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Learn How to Grow Basil

For the best flavor, learn how to grow basil yourself.

| July/August 2014

  • Genovese basil makes an attractive and tasty flower bed addition.
    Photo by Rick Wetherbee
  • Purple Ruffles basil is beautiful, and it makes a fantastic addition to salads.
    Photo by David Liebman
  • Siam Queen is remarkably versatile, perking up baked goods, stir-fries and more.
    Photo by Rick Wetherbee
  • Dark Opal basil is simply stunning.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Sweet Dani basil is excellent with fish.
    Photo by David Liebman
  • If you love making pesto, Red Rubin basil is an excellent choice for the home garden.
    Photo by Rick Wetherbee

Grow basil

Decades ago, I never thought much about growing basil, especially since that bottle of dried basil in my cupboard seemed to suffice just fine. Then one summer afternoon, my friend invited me over for lunch to enjoy her homemade chicken and basil quiche. The aroma was enticing, and the flavor an unexpected surprise, with slightly peppery undertones and hints of licorice, cloves and thyme. The quiche had so much more depth of flavor than I was used to, simply because my friend had used fresh basil instead of dried.

Since that day, basil (Ocimum basilicum) has remained one of my three favorite fresh herbs in the kitchen, and has secured a permanent place in the annual summer garden. And for good reason — it not only tastes great, it’s also relatively easy to grow, unless of course you discount how downright difficult it can be to choose which varieties to plant. The choices have expanded even more in the last few years, making this decision anything but straightforward!

What to grow

There are more than 150 different types of basil: Many excel in foods, some are used primarily for medicine, and others are highly ornamental. Thankfully, not all types are easily found in seed catalogs and nurseries. But there’s still a surplus of common varieties to choose from, all of which range in colors, flavors, textures and forms.

The most common culinary type is often referred to simply as sweet basil. These varieties have higher concentrations of certain volatile oils that create a relatively sweeter basil flavor. Other types may have accents of lemon, lime, clove, cinnamon, licorice or even mint. Lemon basil, for example, contains citral and limonene oils, resulting in a similar sweet basil flavor heightened by lemon. The overall composition of these volatile oils is what ultimately determines the taste and aroma.

Along with a basil’s flavor profile, its ornamental value, landscape use and ease of growing can also play a part in deciding which varieties to grow. Christmas basil combines all three and looks stunning in the garden or containers, with extra-large, showy purple blooms and a nice fruity aroma.

If you’re looking for color interest in addition to green, Dark Opal gives you both, with a striking variegation of mostly purple leaves with green accents. Red Rubin is striking with its copper-tinged purple leaves, and Amethyst Improved is nearly black in color. Pairing any of these with marigolds or other plants with gold or yellow flowers or foliage makes for an eye-catching contrast.

8/9/2014 10:19:20 PM

What a fantastic article. Up until today I thought there might be 5 varieties of basil, and that was a stretch. And then you... Wow, thanks so much. I am immediately on the hunt for Basil Perpetuo. alan

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