If tomatoes are the queen of the summer garden, then basil is king.
That was easy to see at the recent Garden Expo: Almost as many basil plants as tomato starts were hauled out of the Spokane Community College campus.
Basil’s reign over vegetable gardens isn’t just about its popularity, it’s also in its name; basil comes from the ancient Greek word for king.
Basil is native to India and has been cultivated for around 5,000 years. It spread to Asia and Europe with early traders who realized the value of basil’s flavor and purported medicinal properties. Today it is a key ingredient in Mediterranean cooking as well as the cuisines of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Taiwan.
One reason basil is popular is that it is easy to grow. It’s only picky requirement is that it needs really warm weather to grow well. Because it is native to tropical regions, it is frost-sensitive and needs night temperatures 50 degrees and above. If starts are set out when it’s too cool, the plants turn yellow and become stunted, and they won’t recover. Until early June, it’s best to keep basil indoors, well-watered in a bright window.
It is easy to seed basil directly into the garden in late June after the soil and air has warmed up. It will grow rapidly and you’ll have a good crop by the middle of August, just in time for the first ripe tomatoes. Generally basil plants should be planted a foot apart.
Basil needs a well-drained soil amended with compost and at least six to eight hours of full sun a day. Fertilize the plants every two weeks with a half-strength liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion or a light dusting of 10-10-10 dry fertilizer. Keep the plants well watered, especially when it’s hot. Pinch off flowers to encourage leaf growth. The plants generally grow 1 to 2 feet tall.
There are more than 160 named cultivars of basil. The ones we are most familiar with are the sweet basils used in Italian cooking. They include Genovese, cinnamon, dark opal, lettuce leaf and purple to name a few. Asian varieties include Thai, lemon and holy basil. Each variety has its own subtle flavors that can be matched to a wide variety of dishes.
Basil is best used fresh or made into a pesto, as its flavor doesn’t hold well dried or frozen. Pesto is made of fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts pureed in a blender. To preserve, pack the pesto into ice cube trays and freeze, then store the cubes in bag in the freezer. Individual cubes can then be used as needed.