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Basil


Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a sun-loving annual with highly aromatic leaves that has a pleasant spicy odor and taste somewhat like anise or cloves. Both the leaves and their essential oils are used as flavoring agents. Basils belong to the mint family, and have the square stems, opposite leaves, flower spikes, and oil glands typical of many members of this plant family.

Basil is easily grown from seed, or can be purchased as small potted plants. Plant seeds early in spring, sowing the seed at a half an inch deep. They can be sown directly in the ground after all danger of frost has passed, or can be started indoors 4-6 weeks before setting out (use 2-3 seeds per pot) for earlier harvests. Germination can occur in 5 to 7 days, but will take longer under cool conditions. Place plants outside12-15 inches apart.

Basil is a warm season plant, requiring temperatures above 50 to grow, but does best when temperatures are in the 80s and 90s. Plant basil in full sun, in well-drained soil. Water adequately to produce tender leaves, but be careful not to overwater. Basil needs more fertilizer than most herbs. Incorporate compost before planting or top dress at planting to keep the plants producing leaves all season.

Basil produces spikes of white or pink flowers.Pinch off the terminal shoots to encourage branching and tender new growth, and slow down flower production. When the plant stems become woody and stop producing, cut the plants back a third and fertilize to stimulate new growth. In midseason the plants will begin to produce spikes of small white, pink or purple flowers. Remove these flower spikes to keep the plant producing leaves up to frost.

Basil is generally easy to grow, but may be attacked by common garden pests such as spider mites (especially when hot and dry), aphids, Japanese beetles, or other insects. These can be controlled by hosing off the plants or applying insecticidal soap, or removing the beetles by hand. A few generalist fungal or bacterial diseases may occasionally affect individual plants. Root rots (or damping off of seedlings) occur primarily when the soil is too wet. Basil sown in pots in midsummer can be brought indoors to continue growing during the winter. Place the pot in a bright, sunny window for best results. Selectively remove individual leaves or pinch off tips that have one or two sets of leaves as needed for fresh use at any time.

Basil does not refrigerate well, but can be kept there for a few days. Another alternative is to place the stems in water to keep the sprigs fresh for a few days. Just before the plants begin to flower, the whole plants can be cut 6-8 inches from the ground. Basil is a very tender plant and will be damaged by frost, with the leaf tissue turning black. Either cover the plants completely or make a final harvest when the first frost is predicted.

Basil is most commonly associated with Italian and Thai cuisine. Most Italian dishes with tomatoes also use basil. Basil is the essential ingredient in pesto. The leaves, fresh or dried, may be used in many other dishes, as well. Infusions of the leaves can flavor oil or vinegar, and leaves can be steeped for teas.

Herb Society of America facts on Basil: http://www.herbsociety.org/factsheets/basil.pdf

 

Classic Pesto:

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped walnuts or pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups basil leaves (about 4 ounces)
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt

Drop nuts and garlic through food chute with food processor on; process until minced. Add oil; pulse 3 times. Add basil, cheese, and salt; process until finely minced, scraping sides of bowl once. Spoon into a zip-top, heavy-duty plastic bag or other container; store in refrigerator.