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Sweet Basil

What’s summer without basil?

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JUSTIN RUSSELL pleads the case for growing a big patch of basil in the summer garden.

I consider basil to be one of the most underrated plants in the summer garden. For one, nearly everyone loves its flavour. Other strongly flavoured herbs, such as coriander, polarise people into two camps – lovers and haters. Basil unites. I can’t ever recall someone saying they don’t like it, and while I have no doubt such people exist, surely they’re in the minority. 

From a gardening perspective, few summer plants are as giving. True sweet basil (Ocimum basilcum) is one of the best performers in my warm season patch, and when visitors to my garden ask what my secret is, I suggest that they think of basil as a “plenty” herb. Give it plenty of sunlight, plenty of nutrients and plenty of water, and you’ll get plenty of basil.  

Full sun is essential in temperate climates. In the tropics, subtropics and arid zones your plants will do well with some afternoon shade. Well prepared soil boosted with rotted manure or pelletised chook fertiliser will produce fast growing plants with lush, deep green leaves. If your plants are a bit stunted and pale green, they’re probably hungry, and will appreciate a feed with liquid fish emulsion. 

The third part of the equation is water. A lot of people fall for the myth that all Mediterranean herbs are drought tolerant. In reality, some are, some aren’t. Rosemary is about as tough as plants get, but basil is definitely something that likes a regular supply of moisture. My plants are growing in good soil and are mulched, but I still need to water them every other day when the weather is hot. During autumn, the pressure to water is a bit less, but as soon as you see the plants’ uppermost stems wilting, that’s your cue to fire up the garden hose. 

Notice I used the plural “plants” in the last sentence. I’m forever coming across gardeners who grow just a single basil plant and complain about not having enough leaves. There’s a simple solution people, and that’s to grow more plants. Over supply, if need be. I usually plant my basil in a double row 2.4m long (the length of the beds in my vegie garden). This equates to about 20 plants. It sounds like a lot, but my family consumes a lot of basil. We eat a Mediterranean-ish diet that includes pesto, pizzas, pastas, bruschettas and salads, so our basil row gets a haircut most days.  

This is my final tip to getting good basil – pick it, and pick it some more. Healthy basil plants have a tendency to quickly bolt to seed. This isn’t the end of the world. Basil flowers are pretty, and they are an absolute magnet for bees and other beneficials. But if you want leaf production to continue for an extended period you need to keep harvesting. Make your cut just above the junction of a stem and some new leaves, and the plant will quickly regenerate. 

If you manage to get your basil mojo happening and produce a spanking big surplus, pat yourself on the back and give a few bunches to the neighbours. They’ll love you for it, and might reply with lemons or, dare I say it, zucchinis. Other ideas for dealing with a surplus is to hang a bunch of leaves in the kitchen to dry or make a big batch of pesto to freeze. You could even throw a couple of handfuls to the poultry. Chooks might have teeny weeny brains, but they’re smart enough to know that a summer garden without basil is about as exciting as a summer party without music.