Basil has become enormously popular for adding to pizzas, pesto and many other Mediterranean dishes. Plants are available year-round from the supermarket, but can be grown from seed very easily on a sunny windowsill as well as in pots and containers on a warm patio in summer.
Plants can be kept from year to year, but tend to deteriorate in winter conditions and are best grown fresh each season.
There are so many available from the seed companies and herb specialists, many with distinctive flavours and scents. Here are just a few of our favourites. Sweet basil (‘Genovese‘), is freely available from most catalogues and the classic culinary type, but F1 varieties such as ‘Nufar F1’ are generally a little more productive.
For something different try ‘Purple Ruffles’ or ‘Red Rubin’, or for a distinctive taste, liquorice, cinnamon or lime basil. For pretty pink flowers try the variety ‘Sweet Thai’.
Given gentle warmth in a heated propagator (21C/71F), basil germinates easily. However, seedlings are prone to damping-off disease which causes them to collapse. Sowing in cell-type trays can limit losses by restricting the spread of the disease through the tray.
Sow a little pinch of seeds into each cell and cover with a fine layer of compost or vermiculite. Water well with a mist spray and cover with a propagator lid. Remove the lid once the seedlings have emerged and water as required.
Once the majority of the seedlings have emerged, remove the tray from the propagator and place on a warm, light windowsill or the bench of a greenhouse heated to around 15C (60F) to grow on.
When large enough plant a cell of seedlings as one plant into a 9cm (31?2in) pot, moving into a 13cm (5in) pot before the plants become pot bound. Alternatively plant outside in a warm, sheltered place, once all fear of frost has passed.
Sow several batches at monthly intervals to ensure a continual supply.
Growing in pots
Basil grows very well in pots in a sunny, sheltered spot. It is also very convenient to have a pot close to the kitchen so you can harvest fresh leaves whenever you need them.
Grow your plants either in 13cm (5in) pots as above or in larger containers where they can be planted alongside other herbs such as marjoram or parsley. Feed every 14 days with a liquid fertiliser to maintain growth.
Basil contains useful amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and calcium.
If seedlings become too leggy, pinch out the growing tips once plants are established to encourage branching. Basil can be propagated by cuttings, so the tips removed need not be wasted – dib them into pots filled with gritty compost and grow them on to make more plants.