B is for Basil

African Blue Basil for the Italian honey bees.

African Blue Basil for my Italian honey bees.

Besides being a really cool name (my husband wouldn’t go for it), what garden would be complete without basil? Seriously. Unless it’s a succulent garden, basil should be included in every kitchen garden, herb garden, organic garden, butterfly garden, ethnic garden, heirloom garden, whatever-I’m-forgetting garden.

Basil is extremely easy to start from seed. It’s also distinctive looking, so you won’t likely pull it out thinking it’s a weed. If you don’t like starting plants from seed, I won’t judge you. Germinating seeds is a gift that few have; it takes trial and error (and heating pads, and growing lights, and a misting spray bottle, and you get the picture). Even buying the right basil plant can be confusing. For example, if you impulsively buy a large potted container of basil from Whole Foods, and think you’re going to stick it in the ground with success, you’re probably wrong. Those tall (we call them “leggy”) plants will fall right over. If you pick a small six pack of short plants, you will probably have better luck if you’re wanting to put them in the ground. But then again, if you plant six basil starts all at the same time, you better plan on pesto.

Basil is best planted in succession. One plant now, one next week, one the week after that, and so on. Even so, if the weather warms up quickly, all of your basil might bolt (go to seed). It is said that once seeds develop, the basil flavor changes dramatically. I, personally, can’t tell the difference (but I’m not an over-the-top basil lover). You can prolong the life of your pre-seed basil by cutting off the first signs of flowers. I always let my basil flower, however. The bees love it far more than I do. And inevitably, I’ll have a random basil plant show up  next season.

You might be surprised when you go to the seed store or nursery and find that more than several varieties of basil exist. The leaves look different enough that even an untrained eye will see the difference between Thai basil and the more common Genovese basil. Purple basil looks gorgeous in landscaping. African Blue Basil has young purple leaves that turn green. It grows to be a good size, is relatively cold tolerant, and the bees LOVE it. We have several varieties scattered around our yard.

In addition to the summer Caprese staple, pesto is an excellent way to use basil. You can find pesto recipes everywhere, but why not make it up with the ingredients you have on-hand. Basically, any combination of basil, nuts, hard cheese, garlic, and oil can be called pesto. Pine nuts are traditionally used, but expensive. Walnuts work almost the same. I don’t recommend scrimping on the parmesan or romano cheese. Now that is money well spent.

How could I forget to mention my latest basil craze?! Basil and sliced cucumber in a pitcher of water in the frig. All of a sudden I can drink liters of water a day. Caution: basil left too long in the water will turn it slimy. After a chug of slimy basil water, it’ll be weeks before trying it again.

About master kindergardener

Santa Clara County Master Gardener since 2007, Mom since 2009, Gardener since birth.
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