Basil Easy To Grow In Summer Garden

Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  4/30/2005 1:50:21 AM

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Get It Growing News For 05/06/05

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Basil isn’t just great tasting; it’s also easy to grow and attractive.

Grown and used in cuisines around the world, basil is indispensable to Louisiana cooks, so it’s also a great addition to your summer herb garden.

Numerous shapes, sizes, leaf colors and flowers make basil an excellent addition to almost any garden situation. Tuck basil plants into unused garden corners, display them among vegetables, edge a flower garden with dwarf types or plant the more ornamental cultivars right among the flowering plants in beds or containers.

Most culinary types of basil are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum. The smooth-leafed types that grow 2-3 feet tall are the best known for culinary use. But there also are flavorful crinkle-leafed and ruffle-leafed varieties – all of which make superb pesto and double as outstanding ornamental additions to the landscape.

Basil thrives during our hot, humid summers and asks for nothing more in the garden than full to part sun and well-drained soil. It grows quickly from seed, which may be planted from now through July. Transplants, readily available at local nurseries, may be planted into the garden now through August.

Basil plants do not tolerate cold well, so you should not plant them into the garden before late April, and basil is quick to succumb to chilly weather in November and December.

When you purchase basil transplants from the nursery, notice that growers often plant a number of seeds in each pot. This produces a larger looking product that is ready for sale faster. Unfortunately, 10 or 12 plants crammed together will not grow well in the long run when planted into the garden.

It is best either to separate the plants or pinch off all but the strongest one or two plants in the pot prior to planting. If you decide to separate them, handle them gently and pot them up individually in small pots with potting soil. Keep them in the shade for a few days to get over the shock. Then gradually move them into full sun, and in about two weeks after dividing they should be recovered enough to go into the garden. This can provide you with a number of plants from one purchase.

Allow newly planted basil plants to grow for a while before you start to harvest. For standard size varieties you generally can start to lightly harvest when the plants reach about 10-12 inches tall. Individual basil leaves may be harvested for use, but more typically the plant is pinched or cut back. Cut or pinch basil just above a pair of leaves – removing no more than a third to a quarter of the plant at one time. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and productive.

When harvested regularly, basil is more bushy and attractive in the garden. Harvesting and using basil fresh for seasoning is wonderful, since the full, rich flavors are at their peak when used fresh. When basil blooms, the young flower spikes can be chopped and used just like the leaves, and they are excellent for garnishes.

Often basil produces faster than you can use it, and when that happens it’s important to know how to preserve the extras. Besides, since basil cannot be grown here in the winter, it is good to save some of your summer production for use then.

The most common methods of preserving basil are drying and freezing. Air dry individual leaves or bundles of stems indoors at room temperature until the leaves are crispy. Crumble them and store in an airtight container. To freeze basil, chop it to the desired fineness and freeze it in a one-half-inch thick layer using a plastic freezer bag.

There are lots of basil cultivars to choose from. Excellent sweet basil cultivars best for typical culinary use include Sweet, Green Ruffles, Mammoth, Large Leaf Italian, Sweet Genovese and Lettuce Leaf.

Dwarf cultivars grow 6-12 inches tall and produce small leaves with excellent flavor on ball-shaped or mounding plants excellent for small spaces, containers, window boxes and edging. Cultivars available include Spicy Globe, Green Bouquet, Fine Green, Basilico Greco, Dwarf Bush, Minette and Minimum.

Purple leaf forms are very attractive in the garden as well as chopped fresh into salads. When used to make flavored vinegar, purple basil imparts a beautiful pink tint to the vinegar. Look for varieties such as Purple Ruffles, Red Rubin, Osmin Purple and Dark Opal.

Finally, there are a large number of basils grown for their more intense basil flavor or unique flavors unlike typical basil at all. Many are very ornamental. Some interesting choices are the 2002 All-America Selections winner Magic Michael (very attractive and excellent flavor), Siam Queen, Sweet Dani (lemon), Cinnamon, Lemon, Lime, Licorice, Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) and camphor or African basil (O. kilimandscharicum).

Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.

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Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu
Editor: Tom Merrill at (225) 578-2263 or tmerrill@agcenter.lsu.edu

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