Nothing says summer more than beautiful, bushy basil plants in varying shades of green and purple. Lush and fragrant, it lives its life to the fullest, in the short time it lasts. Not many things taste better than basil fresh from the garden, so it was another “no-brainer” for this must-haves list. I apologize for the lack of photo here, but apparently I’ve never taken a picture of basil growing in my garden, and I didn’t want to steal one! I will take a picture this summer and post it. If you don’t know what basil looks like, I suggest you Google it and check out all the lovely varieties.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is wonderfully easy to grow. It’s an annual, originally from India. It’s pretty simple to start from seed, so you can grow lots of varieties this year, or try different types every year, without a lot of expense. It needs full sun and well drained, weed free soil. If you start it from seed, you can thin seedlings after they get their first set of real leaves. It’s also a great candidate for containers.
If you live where it’s good and hot in the summer, basil can get “leggy” and go to seed rapidly. It sends up a long, slender set of blossoms. If you just keep pinching these off whenever they appear, your basil will continue to grow lush and leafy, and not get bitter (as it tend to do once it begins to blossom). In the hottest parts of the summer, it needs to be watered every day (at least where I live), or it wilts. Did you know that the best times to water your garden are before 10 am or after dusk? You should NOT water during the heat of the day, or you may end up cooking your plants (although if you are somewhat erratic about watering, like I am, and your choice is water NOW or watch the plant die in the next hour, choose NOW)!
Basil also makes a great companion plant for tomato, improving flavor and helping to repel flies. For more on companion planting read Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte or go here.
Basil should be harvested sparingly until plants get pretty well developed, but if you’re growing several plants, you can pinch several leaves off of each, and have plenty for dinner! Once plants are larger and well established, you can cut entire stems. In the late summer, early fall, you can cut plants back completely, since they won’t last the winter anyway.
Many people dry basil, but I don’t bother. It loses it’s true flavor in the drying process, and has but a shade of it’s summer glory. If you really want to save some for use during the winter to remind you of those warmer garden days, I suggest freezing it. An ice cube tray works great for this purpose. Place a few leaves of basil in each space, and cover with cold water. Freeze, then remove from the tray to another container. These little cubes of basil are great for tossing into soups and stews, or can be thawed and put into many other dishes. It’s not quite as pretty as fresh, but it’s still quite good! (Many thanks to the folks of the Garden Thyme Herb Club for teaching me this trick and countless others. You will always hold a special place in my heart!)
Basil is highly prized as a medicinal herb in many parts of the world. It is very high in antioxidants and has a high levels of another compound that improves circulation and respiration. According to an article by Juniper Russo,
One of the primary medicinal uses of basil comes from BCP, or (E)-beta-caryophyllene, a natural anti-inflammatory compound also found in oregano and medicinal cannabis. BCP found in basil may offer an alternative to medical marijuana, because it offers the same anti-inflammatory effects without the mental and neurological side-effects of illicit drugs. BCP in basil is believed to combat bowel inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis.
Read more at Suite101: Basil's Health Benefits and Medicinal Uses: The Amazing Healing Powers of a Common Culinary Herb http://herbal-properties.suite101.com/article.cfm/basils_health_benefits_and_medicinal_uses#ixzz0e2ZRIAx1
Basil tea is commonly used to help aid or ease digestion (it is a member of the mint family, after all). It is also said to have antibacterial and antifungal properties. The scent is also very rejuvenating (try a few drops of essential oil in the bath for a “wake-up” soak) and is supposed to be good for alleviating headaches. Need a pick me up in the garden? Plant basil along the edges, where you will be sure to brush up against them, which will release that awesome basil fragrance!
Basil is an extremely versatile herb in the kitchen. Used for many dishes you immediately think of (spaghetti, pizza and pesto), it also goes just as easily with fresh veggies, meats, and fruits. Here are a few recipes.
Classic Basil Pesto
(from the Herb Farm Cookbook, by Jerry Traunfeld)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 Tbs. raw pine nuts
1/4 tsp. salt
3 ounces stemmed sweet basil leaves (about 3 cups gently packed)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
[In a food processor] Process the garlic, pine nuts, and salt until finely ground, about 15 seconds. Add the basil leaves and process in spurts just until no whole leaves remain. With the machine running, pour the oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Stop and scrape down the sides, then process for several more seconds. The mixture should be ground to a pastelike consistency but a little of the leaves’ texture should remain. If necessary, quickly pulse the mixture again. Add the cheese and pulse until just incorporated.
Makes 1 cup, enough to sauce 1 pound dried pasta.
Cinnamon Basil Jelly
from Cookin’ Thyme, the cookbook of the Garden Thyme Herb Club.
1 1/2 c. cinnamon basil leaves
2 1/4 c. cold water
3 T. Lemon juice
3 1/2 c. sugar
1 pkg. (3 oz.) liquid pectin
Finely chop the basil and place in a saucepan with the water. Bring to a full boil, cover, remove from heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes. Pour the mixture into a jelly bag or fine strainer and let it drip. There should be about 1 3/4 cup of basil infusion. Put the infusion into a large saucepan along with the lemon juice and sugar. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly until it comes to a full rolling boil. Boil for one minute, then remove from the heat. Stir in the pectin and ladle into sterilized half-pint jars. Wipe the rims and seal with proper lids. Makes 4 half-pints.
Hope you include basil in your garden this summer. If you do, send pictures of it growing, or of the things you make with it! I’d love to see them, and hear your ideas. And be sure to come back next week for the next installment of herbs you must have in your garden – Thyme, Glorious Thyme!