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Growing Basil

By Betty Jo Cahill, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

Annual basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a favorite herb among gardeners. It is grown for it’s aromatic and beautiful leaves. Folklore says that when a man presents a woman with a sprig of basil, she will fall in love with him and never leave him.

Basil, originally from India, is used for seasoning many Italian dishes and is the main ingredient in pesto sauce. It is easily grown and is best started from seed. There are over 160 varieties of basil. They can be grown in the vegetable garden, used as an attractive filler in perennial or annual beds, or in pots on a sunny windowsill.

The purple leaves of ‘Dark Opal’ or ‘Red Rubin’ are a wonderful contrast to the usual green varieties. ‘Mammoth’ is ideal for use in stuffings, drying or in sauces. It is large enough to use for wrapping pieces of chicken or fish before grilling.

Scented basils add a unique flavor to dishes and can be used to make jams, jellies and vinegars and teas. They include lemon, cinnamon, and licorice basil.

To Grow Basil

Plant basil seeds outside one to two weeks after the last frost of the season, when the soil has warmed up. Inside, start seeds six to eight weeks before transplanting outside. Plant successively every three weeks to have a fresh supply all summer long. Basil prefers well-drained soil that has been amended with organic material (peat moss, compost, or well-aged manure). Keep the seedbed moist during germination, and well watered throughout the growing season. Basil prefers full sun but will grow in light shade. Do not fertilize unless the soil is very depleted of nutrients. Your basil will have better flavor if it is not fertilized.

Pinch off flower spikes as they form. This will maintain basil’s full flavor. Harvest the leaves regularly during the growing season. Basil leaves may be preserved by freezing. Rub olive oil on them first and place in ice cube trays or bags. Dry plants by hanging them upside down in a dry area. Crumble leaves and place in an airtight container to use all year.

Basil is vulnerable to slugs, whitefly and red spider mites.

Although not research-based, companion planting with basil is said to repel insects such as aphids, mites, tomato hornworms and asparagus beetles. Whether true or not, basil looks great inter-planted throughout the entire garden.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010