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Basils Spice Up Summer Gardens

by Lynn Hunt

Few pleasures can rival walking through an herb garden, brushing past Ocimum basilicum and inhaling the intoxicating scents of anise, clove, cinnamon and lemon in the warm summer breeze. Ah, the sweet smell of basil! If aroma were its only attribute, basil would still be well worth growing, but gardeners and gourmets alike know this herb offers much more. From May through October, gardeners in most zones can count on basils to liven up a variety of summer dishes, provide the essential ingredient for mouth watering pesto and add colorful, ornamental touches throughout the landscape. Small wonder that basil, called the "herbe royale " by the French, has become the king of the herb garden in America.

An Herb Rooted In History

The genus name, Ocimum , is derived from a Greek verb meaning "to be fragrant". Basil is a member of the mint family and probably was native to tropical Asia. In medieval times, basil made its way to the Middle East, and in the 16th century was brought to Europe from India. While ancient Greeks thought the fragrant leaves to be cursed, Romans associated basil with love and devotion. It was believed if a man accepted a sprig of basil from a woman, he would love her forever. A pot of basil seen on a balcony signaled a suitor that the lady welcomed his attentions. Despite the diverse legends surrounding basil, the herb was traded across the globe and eventually arrived in America. Sweet basil is one of the herbs mentioned in colonial garden records.

Basil Basics

Although a perennial in their native land, basils should be treated as annuals in most of North America. They are not hardy below 32F, 0C and will likely turn black at the first freeze. The tropical origins dictate where basils grow best: a warm, sunny location where plenty of moisture is available. Basils require at least four hours of sun daily and should not be planted until night temperatures are in the upper 50’s (mid-teens C).

Basils will tolerate a wide variety of growing conditions but do best when planted in rich, loamy , well-drained soil. To provide proper air circulation and discourage disease, plants should be set about one foot apart. Pinch back the top of the tender stems to encourage a bushier plant. Keep a vigilant eye out for flowers and prune immediately to promote further leaf growth.

Water regularly -- at least one inch per week. Basils grow quickly and are heavy feeders, so be sure to give plants a dose of liquid fertilizer twice a month. If you don’t have room to plant basils outdoors, or if you live in an area where summer evenings are cool, try growing basil in clay pots. It is one of the few flowering herbs that has historically been raised as a pot plant. English cottage gardeners often presented guests with a pot of basil as a symbol of good wishes. Just be sure to keep your plant well watered during the summer midday heat.

Colorful Choices

If you think "green" when you think about basils, you’re in for a surprise. In addition to the popular culinary basils, you may want to consider some of the more colorful basils for cooking and garden display.

African Blue Basil

Green leaves shaded with purple; leaf veins and stems are purple. A wonderful ornamental plant.

Cinnamon Basil.

Dark green, distinctively veined foliage, spicy aroma with a hint of cinnamon.

Genoa Green Basil

Along with ‘Genovese’, one of the best basils for making pesto.

Lemon Basil

Light green leaves are wonderful in salads and in iced tea.

Purple Ruffles Basil

With ruffled, deeply toothed leaves, this plant is excellent for containers or as an ornamental accent in the garden.

Spicy Globe Basil

Dwarf hybrid loved for its spicy aroma, flavor and bushy appearance. Excellent for edgings.

The Endless Summer

The end of the season doesn’t mean the end of a good thing. Most basils root easily in water so you can extend your harvest. Place your cuttings in a small jar or paper cup on a sunny windowsill. Be sure to change the water daily to avoid stem rot, them pot them up before the roots get too long. You can also freeze chopped leaves in an ice cube tray. Pop the frozen basil cubes into a freezer bag and use them whenever you want to spice up a meal and revisit the sweet days of summer.

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