June’s crop of the month is ubiquitous to Italian food, and makes a fantastic topping to every college student’s favorite food: pizza!
Basil is an annual, sweet-smelling herb in the Lamiaceae (mint) family, which also includes basil’s delicious cousin, oregano. There are dozens of basil varieties, including ‘sweet basil,’ that usually refers to the mediterranean types used in pesto (‘genovese’ and ‘mammoth’ are common), pasta, and salads. Asian varieties include ‘Thai basil’ which is often found in Vietnamese pho soup, and tulsi (or ‘holy basil’) which is considered sacred in India. The African ‘blue hybrid’ variety can be grown as a perrenial shrub.Basil loves heat and sun and can easily be killed by frost. It should be planted in garden flats or plant starters in June, but it can also be started earlier in a greenhouse or indoors. Basil seeds are miniscule, so first water your soil-filled seedling flat. Lightly sprinkle basil seeds evenly over the surface. Then sprinkle a thin layer of soil over the seeds and firm the surface slightly, to prevent seeds from being dislodged. In around two weeks, the basil should sprout.
Once the seedlings have developed two true leaves, with another set of leaves started, they can be transplanted with a spacing of 1.5 inches into another flat of at least 3 inches in depth. After another three weeks, the basil plants can be transplanted into your garden. If your available gardening time is limited, the first flat is deep enough, and the seedlings are not too dense, you can wait the full 5 or so weeks and plant the seedlings into the garden from the first flat. A spacing of 6-8 inches should be used when planting out full-sized basil varieties into the garden.
Basil does not like dry conditions. Instead it needs well-drained soil, richer than the soil needed by most herbs. Mix some compost or worm castings into the area designated for transplanting. While being a companion herb in the culinary world, basil is also a companion plant to growing healthy tomatoes. When you plant tomatoes and basil together, you can avoid the basil being shaded by overgrown tomatoes by planting a border of basil around the periphery of your tomato bed.
When harvesting small amounts of the herb for seasoning, just pick off individual leaves. For pesto, large amounts are needed, so pick off stem tips, being sure to leave half of the plant. When flower stalks begin to grow, harvest them to ensure most of the plant’s energy goes into growing new leaves.
Other fun tips: Basil attracts white flies, so plant mint elsewhere to distract the flies from your basil. Slugs and earwigs are also common problems; the stronger your basil starts are when transplanted, the more likely they will be to survive attacks.