Growing your own basil is a fantastic way to try all the different varieties of basil that are out there. Fresh basil can really elevate your cooking, saving you money because you can make cheaper dishes taste amazing.
Fresh herbs at the store are pricey and don’t last very long. Growing your own basil is so simple, and it keeps your basil fresh on the plant. Store basil could be a week old already before you buy it.
Basil has been described as peppery, sweet, and clove-flavored. As a member of the mint family, it could also taste lemony, minty, like cinnamon, or licorice.
Growing your own Basil
Basil is a tender annual. It is very sensitive to cold, and prefers temperatures of 80 degrees F. Basil doesn’t live long, as it is meant to go to seed and die. You will need to reseed new basil plants or take cuttings to propagate it to ensure longer harvests.
Though basil can be grown indoors in the winter, it requires higher temperatures. If you keep your house cold in the winter to save on heating bills, you probably won’t want to try growing your own basil inside.
Basil can be preserved easily, so you may want to grow it during the summer months. You can grow it in pots or in the garden.
Basil is an effective pest repellent, and will keep tomato hornworms away. Some say interplanting basil with tomatoes improves the tomato flavor as well as protects against hornworm. Basil also repels flies, aphids, and asparagus beetles.
The flowers of basil attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Once flowering, basil is no longer as tasty, but it may be worth letting some of your plants flower in your garden.
Plant basil seeds or transplants after all chance of frost is gone and the ground is warm. You can start plants inside a month before you plan to transplant them, or you can direct seed them in the garden or pot.
Basil has a 60% germination rate, so plant a few more seeds to ensure you get as many plants as you want.
Basil likes well drained soil, like most herbs. Don’t let roots get soggy. Basil needs 12-18 inches of space in the garden, unless growing dwarf varieties. Start pinching them back (and using your fresh basil) when they are about 6 inches tall. Regular plants grow 18-24 inches tall and wide.
For an average sized basil, you may get about a 1/2 cup worth of basil each week per plant. Harvest regularly to encourage bushier growth and stop basil from flowering, making it last longer. Sweet basil can reach 6 feet tall but usually only reaches 2 feet.
Spacing your basil 12-18 inches is best for air circulation, but if you want a bushier look, you can go as close as 6-8 inches. You may risk fungal problems if plants are crowded.
Rather than reseeding basil for fall or indoor use, you may want to try taking cuttings from your healthy plant and rooting them in water. A 4 inch section that hasn’t flowered will root in a week and can be transplanted into a pot or garden bed.
Basil is easy to grow, as long as you give it the space and heat it needs. Harvest it regularly to keep it going, and try planting lots of varieties so you learn which is your favorite!
Like so many cultivated plants, there are many varieties of basil to try out there. I liked how Fine Gardening classifies them. They say there are four types of basil. These are sweet basil, dwarf basil, purple basil, and scented basil.
Sweet basil includes your standard, or Genovese basil. They are 2 feet tall, with large leaves. You’ll find lettuce-leaf, Genovese and Thai basils in this group.
Dwarf basil has smaller leaves, and is only 12 inches tall. These are great in containers, and include Spicy Globe and Boxwood basils.
Purple leafed basils are not used in cooking as much, but are beautiful plants and last a long time. They can add a lovely contrast to your herb garden.
Scented basils come in many fun varieties. You’ll find cinnamon, lime, licorice, and lemon basils here.
To try all the basil varieties, it’s best to start from seed. It’s easy to find one that suits you, your growing style, and your favorite dishes.
Cooking with Basil
Fresh basil is a delicate herb, and should be added to dishes at the end of cooking, or used raw. When you are making something that cooks for a long time, use dried basil instead.
To best use the flavors of your fresh basil in long simmered meals, use dried at first and throw some fresh in at the end. Dried basil can add a different flavor than fresh, so if your recipe calls for it you might want to stick with the recipe, or you might want to try fresh to see how it works.
Basil can be used in so many dishes. You can start with simple caprese salads, vinegars or oils, or even make drinks or ice cream with basil!
Tomato soup needs basil in it. Make some Roasted Tomato Basil Soup with local tomatoes and basil.
Don’t forget that basil is often used in Thai recipes. These Thai Lettuce Wraps with Beef are made with ingredients you can find easily at the store.
Growing your own basil means you will have a lot of fresh basil on hand. Use it, and preserve it so you can enjoy that summer taste all winter long.
Herbal Uses of Basil
Traditional herbal uses of basil include treating stress, asthma, and diabetes. There are recent scientific studies that are looking into how basil might help with the liver, cancer, skin, blood sugar, blood pressure, and mental health.
Cooking with basil can help, but Tulsi, or Holy Basil, is the variety used in India. Some studies done on Tulsi have shown improved cognitive function in humans, as well as lowering blood sugar in rats.
Basil tea can be used as a digestive aid after a meal. You can also try making basil tea as a mood lifter. Fresh basil blended with honey can made a soothing anti-bacterial cough syrup.
Preserving your Basil
Basil, like all herbs, doesn’t last long off the plant. Growing your own basil is the best way to ensure you have the freshest basil available for your cooking. Flavor begins to disappear quickly.
If you want to keep basil around all year, you’ll have to preserve it somehow or learn to grow it indoors. Since basil doesn’t like cool temperatures, you will have to find a warm spot to grow indoors.
Preserving by freezing or drying can both work well, though they will change texture and flavor somewhat. Frozen basil will be great in cooking, and it will keep that fresh taste better than drying.
Dried basil is what most of us use already. It is convenient, but loses flavor. Dried basil has more concentrated flavor (because water dilutes flavor in fresh), but the taste is different.
Dried basil is mintier, with less of the anise flavors you get with fresh. The flavor changes because volatile oils are lost when drying basil.
Your dried basil works well in long cooking dishes, as adding it to the end will often overpower the flavors. Fresh basil works better added at the end. If a dish calls for dried basil, you can substitute fresh but the flavor will be different.
To freeze your basil, placed chopped or whole leaves in a sealable air tight freezer bag. Some recommend blanching, cooling, then drying leaves off before freezing them.
If you want to avoid plastic, you can try pureeing your basil leaves with olive oil, then freezing them in ice cube trays or other smaller containers. Use 1 tablespoon olive oil to 1 cup basil leaves.
To dry your basil, you can pinch leaves off the stems and dry them in a dehydrator, oven, or on a drying rack in a shady, well ventilated area.
Whether you want to continue growing your own basil indoors all year long, choose to freeze your basil, or dry it, enjoy it! Growing basil is easy, you can try all the varieties, and you can have a lot of fun trying new recipes with it.