Extension Educator, Horticulture
Summer means fresh herbs. Charles E. Voigt, state vegetable and herb specialist with University of Illinois Extension Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences offers these tips for producing and enjoying bombastic basil.
Most of the basil varieties familiar to Americans belong to the species Ocimum basilicum, although worldwide, many other species are also used.
'Sweet' basil is the most common green form of the plant found in gardens in the U.S. 'Mammoth,' 'Lettuce Leaf' and 'Monstruoso' are larger-leaved selections of this type.
For pesto, 'Fino Verde,' 'Genovese' and 'Napolitano' are great choices.
Colorful 'Purple Ruffles,' 'Osmin' and 'Red Rubin' make lovely claret-colored vinegars and oils, and are stunning accents in the garden.
'Spicy Globe,' 'Green Bush,' 'Green Ruffles' and 'Greek Mini' are compact plants which are edging favorites.
Basils which mimic other flavors include 'Cinnamon,' 'Lemon,' 'Licorice,' 'Anise' and 'Lime.'
'Holy,' 'Tulsi Sacred' and 'Thai' are imports from other lands.
'Siam Queen' and 'Sweet Dani' are back-to-back All America Award winners for 1997 and 1998, respectively.
The diversity in the above mentioned varieties merely scratches the surface of the hundreds of species and varieties of basil available on the worldwide market.
Most basil is grown from seed as an annual or purchased as transplants. Do not purchase transplants that show brown streaking on the stem. This is likely fusarium fungal disease, which causes sudden wilting of the leaves and the eventual death of the plant. It can also contaminate the soil for years. Fusarium has been a serious problem for the basil industry.
Basil can be planted now. Basil loves heat. It is very sensitive to cool temperatures, and will be devastated by any hint of frost.
Basil prefers a fertile, well-aerated, organically rich soil. Basil appreciates regular fertilization and watering. Without sufficient water, basil's "fragrance factory" shuts down.
Basil should be cut for use before the first flower buds open, and harvest may begin as soon as the young plants begin to stretch up. The tips can be pinched out to encourage branching, and the tips can be used for cooking. At least one or two nodes (leaf junctures) should be left on the plant so that side branches can form. Harvesting the tips of these side shoots can continue throughout the warm growing season. Flower buds should be pinched off as they appear since their formation alters the flavor of the plant.
Because basil is best used fresh from the garden, harvest for lunch use should be done in mid-morning, after the dew has dried. For dinner dishes, mid to late afternoon is the best time to harvest. Basil's delicate oils evaporate quickly after cutting, making fresh leaves far superior to stored. Refrigeration causes the leaves to quickly discolor therefore store basil in a glass of water at room temperature. If the basil crop is abundant, branches can be worked into summer flower arrangements to add color, texture, and fragrance.
To find out more on how to grow and use basil and many more herbs, come to the Idea Garden workshop June 3 at 10:00 am. No registration or fee required. Also don't forget the June 10 program on selecting and maintaining shrubs. The Idea Garden is located on south Lincoln in Urbana, just south of the corner of Florida and Lincoln.
University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners Garden Walk is Sunday June 18 from 10am–5pm. Stroll through eight lovely gardens. Tickets are available at the extension office on 801 North Country Fair Drive and area garden centers for $8 or $10 on walk day. Remember the Champaign County Master Gardener office is open until 8pm on Mondays and Thursdays through June.