Oh, basil! My first culinary herb. This was the first herb that I invited into my kitchen and my cooking. I am not much of a chef so using herbs in a culinary manner doesn’t always come easy to me. But oh man, basil! After using fresh basil from my own garden I will never go back to store bought! There is just no comparison.
Today I’m going to focus on Sweet Basil and Holy Basil. Many of the other varieties will grow in the same conditions as sweet basil. The different varieties of basil range from lemon basil to cinnamon basil and beyond. If you decide that you want to add basil to your garden, consider the way you’ll be using it. Sweet basil is great for Italian dishes and PESTO!
Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a garden herb that can grow to be 15 inches tall. Starting basil seeds can be done indoors, 2-4 weeks before the last frost. Transplant them after any danger of frost has passed. You can also directly sow them outdoors when the ground is warm. As they grow you’ll want to thin them out. You can also put plants directly in the ground after any chance of frost has passed. Allowing space between your plants will allow them the room to bush out as they grow. Basil enjoys full sun and well-drained soil, with low to moderate water.
Once your plants are off to a good start, about 3-5 sets of leaves, you’ll want to get to harvesting. The parts of basil used are the leaves. The sooner you harvest basil the better your plant will grow. Trimming the tops off below the second set of leaves will be your first harvest. Your single stem will then turn into two branches. In another week or two trim at least the top 2 sets of leaves off of those branches and it will branch out again. Continue doing this and you’ll soon have a lovely basil bush that provides you with a wonderful harvest. You can also harvest the leaves as you need them throughout the season a few at a time.
Don’t be afraid to harvest basil early and often, this is how you keep a continued harvest and a strong and healthy plant. For a more flavorful basil harvest, water the plants the day before you plan to harvest. The next day harvest them after the dew has dried but before the day is hot. Basil is fantastic fresh or dried.
At some point, your basil will produce flower buds. You can prune or pinch these off before they bloom, allowing you to continue to harvest the basil leaves. If you would like to harvest the basil seeds, or you are done harvesting your basil you can let the plant bloom.
Saving Basil Seeds
Basil is an annual plant which means it will not grow back next season. Saving the seeds from your plant is a frugal way to always have basil around. Saving basil seeds can be difficult if you want to be meticulous about it and that is for another article. There is an easy way to do it. If you wait until the blooms turn brown you can then cut the blooms off the plant, allowing them to fall into a brown paper bag. Allow them to dry in the paper bag and give it a shake every now and then. When it’s all dry separate the chaff from the seeds. The seeds will be tiny black specks and the chaff is the dried out blooms. Allow your seeds to set out and dry for about another week. You can then label and store them in ziplock bags until it’s time to plant next season.
Basil leaves are delicate, so as you harvest, be gentle or they will bruise. You can lay the leaves out on screens to dry or you can hang dry them. To hang dry them tie the stems in about 1-inch bundles and hang them leaves down. Hang them in a dry area, out of direct sunlight. Leave them to hang for a few weeks. The leaves will be crisp but should retain most of their color. There are times I’m not as gentle with my basil as I should be and the leaves are a bit browner than I would like but still taste good. After your basil is dried, store it in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.
Basil can also be preserved in oils, butter or vinegar. Place chopped, fresh basil leaves in ice cube trays, cover them with your medium of choice and then freeze them (Scroll down to the middle of this post for a step-by-step). After about an hour remove them from the trays and store in the freezer, in a ziplock bag or other container. You can cover them with the oil you use most often for frying such as coconut oil, you can use extra virgin olive oil or melted butter, you can even pack the herbs a little tighter and cover them in water. You’ll then have the cubes ready whenever you need some basil! Adding basil to infuse in your favorite vinegar is another way to preserve your basil. Yum…Salad dressing!
Getting your hands on basil is very easy. You could, of course, head to the grocery store and by some from the spice section but there are better options! If you would like to buy dried basil look for it at specialty herb stores. Their herbs tend to be of higher quality. You can usually find basil seeds where ever you purchase your other seeds. Buying basil plants is a great way to start growing basil. You can find the plants anywhere plants are sold such as your local greenhouse. Sometimes you can even find them at your local grocery store in the produce section. What you start with depends on the time you have available. In the beginning, I was always playing catch up with my garden so I usually started with plants. If you are on top of things, starting early with seeds can be a lot of fun!
There are many different flavors of basil out there and the one you choose to cook with depends on the meal you are making. I personally only have experience with sweet basil but that’s really all I need! Sweet basil is one of my favorite herbs to eat. Pesto is a great way to use your basil but it is fantastic in so many other dishes. I fell in love with fresh, homegrown basil after putting it in a chicken salad sandwich spread. You know, the salad with the grapes! Oh yum!
This year I hope to play around with herbal vinegars for salad dressings. I’ve always been a ranch girl but things are a changin’! Basil is also fantastic for soups, pizza’s, anything with tomato! I have trouble saying tomato without following it with basil! Sun-dried tomatoes…Yum. Ok enough of the yum. If you are cooking with basil rather than just adding it to a cool meal, add it in at the end of the cooking process. If basil is exposed to heat for too long the delicious oils will dissipate along with the flavor.
Healing with Basil
Sweet basil has wonderful healing properties but if you really want a medicinal punch look to Holy basil. Sweet basil is a good digestive aid that can help with stomach upset, cramping, nausea and vomiting. The juice of the plant can calm the itch from insect bites and stings. Holy basil (Ocimum Sanctum) also called Tulsi, holds higher medicinal properties. It is also wonderful for digestive issues in the same way other varieties of basil are. But there’s more… It is an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens help you adapt to stress bringing the body back into balance. It is an herb that many use daily for vibrancy and longevity. It has the ability to help your body to use oxygen more efficiently. This helps with low energy and fatigue. Holy basil is a calming nervine, this helps your body to relax and recover from the stressful day to day lives we live.
Beyond a fantastic vitality herb, holy basil can be used as a defense against cold and flu season, building up your immune system. It is also used to help with seasonal allergies and asthma by strengthening the lungs when used over a long period of time. Holy basil’s anti-microbial properties make it an herb used for internal or external bacterial, viral or fungal infections. You can use a poultice topically on a wound or take it internally as a tea or vinegar to help fight infections.
Both sweet basil and holy basil can be made into many different herbal remedies. Infused oils, infused vinegars, teas, and tinctures are all fantastic ways to use basil. A poultice is a quick and easy way use basil topically. Try it on an itch or a sting. Squish the juice from the leaves and apply the juicy leaves to the itch.
Oh, Holy Tulsi
Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is a sacred herb in India. In Hinduism, Tulsi is a Goddess in plant form with great spiritual powers. As she (the plant) moved from India to Europe she took on the name holy basil, becoming “The King of Herbs” and was used in Christian rituals as well. Tulsi can also be found as an aromatic essential oil. The oil is often used in the same ways that the plant itself is used.
I personally cannot wait until my next basil harvest. The chicken salad is just not the same without fresh basil. How about you? Do you know basil? What is your favorite way to use it?