Basils are an annual tropical herb with succulent and highly aromatic leaves varying from light green to a dark purple growing in alternating pairs on upright square stems. Beyond that, anything goes. There are 20-30 different basils on the market. You’ll find basils in a wide array of leaf shape, color, flavor, and size. To help you sort this out, I’ve pulled together a quick list of popular varieties of basil, the king of herbs.
Sweet Green – This is the species basil that started it all. It has light green smooth leaves and grows 2-3 feet in good conditions. The slightly convex, almost quilted leaves are 3-4 inches long. Definitely a “can’t miss” basil to grow in gardens or containers.
Genovese – Similar in growth habit to ‘Sweet Green’ but with slightly smaller leaves. This variety is considered by the experts to have the best flavor for pesto.
Mrs. Burns Lemon – This is an heirloom basil said to have originated in New Mexico from a cross between ‘Lemon’ and ‘Sweet Green’ basils. ‘Mrs. Burns Lemon’ grows to about two feet high and nearly as wide. Pesto aficionados are especially fond of this variety.
Spicy Globe – This aptly named basil will grow into a 2-3 foot tall hemisphere if planted in full sun and with plenty of room. The leaves are about half the length of ‘Sweet Green’ with a more pronounced spicy flavor that doesn’t work as well in pesto.
Windowbox – From Italy comes this compact 8”-10” high basil with leaves less than an inch long. It may be small but it packs a big flavor punch when harvested. ‘Windowbox’ is ideal in containers and as a border in the summer garden.
Italian Cameo – Another import from Italy, this compact large-leaved basil is a cross between ‘Genovese’ and a dwarf basil. ‘Italian Cameo’ holds its shape nicely when grown in containers or gardens.
Pesto Perpetuo – As you might guess, this is another good choice for pesto lovers. It’s one of the newer basil varieties that grow taller than they are wide. The leaves are more pointed than most basils and are edged with white. It is a good container basil but can also be impressive as a mass planting for a garden border.
Planting and Growing Basil
When transplanting young plants, treat basil as you would tomatoes. Don’t set them out too early in the season. Wait until the soil and air are warm and the danger of frost is past. Find a spot with at least four hours of direct sunlight. Mix organic amendments in the soil to help hold moisture and give the plant a boost. Pinch off the lowest set of leaves and side stems and plant the root ball deep enough that the spot where you removed leaves and stems is covered. You’ll get new roots there, just as you would with tomatoes.
Regular watering (especially during the extreme heat of summer) is key to a good basil harvest. Whether in pots or the ground, water in the morning to reduce risk of fungus and water deeply – don’t just wet the top inch or two. Poor or erratic watering can stress the plant and slow or halt growth. It also reduces the essential oils in leaves that provide flavor and fragrance. And of course, mulch and keep the area weeded to prevent competition for available water
Basil Flowers – When and Where to Clip
If you’re growing basil for the leaves, watch out for emerging flowers which drain energy away from the desired leaf production. When daytime temperatures rise above 80 degrees, you’ll see stem tips begin to form a square cluster of four leaves layered one on top of another. Your basil is reaching maturity and forming a flower spike.
The first impulse most gardeners have is to pinch off the tip. Deadheading or pinching off the flower spike doesn’t halt the flowering – it simply makes way for the next flower stalk. Instead cut at least six leaf nodes down the stem. Your basil will resumes leaf production again, which is exactly what you want.
When Basil Explodes – Harvesting and Preserving
Harvesting basil is the ultimate payoff to growing this luscious herb. Wait until the plant has reached at least a foot high before making your first cut. For the first harvest cut stems just above the second set of leaves (counting from the bottom). New stems will form at this juncture. Basil should be harvested periodically during the summer. The more you harvest basil, the better the flavor and the greater your total production will be.
Drying basil requires some care to preserve the green color and pungent flavor. I don’t recommend tying basil stalks together and hanging them to dry as you might other herbs. Instead pinch or snip leaves from the stems and place them on a screen or absorbent towel. Stir daily and allow to dry until crackly. Store in an airtight container.
This year as you’re planting edibles in your garden, be sure to include a couple of basil varieties. You’ll enjoy their delicious flavor and wonderful aroma all year long.