Basil is one of the most well-known and well-used herbs in the UK and Ireland. It is used as a key ingredient in Italian dishes including pizza and pasta. It is the main ingredient in pesto and it is delicious fresh in salads especially with homegrown tomatoes. Basil originates in India, where it is considered sacred. It now grows wild in the Mediterranean, and is a very popular herb in Mediterranean cooking.
Varieties of Basil
There are many varieties of basil to try, each with a slightly different flavour. You could choose from the following selection:
Lemon basil (Ocimum citriodorum) – this type has a mild lemon flavour and is a great accompaniment to fish. It grows to a height of 30cm.
Purple basil (Ocimum basilcum purpurea) – this is similar to sweet basil, except for its luscious dark, purple leaves. It grows to a height of 75cm.
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilcum) – this is the most popular variety grown. It grows to a height of 75cm.
Cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilcum) – this variety comes from Mexico. It has a mild flavour of cinnamon. It grows to a height of 45cm
Basil’s main requirement is a plenty of sunshine. If you can’t guarantee the warm, sunny conditions of the Mediterranean, it’s best to grow basil indoors. However if you grow your basil in a container you can move it into a sunny position outside if the weather permits.
Growing Basil From Seed
Sow seeds in April in modular trays sowing one seed per module. Lightly cover with compost and place in a warm place for the seed to germinate, the seedlings should emerge within 2 weeks.
When the plants have more than 5 ‘true’ leaves, transplant them to their final growing positions. This could be a slightly larger pot (10cm in diameter) to sit on a sunny windowsill or greenhouse bench, or outside in a warm, sunny position. If you plant your basil outside, do so after all risk of frost has passed, from late May onwards. Basil is difficult to grow outside unless you have a very sunny South facing wall, we recommend sticking to the windowsill, greenhouse or polytunnel.
Gently remove each seedling and place in a planting hole 1cm in diameter. Firm the soil or compost back gently and water well. Each seedling should be placed 10cm apart to give it enough space to mature properly.
Pinch out the growing tips regularly which helps to produce a compact and bushy plant with plenty of aromatic leaves. You can pinch out with your finger nail or use a scissors as illustrated opposite.
When the plant has reached a good size (roughly 10cm tall with plenty of leaves), pinch or cut the leaves off as required. Avoid chopping whole stems from the plant; this will weaken it and hamper its growth.
Remove any flowers that appear; this will enable the plants to concentrate their energy on growing tasty leaves. It is best to grow a number of basil plants and to harvest a few leaves from each as heavy picking will reduce the overall yield of each plant.
Fresh basil is much tastier than dried basil. However it is difficult to grow basil successfully in the winter (even indoors, due to poor light conditions), so you may want to dry some of your summer harvest to use later on. Dry basil by cutting at the base of the stem and tie the stems in bunches. Hang them upside down in a dark, warm, dry place until they are dry. Then simply crumble the leaves and stems into an airtight jar.
Freezing basil is the preferred method as it preserves the flavour much better. Just place a handful of leaves into a small bag and place in the freezer or add chopped leaves to water in an ice cube tray for handy 'basil bombs'.