Basil is one of the most well-known and well-used herbs in the UK. It is used as a key ingredient in Italian dishes including pizza and pasta. It is the main ingredient in pesto and it is delicious fresh in salads.
Basil originates in India, where it is considered sacred. It now grows wild in the Mediterranean, and is a popular herb in Mediterranean cooking. It thrives in British soil, however, and does especially well grown in pots on the kitchen windowsill and in greenhouses.
Varieties of Basil
There are many varieties of basil to try, each with a slightly different flavour. Why not try growing a few varieties and choosing your favourite one? You could choose from the following selection:
- Sweet basil (Ocimum basilcum) – this is the most popular variety grown and eaten in the UK. It grows to a height of 75cm.
- Cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilcum) – this variety comes from Mexico. It has a mild flavour of cinnamon. It grows to a height of 45cm.
- Lemon basil (Ocimum citriodorum) – this type has a mild lemon flavour and is a great accompaniment to fish. It grows to a height of 30cm.
- Purple basil (Ocimum basilcum purpurea) – this is similar to sweet basil, except for its luscious dark, purple leaves. It grows to a height of 75cm.
How to Grow Basil
Basil’s main requirement is a good supply of sunshine. It will thrive outside in the UK as long as it is sheltered from harsh winds and gets plenty of light. If you can’t guarantee the warm, sunny conditions of the Mediterranean, it’s best to grow basil indoors. However if you grow your basil in a container you can move it into a sunny position outside if the weather permits.
Growing Basil From Seed
Sow seeds in April on a moist potting compost in a small pot, 5cm in diameter (roughly 5 seeds per pot). Lightly cover with compost and place in a warm spot. The seedlings will emerge within 2 weeks. Stand the pot in a shallow dish of water to provide moisture and keep it warm and in plenty of light. After about three weeks, prick out the smaller, weaker seedlings, leaving just three plants in the pot.
When the plants have more than 5 ‘true’ leaves, transplant them to their final growing conditions. This could be a slightly larger pot (10cm in diameter) to sit on a sunny windowsill or greenhouse bench, or outside in a warm, sunny position. If you plant your basil outside, do so after all risk of frost has passed, from late May.
Gently remove each seedling and place in a planting hole 1cm in diameter. Firm the soil or compost back gently and water well. Each seedling should be placed 10cm apart to give it enough space to mature properly.
When the plant has reached a good size (roughly 10cm tall with plenty of leaves), pinch or cut the leaves off as required. Avoid chopping whole stems from the plant; this will weaken it and hamper its growth. Remove any flowers that appear; this will enable the plants to concentrate their energy on growing tasty leaves.
Fresh basil is much tastier than dried basil. However it is difficult to grow basil successfully in the winter (even indoors, due to poor light conditions), so you may want to dry some of your summer harvest to use later on. To do this, cut the basil at the base of the stem and tie the stems in bunches. Hang them upside down in a dark, warm, dry place until they are dry. Then simply crumble the leaves and stems into an airtight jar. Alternatively you could freeze basil. Just place a handful of leaves into a small bag and place in the freezer.
Basil is a great starter herb for beginner growers. It is easy to grow, as long as it is kept warm and sheltered, and tastes delicious.