Was there life before basil? Surprisingly yes, but it probably amounted to soggy sliced tomatoes drowned in salt and fine white pepper with Maggi onion dip in place of pesto. Of all the herbs, nothing shouts summer like basil. In my opinion it is only worth eating fresh so it is very seasonal. It is not difficult to grow in rich vegetable garden conditions (the usual full sun and friable, fertile soils) but it won’t do much until summer is pretty much upon us because it needs warmth even to germinate – about 20 degrees of it. It is not too late to sow it now though you won’t get much to pick until late February. Enthusiasts start it earlier under cover and plant out into the garden as soon as temperatures rise sufficiently.
I see Kings Seeds now offer 17 different types of basil plus a gourmet blend for the indecisive. We have tried some different types but keep going back to the most common variety – Sweet Genovese, or its equivalent. To harvest, just keep picking leaves as required. Keeping the plants well watered encourages them to continue growing rather than bolting to seed early. Caterpillars can take a liking to the leaves but you can generally control these by hand.
The shortcut approach where time and equipment are a problem, is to buy the pot of smallest, least mature basil in the fruit and veg section of the supermarket and to repot these to a larger container with optimum conditions (good mix, full sun, plenty of water and liquid feed) and resist the temptation to start harvesting leaves immediately. The older pots of living herbs in the supermarket are leggy and stretched (reaching for the light) but if you get a fresh shipment they are sometimes a little more squat and juvenile. Elder Daughter used this approach to keep a year round supply going. Others recommend chopping up basil leaves, adding olive oil and freezing in ice cube trays. I have tried this but decided that I prefer to keep basil as a seasonal taste in summer, best picked with sun warmed leaves and eaten very fresh. Try it in a simple salad with slices of fresh, white mozzarella and ripe tomatoes – summer in a salad bowl.
First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.