There’s nothing quite like tasty homemade pesto, and if you’ve been longing to take your recipe up a notch, growing your own basil might be the perfect solution. Along with saving money on store-bought basil, this popular herb can easily be grown inside all year round.
There are a slew of varieties, although sweet basil is the most common. With its glossy leaves and spikes of white flowers, it has a subtle anise flavor and grows 1 to 2 feet high. The cultivars that are available all boast unique differences, from their appearance (there are purple-leaved types such as Dark Opal and Red Rubin) to their size and taste (some feature cinnamon, clove, lemon, and lime overtones).
If you’re up for adding this herb to your own garden—and using it to enhance your pesto, salads, or tomato dishes—scroll down for our helpful guide to growing your own basil.
Tips on Growing Basil
Start indoors in individual pots, plant seeds outdoors when frosts are over and the ground is warm, or buy bedding plants. If you start plants indoors, heating cables are helpful, since this is a tropical plant that doesn’t take kindly to cold. Plant in full sun, in well-drained soil enriched with compost, aged manure, or other organic materials.
Space large-leaved cultivars, such as Lettuce Leaf, 1½ feet apart and small-leaved types, such as Spicy Globe, 1 foot apart. Basil needs ample water. Mulch your basil plants to retain moisture after the soil has warmed. Pinch plants frequently to encourage bushy growth, and pick off flower heads regularly so plants put their energy into foliage production.
Grow a few basil plants in containers so you can bring them indoors before fall frost. Or make a second sowing outdoors in June in order to have small plants to pot up and bring indoors for winter. As frost nears, you can also cut off some end shoots of the plants in the garden and root them in water, to be potted later.
Basil can be subject to various Japanese beetles may skeletonize plant leaves; control pests by hand picking., including Fusarium wilt, gray mold, and black spot, as well as damping-off in seedlings. Avoid these problems by waiting to plant outside until the soil has warmed and by not overcrowding plants.
The Right Way to Harvest Basil
Begin using the leaves as soon as the plant is large enough to spare some. Collect from the tops of the branches, cutting off several inches. Handle basil delicately so as not to bruise and blacken the leaves.
You can air-dry basil in small, loose bunches, but itmost flavorfully when frozen. To freeze basil, puree washed leaves in a blender or food processor, adding water as needed to make a thick but pourable puree. Pour the puree into ice-cube trays and freeze, then pop them out and store them in labeled freezer bags to use as needed in sauces, soups, and pesto.
Pesto (a creamy mixture of pureed basil, garlic, grated cheese, and olive oil) will keep for a long time in the refrigerator with a layer of olive oil on top.
How to Cook with Basil
This widely used herb enhances the flavor of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. It is great in spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, and ratatouille. It’s also excellent for fish or meat dishes, combining well with lemon thyme, parsley, chives, or garlic. Try it in stir-fries or in vegetable casserole dishes.
Fresh basil leaves are delicious in salads. Use the lemon-and lime-scented cultivars in fresh fruit salads and compotes. Basil is also a staple ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine; cultivars such as Siam Queen give the most authentic flavor to these dishes. Basil vinegars are good for salad dressings; those made with purple basils are colorful as well as tasty.
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