Basil is great for summer gardens

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By Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter horticulturist

Grown and used in cuisines around the world, basil is also indispensable to Louisiana cooks. Besides having extraordinary taste, basil is attractive and really easy to grow.

Not only is basil a great addition to the herb garden, but the numerous shapes, sizes, leaf colors and attractive 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 varieties right among the flowering plants in beds or containers.

Most culinary types of basil are varieties of the species Ocimum basilicum. The smooth-leafed types that grow 2 to 3 feet tall are the best known for culinary use. But there are also 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, well-drained soil and ample water. It grows quickly from seed, which may be planted 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 it should not be planted into the garden before April. Basil is also quick to languish when chilly weather arrives in November and December.

When you purchase basil transplants from the nursery, notice that the growers often plant a number of seeds in each pot. This produces a larger-looking product 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 individually in small pots with potting soil. Keep them in the shade for a few days to get over the shock. 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 can generally start to lightly harvest when the plants reach about 10 to 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 bushier and more attractive in the garden.

Harvesting and using fresh basil for seasoning is wonderful because 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 used for garnishes.

Often, basil produces faster than you can use it. When that happens, it’s important to know how to preserve the extra. Besides, because basil cannot be grown here in 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, first chop it to the desired fineness and then place it in a plastic freezer bag spread out in a layer about one-half inch thick.

You can choose from a wide variety of basil varieties. Excellent varieties best for typical culinary use include Sweet, Green Ruffles, Mammoth, Large Leaf Italian, Sweet Genovese and Lettuce Leaf.

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

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

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