As I write this, about 30 basil plants are scattered around my apartment, poised to go outdoors permanently as soon as the weather decides to choose a season (preferably summer) and stick with it. Everyone, including the cat, is abiding by this inconvenient arrangement in anticipation of endless Caprese salads down the road.
Basil is a versatile and fascinating herb. I once grew 13 varieties, each plant with its own very distinct colour, flavour and fragrance well above and beyond the sweet pesto plant that has come to define the group. 'Cinnamon,' 'African Blue' and 'Blue Spice' are rich and pungent like a spice and an herb all rolled into one. Others such as 'Lemon' and 'Sacred' are almost candy-like and can be used in desserts or brewed into a refreshing summer tea. I favour 'Purple Ruffles' for its crinkly, drapey growth habit and 'Mammoth,' a variety as big as it sounds, for its puckered leaves that are each as big as my hand.
The very essence of summer is captured in the fresh aroma of a basil leaf. Fortunately, anyone with a spot of sun can grow a decent crop. Plants of any size will thrive just as well in a 10-to-12-inch-deep container as they will in the ground, and there are even pint-sized varieties ('Pistou,' 'Purple Bush,' 'Minette' and 'Boxwood') that don't mind window boxes and smaller 6-inch-deep pots. I get even more out of my modest community garden plot by wedging tall, upright plants like 'Columnar' into gaps between tomato plants. This famous culinary pair conveniently prefers life together whether grown in the ground or in a pot.
The key to growing good basil is patience. It's a fickle herb and very susceptible to cold, wet weather. This combination is particularly deadly - I receive a slew of frantic e-mails every spring from eager gardeners who set their plants out too early. Garden stores are famous for capitalizing on our enthusiasm by putting basil seedlings up for sale a good month or so before their time. Don't succumb to temptation! Basil is nearly always the very last plant I put outdoors and only after nighttime temperatures are consistently above 10 degrees Celsius.
Transplants are an economical way to go if you're planning to grow only a couple of plants - Richters Herbs (richters.com) ships across the country - but seeds are also easy enough to pull off. Start indoors in May - no earlier. Plants started early grow slowly and tend to come out weak and disease-prone. If the weather is cool, they'll sit inactive for weeks, just in time for late-sown plants to catch up once the heat and sun intensify.
When you do set plants out, put them in a warm and sheltered spot away from intense midday sun. Keep the soil moderately moist, but make sure it drains well (doesn't puddle) and that there are holes in the bottom of your pot.
About two weeks in, begin to pinch or snip off the growing tips to encourage lush, bushy growth. Remove flower buds as soon as they show up to keep the plant focused on making leaves. Both the leaves and flowers of these micro-harvests make for good eating. Pull the entire plant up before the first frost hits your region and preserve the bounty. Purple varieties taste particularly good dried and sprinkled on pizza. Chop the rest up in the food processor and freeze for fresh basil all year long.
For more gardening tips, visit Gayla Trail's website, www.yougrowgirl.com.