If there’s one herb that conjures up summer for me it has to be basil. Its intense fragrance and flavors creates an instant Mediterranean feel to the garden, the greenhouse and to summer meals.
Basil is a tender annual that has exacting needs. Although it can be sown from seed early in the season, it can be a little temperamental. It likes a warm, dry climate and really doesn’t thrive on wet, waterlogged soils. Seeds can be very slow to get going in early spring and the slightest cold snap can leave seedlings rotting off or curling up their toes at the first sign of a chill. That’s why it’s so much better to sow basil in late spring and early summer. Seeds that germinate now wall fast catch up and overtake any sown in late February and March.
The thing about basil is that you need lots of it to make an impact in the garden, in the greenhouse and in the kitchen. There’s really nothing quite like freshly made basil pesto, but you need a few bunches of this amazing herb to make it really delicious. It’s easier than you think to grow and even if you are not good at sowing from seed there’s a very simple and almost guaranteed solution too (see How to Cheat).
Seed is the most cost effective way to grow masses of basil. If you have a greenhouse you can grow enough for your needs and supply friends and family too. The warm, healthy atmosphere inside my Hartley Victorian Villa has been nurturing basil seedlings for weeks now and even at the baby stage, a gentle fingertip brush of the rich green leaves emits that wonderful, heady fragrance. Amazing from such tiny plants.
All basil‘s can be grown from seed sown in spring and summer. Use a good quality seed compost and fill small pots and modules. Sow seed thinly onto the surface of the compost and water with tepid water. Do not allow the compost to become waterlogged or stodgy. Seeds will germinate in 4-6 days and should be given plenty of ventilation.
For best results grow your plants on in large pots of good container compost. It needs to be rich in nutrients and free draining. Large terra cotta pots are ideal. Place the pots in a sunny spot outdoors or grow them on in a warm greenhouse. Pinch out the growing tips regularly and harvest leaves and shoots as soon as they are big enough to handle.
The more you pick and eat your basil the better your plants will perform. Eat basil in herb salads, with tomatoes or try it with ripe strawberries – divine.
Sow a few pots and modules every week or two from March through to June. Basil plants do not like to be in wet soil or compost so do not over water. Water them in late morning and ensure that pots are not left standing in water.
Keep harvesting young leaves by pinching out the top few leaves and using them in cooking. This encourages the plants to grow side shoots and get bushier, it also delays flowering.
How to Cheat
When you can’t grow enough basil to satisfy your culinary needs it’s time to cheat. Buy some ready grown plants at the garden centre or even from the supermarket. BUT, as soon as you get them home, plant them into a larger container, 2-3 times bigger than the pot they are growing in and use a top quality compost. Keep this gently watered and in a warm and sunny place. Harvest the top tips from the plants quickly and allow the plants to bush out. Feed with a natural, nitrogen rich fertiliser and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the plants grow back. You will be able to harvest three to five large bunches of basil from each container throughout the summer. Use this to supplement your seed-grown harvest and to fill any gaps in between.