Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is everybody’s must-have herb for so many reasons. Nina Killham perfectly defines this flexible gardener’s and culinary favourite in her foodie novel “How to Cook a Tart”:
“Of all the herbs, Jasmine thought, basil was her soul mate. She rubbed her fingers over a leaf and sniffed deeply at the pungent, almost licorice scent. Basil was sensuous, liking to stretch out green and silky under a hot sun with its feet covered in cool soil. Basil married so well with her favorite ingredients: rich ripe tomatoes, a rare roast lamb, a meaty mozzarella.”
Basil can be grown in gardens big and small and in all sorts of containers in any urban setting, be it a balcony, patio or sunny windowsill. It is the perfect beginner’s herb as it is easy to propagate, grow and maintain and the time frame from planting to harvesting is not too much of a challenge for the impatient child in all of us! A few basil plants, with the right care, will supply you with fresh deliciousness for months.
Planting and care
Basil can be grown from seed, seedlings or young plants, all available in season at Lifestyle Home Garden.
Choose your favourite from the many varieties on offer, e.g.:
- The classic sweet basil like ‘Genovese’ or ‘Italiano Classico’ – the most popular of all
- Purple leaved basil like ‘Violetto Aromatico’, ‘Dark Opal’ or ‘Red Rubin’
- Perennial basil with smaller, intensely aromatic leaves
- Lemon basil
- Thai basil
Basil is a tender annual herb, which means it will complete its lifecycle in one season, die down and new plants will have to be planted next spring.
If growing from seed, sow the first batch of seeds in seed trays towards the end of July and keep the seedlings protected in a warm sunny windowsill or hothouse. More sowings can be made throughout the season, if you wish to do so. Basil has a fast and good germination rate, which makes sowing it very rewarding for newbie gardeners. As soon as the seedlings have four true leaves and all danger of frost has passed, they can be planted into your garden beds or containers of your choice. Seedlings and young plants available at Lifestyle are hardened off and ready for planting when you take them home. As soon as the seedlings have 6 leaves, pinch the top two off, just above the second pair of leaves to promote lush, bushy growth.
Position: Choose a full sun position (at least 6 hours of sun per day), preferably east-facing where the plants will receive morning sun and be protected from the harsh afternoon sun. Protect from cold and strong winds.
Soil: Basil needs a well-draining soil. If you’re potting them up, use a good quality potting soil or a ready-to-use herb mix in a pot with drainage holes. A water- retention product, vermiculite or perlite can be added to save on water. If you’re planting your basil directly into the garden, add a good amount of compost and some bone meal to the soil when planting. Spread a generous layer of mulch between the plants to help retain moisture, keep the roots cool and suppress weeds.
Spacing: Space your basil plants 20-30cm apart, depending on the variety. Use your judgement when planting them in pots, allowing enough space for each plant to mature and have sufficient air circulation.
Watering: Because basil is a fast-growing annual, its watering needs are quite high to ensure strong healthy growth and a good harvest. Young basil plants, once transplanted, will need daily watering until they are established. Thereafter allow the surface of the soil to dry slightly before watering. During the hot summer months daily watering may be required if it doesn’t rain. Basil plants in pots will need to be checked and watered more regularly as they dry out faster. Water basil plant around the base and avoid wetting the leaves.
Fertilising: Feed basil in pots every 2-3 weeks with an organic liquid fertiliser. Basil plants in the ground should be fed every 4-6 weeks with a dry or pelletised organic fertiliser like 6:3:4 or 8:1:5.
Flowers: Pick flower heads when they appear on the plants ensuring that the plants’ energy is used to produce more flavourful foliage. If left to flower and go to seed, the plants will complete their life-cycle and die down.
Basil can be picked as needed throughout its growing season; in fact they want to be clipped regularly to encourage strong, bushy growth. Snip the stem just above a node when picking. Never harvest more than two thirds of a plant at a time. If you have an abundance of basil or if it’s nearing the end of the season, pick en masse and preserve it by drying, freezing, making pesto or whatever tickles your fancy to enjoy the lovely basil fragrance throughout the winter months.
COMPANION PLANTING WITH BASIL
Basil is an excellent companion plant and other plants benefit greatly from its presence. Because of its strong scent and taste it will repel insects like aphids and whitefly from vegetables and fruit trees. A very effective spray against insects and fungus can be made from its foliage. Pots of basil placed on patios and balconies will help to deter mosquitoes. Basil flowers attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators that play a vital role in the pollination of all fruiting and flowering vegetables, herbs and ornamentals.
The only plant that, regrettably, adversely affects basil, is rue.