Basil is a popular culinary herb, but it is also loved for its fragrance, foliage and flowers. As an extremely easy-to-grow warm-weather herb, basil is a staple in many Texas gardens.
Basil is used extensively to flavor dishes, and it is the main ingredient in pesto. It is also used in teas, herbal baths and insect repellents!
Basil is an annual that’s easily grown from seed, either planted or allowed to self-sew. Basil varieties vary in size. For instance, sweet basil grows 3-4 inches tall and has tiny leaves whereas Thai basil grows multiple purple stems that reach 3 feet. Foliage ranges from light green to dark purple. And lemon basil generally grows 12”-18” tall and wide.
To grow basil, select a full sun planting site. Once the soil has warmed in spring, plant basil seeds atop well-prepared, moist garden soil. Do not bury the seed under a layer of soil. Simply tamp each seed lightly into the topsoil using your finger. Seeds should appear swollen in 1-2 days. Basil transplants are also widely available in summer.
Basil is considered a good companion plant to tomatoes, asparagus and other vegetables that prefer the same growing conditions. Sources say not to plant basil next to rue, cabbage or snap beans as these plants tend to discourage each other’s growth.
Keep basil watered as it sprouts and grows. Use mulch around the plant and atop the plant’s root zone to minimize evaporation. Because basil tends to flower and go to seed easily as the weather warms, plant basil in successive batches to extend the growing season. Keep the bloom stalks trimmed back for as long as possible to discourage flowering and maintain flavor.
To harvest basil, strip leaves from stems and gently rinse and pat them dry with paper towels. If not using immediately, blend basil into olive or salad oil and store it in the refrigerator or freeze it in small containers. Basil branches may be cut, dried and hung in bunches to dry, but the plants quickly lose their quality. Do not dry the foliage in the microwave or oven as high heat destroys their essential oils, which contribute flavor.
Foliage looses its pungent taste when basil blooms and stems turn woody. When this happens, simply enjoy the lovely white or purple flowers, which attract beneficial insects. Collect seeds when they mature (dark-colored).
The most common basil is sweet basil, which has medium green, crinkly leaves. Other basils include African, bush, cinnamon, clove, dark opal, holy, lemon, ruffles, licorice, purple ruffles, spicy globe, Greek, lettuce leaf, Thai, Mexican spice and more (150 varieties.) Basil quickly dies after the first frost.
Resource: Herbs for Texas, Southern Herb Growing
For answers to your horticulture questions, please call the Texas AgriLife Extension, Hood County at 817-579-3280 and ask to speak to a Master Gardener or visit the website at hoodcountymastergardeners.org.