Tips for using the basil you’ve grown with love
Story and Photos by Rebecca Stoner Kirts
I think June is the best month for gardening. The gardens are looking their best, the weather is perfect, and all is good. But for me, the best thing about June is basil (Ocimum basilicum). Of all the herbs, vegetables, perennials, and annuals I grow, basil is by far my favorite. This herb has an incredibly fascinating history and it is so beautiful in the garden and so tasty. Who could ask for more? Certainly not Basil Becky!
Because this is my favorite herb, I took Basil Becky as my pen name when I started to blog and write. I have had a lifelong love affair with basil, and it has pretty much defined my gardening and writing personality.
Since I am a basil maniac, basil is not restricted to my herb garden.
32 years ago, I was rushing to get my basil plants in the ground. The reason: I was pregnant with my precious daughter, Kalee, and had just gone into labor. When I got to the hospital, the doctor mentioned to me that my feet were dirty. My response was short and not repeatable in this publication, but it was something along the lines of, “I was just in the garden planting basil, so please deliver the baby!!”
My garden friends said that I had marked this baby. As a young child, Kalee would sit in the garden with me and pick fresh basil leaves and cherry tomatoes and eat them. Even today Kalee’s love of basil continues. She has been a vegetarian all her life and still sneaks out to my gardens and eats tomatoes and basil.
You may be wondering why I waited until June to plant the basil. The reason is that basil will just sit and pout if you plant it too early. Nighttime temperatures must stay above 50 F. In addition, heavy spring rains can be too overwhelming. Heed my words: it will not reward you with its lusciousness if you rush it.
I do everything I can with this herb and all its varieties. Planting basils that have hints of purple in their stems and leaves adds striking beauty to any garden. ‘Cinnamon’ and ‘Licorice’ are two of my favorites. ‘Purple Ruffles’ is a great cultivar with showy dark purple ruffled leaves. They are so tasty and are unique additions to salads.
I love using opal basil (‘Purpurascens’) to make vinegar. The basil turns the vinegar to a beautiful reddish pink hue and imparts a unique flavor to salads and dressings. There are many different varieties of the dark leaf basils.
I also love using the small-leaf basils, as they do not require any chopping before using them. ‘Spicy Globe’ basil forms a beautiful round plant that is outstanding in a border. Its tiny leaves are quite spicy and tasty. My garden will never be without this plant.
There are some new varieties of basil with a columnar growth habit. ‘Piccolo’ and ‘Lesbos’ (O. x citriodorum ‘Lesbos’) both fit into tight spaces, thanks to their unique growing habits and are great on tomatoes.
If it is a lemon flavor that you are seeking, try ‘Mrs. Burns’ Lemon’. The varieties ‘Lemon’ and ‘Lime’ contain the compounds citral and limonene, and have a powerful lemon scent as well as strong lemon taste.
For making pesto and using in recipes, nothing is better than sweet basil or ‘Genovese’. I love the strong clove scent.
Here are a few tips for using basil:
- Always use basil at the end of a hot recipe to preserve the favors, as they tend to cook out in hot dishes.
- In cold recipes such as dips etc., allow the basil time in the fridge to impart its tasty flavors.
- Harvest basil in the morning, when the essential oils are at their highest levels.
- Pinch off blossoms as they appear to make sure the plant’s energy goes toward producing foliage. The young blossoms make unique additions to salads.
I use basil all summer any way I can think of. I pick it and use fresh (always best) to make pesto, for freezing the leaves into ice cubes, and even drying leaves in the microwave.
‘African Blue’ basil (Ocimum ‘Dark Opal’ x O. kilmandscharicum) is a pollinators’ delight. Since this isn’t a culinary variety, I allow it to flower and it forms a colossal plant full of beautiful blooms that the honeybees love. It is an impressive sight.
Since I am a basil maniac, basil is not restricted to my herb garden. I use it in planters, window boxes, in the vegetable garden, as well as perennial beds. After all, one can never have enough basil.
Even though it is June, you still have time to plant basil. Buy a few plants or a packet of seeds and let the Basil Adventure begin. You may just become a basil groupie like me! Perhaps someday we will meet at the “Oh Boy Basil Festival” in Parma, Michigan.