Growing and Cooking with Basil

Basil is the fragrant foundation of a summer herb garden. Of course you need parsley, thyme, tarragon, chives, a pot full of mint, and maybe a little cilantro, but basil is so versatile, delicious, and beautiful that you can build a garden around it. Even a first-time gardener can easily grow enough basil for salads and pesto all summer.

Basil is an annual plant; it loves heat and is easy to grow from seeds. You can sow the seeds directly in the garden, but planting one or two seeds in each cell of a six-pack will give quick and satisfying results. The seeds germinate quickly and the small plants rarely suffer from transplant shock — they simply take off and start growing when you set them out in warm soil in a sunny garden.

Gardeners who love basil think first of sweet basil, which has big, even floppy leaves with a rich fragrance and a strong taste. The plants get to be two feet tall or even taller and branch freely to produce a big harvest. They don’t mind being crowded, but plant them a good 10 inches apart.

Little-leaf basils, like ‘Boxwood’ basil and the striking, variegated ‘Pesto Perpetual’, are perfect for the front edge of a flowerbed or for pots or window boxes. Bright ‘Cardinal’ basil and spicy ‘Siam Queen’ Thai basil are flashy enough to grow among the annuals and perennials in a flower bed; they have a flourish of burgundy blooms at the tips of leaf clusters, and a taste that will remind you of licorice.

Purple-leaf basils look pretty in perennial gardens or with summer annuals. ‘Purple Ruffles’, an All-America Selections winner, has big, frilly leaves and purple bloom spikes.
Basil is a natural plant to combine with tomatoes, both on a plate and in the garden. Louise Riotte, author of the authoritative companion-planting book Carrots love Tomatoes and Roses love Garlic, says basil makes tomatoes grow stronger and taste better.

In the kitchen, basil leaves, perhaps chopped with a few sprigs of mint, turn simple sliced tomatoes into a culinary triumph. Chefs harvest basil for pesto, of course, but they also use basil in soups, salads, and on sandwiches and pizza, in pasta dishes, and in even deserts. Basil cake, basil chocolate, and basil martinis may sound a little odd at first, but they are delicious.