Sweet or Italian basil is an easy-to-grow staple in summer gardens, and it’s not too late to get a great crop going for the rest of the warm season.
Consider growing basil indoors for several reasons. It’s easier to regulate watering, and the plants are protected from destructive insects that are attracted to the tasty foliage. Whether growing indoors or out, quickly remove flowers that form, to prevent the plant from sending energy to the roots rather than to developing leaves.
Basil seeds germinate in less than a week after sowing. Within three weeks, the plants will be large enough to be lightly pruned. Whenever you cut a basil stem, it will branch into two stems and provide even more foliage.
For one 12-inch pot filled with fresh potting mix, evenly space four to six seeds. Lightly cover with more mix, then water gently. Place the pot in full sun outdoors or in a sunny window indoors. Use a west-facing window, and produce basil almost year round.
If the plants get leggy, clip about four inches off the tops, strip the foliage off the lower two inches and place the cuttings into a clear glass of water. Place the glass in a sunny window or bright area outside. In a few days roots will form. When the roots are two inches long transplant the cuttings into pots or sunny areas.
Basil likes sun and heat – think Italy – so don’t let the soil get soggy. Outdoors, empty pots’ saucers after heavy rains so that the soil can drain more quickly.
Basil is a tender annual herb and the first cold snap of fall will carry it away, so enjoy it while it lasts.
Basil is the official herb of summer cooking, because it plays so well with the season’s other vegetables.
Of course, basil and tomatoes are the classic match. But basil butter livens up corn on the cob, and basil vinaigrette brings a fresh touch to potato salad. Just adding a few basil leaves to a basic tossed salad brings a hint of summer to the mix.
Because basil is an annual herb, handle it like a summer flower. Stems of basil placed in water will keep for a day or two, but it’s best to use basil immediately after cutting – and since it’s so easy to grow at home, there’s no reason not to. Wash and completely dry the leaves before using.
Add fresh basil to cooked dishes after the end of the cooking time so it will retain the fresh flavor and aroma.
Preserve fresh basil for winter sauces and soups by freezing it in ice cube trays. Wash, dry and finely chop the leaves (avoid tough stems), then loosely pack into the trays. Top with just enough water to cover and freeze. When the cubes are frozen, put them in a freezer bag.
Prepare the classic Italian salad panzanella throughout the summer as either a side dish or a light main dish. Be sure to use the juiciest fresh tomatoes you can find, good-quality bread and plenty of fresh basil.
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