Herbs – Basil – The “King of Herbs”

Basil is originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia and has been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. It is used as a culinary herb throughout the world and considered the “king of herbs” by many cookery authors. Basil is a tender annual in cooler climates and a perennial in warmer climates.   Bee on Basil
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It is one of my favorite herbs to grow and use in cooking. It somehow brings out more flavor in a tomato, if you can imagine that. I was told that for years and finally tried it and it really does add flavor to a tomato!

What I like about basil is that you can take a pinch off the plant and stick it in water and have a new plant is days. I will let it develop roots for about a week or two in water then transplant it to potting soil.

Growing Basil

Basil is easy to grow. It is easily grown from seed indoors or outdoors. I start my seeds indoors for an early crop and set outdoors after the danger of frost has passed.

For indoor culture, sow seeds in a flat, and cover them with a moistened, sterile mix to a depth not more than twice the size of the seed. Space seeds 3/8 to 1/2 inch apart in the flat. Maintain a soil temperature of approximately 70 degrees F. Once germination begins, at 5 to 7 days, the seedlings must be kept warm at 70 degrees F or above and the soil must be kept moist. When seedlings have at least 2 pairs of true leaves, transplant them to 2-inch pots.

Basil grow best in a sunny location and need a well-drained, rich soil. Plants started indoors and hardened off in May can be planted outside to their permanent location and spaced about 12 inches apart. Since moisture is important to a good basil crop, mulching the area will not only discourage weeds but will maintain the moisture level of the soil keeping the plant healthy. Basil prefers a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Fertilize basil sparingly as this decreases the fragrant oils. To encourage a bushy, healthy plant and to maximize production, don’t be afraid to prune basil. Pinch off the flower buds as soon as they begin to emerge. Basil will usually have to be pruned every 2 to 3 weeks. Basil
Creative Commons License photo credit: domake.saythink

Harvesting

The ideal time to harvest basil and other herbs that are to be dried, is on a sunny morning immediately after the dew has evaporated and before the day becomes too warm. When you are harvesting basil, cut it back to about 1/4 inch above a node. This leaves enough foliage on the plant so it will continue to grow and be healthy. If you cut the plant too severely it will suffer shock and stop growing for a while.

You can dry basil in small bunches by hanging them upside down in a dark, dry, warm, well-ventilated room. Use twine, rubber bands or twist ties to hold the bundles together.
You can dry basil leaves on screens placed outside in the shade on a hot day. Cover them with cheesecloth to keep the leaves from blowing away.

I have also used the microwave set on low to dry basil and other herbs. Lay the basil on a paper towel and cover it with a paper towel. It could take up to 3 minutes to dry basil in the microwave. Stop periodically throughout the drying process to turn the basil to help promote quicker drying and to avoid burning. I usually set the microwave for 30 to 40-second time increments. Herbs can burn in the microwave because of hot spots so dry them using short heating spurts and if you smell the herb as it’s drying, chances are you have lost many of the fragrant oils or are close to burning them.

After you dry the basil, store it in a sealed dark container away from heat.

You can also preserve basil by freezing it in ice cubes.  This has the nearest to fresh taste when added to cooked foods.

If you put fresh leaves in vinegar or oil (most useful in salad dressing), and blend it with oil, cheese, and pine nuts, (walnuts or sunflower seeds) this will make pesto. Pesto is very popular and freezes well for up to six months. Be sure to “seal” your pesto with a layer of olive oil. Putting herbs in vinegar captures their flavor for the months when fresh herbs are not available

Dark opal basil makes a beautiful, tangy purple vinegar and has a great taste.

Uses

Basil can be used in the herb garden, flower garden, as borders plants, in containers, raised beds, and in hanging baskets. With over 10 varieties of basil that come in a variety of colors and sizes you can have a beautiful arrangement with just basil and when you mix them in with flowers…. it’s a stunning combination.

Each variety of basil can add an accent to a garden: dark opal offers stunning purple foliage and mauve flowers; the miniature or bush basil is especially attractive for borders; the ruffled varieties offer unique textures.

Basils have a wonderful fragrance so they work well in potpourris, sachets, and dried winter bouquets. The heavily scented opal basil and the sweet scented thyrsiflora basil are particularly good. Other varieties include: lemon, anise and cinnamon basil. Lemon basil is a favorite of mine in salads and on fish.

One final note, Basil has the best flavor when used fresh but that’s not always possible. The leaves can be used cooked or raw and the flowers are edible and also make a unique and beautiful garnish.

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Denise

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