Why Basil is Best For Summer Gardening

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Photo by Carol Reece

I can still remember a time when the only basil I knew was a small jar on the spice rack, providing a roughly ground dried leaf that I measured with a teaspoon and shook into Italian dishes. It almost hurts to think of all the years that passed without the delightful flavor that fresh basil brings to my table. The vastly different flavors between store-bought and fresh have often caused me to wonder if they could even be from the same plant – and maybe they aren’t. With many different types of basil, each with their own unique taste, it is entirely possible that the grocery store selections are not derived from the same cultivars as the fresh ones I’ve grown over the years.

Sweet basil, the one most commonly offered in garden centers, is likely to be the first variety a gardener tries, though even the most generic outlets are beginning to offer other basil cultivars such as Thai, Genovese or lemon. These are just a smattering of the dozens of basil offered as seed from many garden catalogs, and an online search finds even more.

Cultivar selection should no longer depend solely on the desired flavor profile. Basil mildew is a disease that has been making terrible inroads on this plant that we once thought was as easy to grow as coleus (to which it is related). Since we tend to pick fresh basil to put directly into our summer foods, we don’t want to treat it with fungicides. A much better solution is to plant a resistant or at least tolerant cultivar, and luckily several of those can be found.

Jason Reeves, the research horticulturist at the West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson, meant only to celebrate the diversity of this herb when he planted 53 varieties last spring. They were to be part of Summer Celebration, an annual horticultural field day each July attended by more than a thousand happy gardeners. These plants became an inadvertent trial when basil mildew threatened. Most held up through the event, but within the next several weeks many plants were decimated, while others continued to produce vigorous foliage. While this was not a true scientific trial with rigorous standards, it was indicative of those with resistance. A few cultivars emerged as the better bet for the home gardener, though only a very few basils developed in new breeding programs are said to be fully resistant. Others demonstrate infection to “a tolerable level.” Good air circulation, plenty of sunshine and avoiding overhead watering are all ways to reduce severity of symptoms as well.

Easy-to-find seed varieties that performed admirably at the UT Gardens in Jackson included Purple Ruffle, Spicy Globe, Lemon, Licorice, Thai and Cardinal. There were several others, but these represent a variety of flavor and form that make for an interesting mix.

Keep an eye out for Amazel™ Basil, which is a proven resistant cultivar to the mildew issue. It is only propagated vegetatively, not by seed, but should be widely available, offered by Proven Winners.

Start basil seed in good, porous potting soil or in the ground once soil warms. Seed should be only lightly covered with soil and kept moist but not too wet to avoid rotting. Ideally, it should be planted in full sun. Though basil can survive in partial shade or even on a sunny windowsill, it will not develop a full flavor profile.

Pinch often to develop more branching for maximum foliage, or allow some to flower, if you like, for the pleasure of the pollinators that adore basil blooms.

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