sweet basil is the elixir of the Gods, I have further treats for you.
While the traditional sweet basil is the most familiar and by far the most popular, the other varieties on the market are certainly worth cultivation For instance, cinnamon basil has the essence of traditional basil with a distinct cinnamon aftertaste that makes wonderful pesto, especially with pecorino cheese. The plant and the foliage are somewhat smaller than the traditional basil, so be generous and plant several, and give this plant full sun in Alameda’s moderate climate.
    A recent introduction from 2006 is African blue basil. While not really blue, the foliage has a definite blue-gray cast. This is a beautiful ornamental as well as culinary herb. It will grow to a sturdy 2 feet tall and almost as wide. As with other basil varieties, the foliage is used but the flowers are striking. This is a sterile plant and never makes seeds, so the flower spikes are strong, and the flowers are large and pink with dark purple calyx. Try using the flowers in sour cream on a baked potato for a tasty treat, or add a few to ginger ale, champagne or white-wine spritzers for a new spark.
    Opal basil, which has beautiful purple-burgundy leaves, is a rather wussy plant, in my experience. It seems to be very sensitive to overwatering as well as underwatering and is rather slow to mature, so the harvest is nothing to write home about. When grown in full Alameda sun, opal basil has a flavor much like that of sweet basil. But my personal opinion is that it isn’t different or unique enough to warrant the space and effort.
    Almost anything with a lemon scent or flavor is a proven winner, and lemon basil is no exception. As with cinnamon basil, the leaves and plant structure are smaller than traditional basil, but in full sun, they grow to 18 inches and are dense and full. The fragrance and flavor are exceptional. Try some in your next batch of pesto (add a little lemon zest as well) on top of your favorite white fish.
    The care and culture of basil is really quite simple. It doesn’t need a soil rich in nutrients; the flavor actually improves in a “lean” soil mix. Strive for more foliage than flowers, and allow basil to struggle a bit in full to part sun with occasional deep watering. You can grow any variety of basil in containers, which is my preference. I use the copper ribbon around the outside edge to discourage the snails. The concept with copper tape is that the slimy stuff the slugs and snails secrete to glide on has a chemical reaction when in contact with copper; it is like giving them an electrical shock. Isn’t that wonderful?
    All basil flowers are edible and quite flavorful; as a result, when you pinch off the blooms to encourage more leaves, sprinkle the flowers onto pasta and cheeses, into drinks or atop salads for a special treat. When the plants are producing more flowers than foliage, the plant should be cut to 6 to 8 inches above the ground and fed a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer such as Miracid to promote more lush foliage. Several cuttings may be made during the growing season.
    In early spring, experiment by putting six to eight varieties of basil in small starter pots. If you want to corner the market on pesto, in early spring try planting seeds no more than ½-inch deep in a row at the rate of 12 to 15 seeds per the foot. Germination requires five to seven days; thinning the plants isn’t necessary. Growth is rapid, and no special care, other than usual cultivation, is required. How easy is that?  With the exception of African blue, all basils are very sensitive to cold weather, so be patient about rushing the season. Mother Nature has been known to be pretty fickle these past few years so remember the rule: Don’t plant tomatoes or basil until you can sit on the bare ground for five minutes without having frostbite of the gluteus maximus.

—By Iris Watson

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