When you think about the herb basil, you tend to think of Italian cooking, adding it to pizzas and pastas or in salads and sauces.  There are actually a number of different types of basil, each offering their own flavour and the one most commonly used in the UK is sweet basil.  So how do you grow your own basil?

Introducing basil

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a member of the same plant family as the mints and is thought to have originated in India, though it was well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Whether by accident or design, it now grows wild around the Mediterranean and this is doubtless how it has become so well connected with Italian cuisine, though it is used in traditional dishes from India to South-east Asia and to Taiwan.

There are four main types of basil that are grown in the UK; sweet basil, cinnamon basil, lemon basil and purple basil.  Sweet basil is the one we are all most familiar with, an herb that has a faint anise taste and can be grown outside.  Cinnamon basil originates from Mexico, has a mild flavour of cinnamon while lemon basil is likewise lemon flavoured, and makes a great accompaniment to fish.  Finally, purple basil is very similar to sweet basil save its deep purple coloured leaves.

Growing basil

Basil_sprout
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Basil – Michalis_Famelis at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The main thing that basil plants need are plenty of sunshine but also most of the species need protection from the harshest of our weather, particularly frost and winds.  It is for this reason that many choose to grow your own basil in the house, on a windowsill where it can be protected and get plenty of sunlight.  The plants can also be grown outside during the late spring and summer, though there are now varieties available that are hardier.

Basil can easily be grown from seed and these seeds should be planted in April into moist potting compost in a pot around 5cm in diameter, putting usually five seeds to a pot.  Sprinkle more compost over the seeds gently and place the pot somewhere warm.  The seeds take around two weeks to germinate and water can be provided by standing the pot in a shallow dish of water.  When the seeds are around three weeks old, the smallest ones can be pulled out, leaving three plants to a pot.

The plants are ready for the next stage when they have five proper leaves each.  A 10cm pot can then be a good home for each plant in a sunny spot such as a windowsill or greenhouse bench, even outside if it is protected.  Never put them outside before the end of May, as there is still a frost risk.  Dig a hole in the compost around 1cm in diameter and place the seedling into the pot, leaving around 10cm between each if you are planting into a larger pot.  This allows the plant to grow out properly and produce plenty of those lovely leaves.

Harvesting basil

When the plant reaches around 10cm in height and has plenty of leaves, you can either pinch off or cut off some as required.  Don’t chop at the stem of the plant as this will weakened it and stop it providing more leaves.  When any flowers pop out, cut them off as this lets the plant concentrate on leaf production.

While basil is best fresh, it can be dried to be used over winter, when growing the plants is troublesome.  To dry it, cut the basil at the base of the stem and tie up the bunches.  Leave them somewhere dark, upside down until they are dry then crumble away the leaves into an airtight jar.  You can also freeze fresh basil in a bag.

Cooking with basil

One of the biggest uses for basil is to make pesto, the famous Italian oil and herb sauce used in so many dishes.  It is used alongside olive oil, garlic and pine nuts and can be stored in a jar in the fridge.  Basil is also a common ingredient in pizzas, pasta sauces, soups and salads.

how to grow basil
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Basil pesto – By Ɱ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Away from Italian cuisine, Basil is used in Chinese dishes while the Taiwanese use fresh leaves to make their thick soups as well as deep frying basil leaves to accompany fried chicken.  Thai basil is steeped in cream or milk to make an unusual flavour ice cream or even chocolates and the flower buds are also used in these recipes.  Thai basil is also an ingredient in Vietnamese noddle soup called pho.

Basil seeds are soaked in water and used in many Asian rinks and desserts such as sherbets and falude.  The herb is also utilised in Ayurveda medicinal cures across India.

Why basil is good for you

The essential oil found in basil leaves has recently been shown to be a potent antioxidant, antiviral and to have antimicrobial properties that means it may have a part in the treatment of cancer.  It has been shown to help combat stress, asthma and even diabetes in tests conducted in India.

Growing advice from http://www.herbexpert.co.uk/growingbasil.html

How to Grow Your Own Basil
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