Blooming Basils!

Come mid-June, many gardeners try to figure out what they can add to their herb or vegetable gardens.   Too late for tomatoes (except the early varieties, and you can’t find anymore to plant anyway), too early to think about fall veggies, the garden just really needs some pizzazz.  You want to add something  edible and delicious, that is going to look good in the garden, and maybe is a little unusual.  This is a common question I get at the nursery, and my response is always ‘How about some of the many different types of basil?’  Often the answer is that basil is already in the garden, checked off the list, done and growing.  But you are asking that poor little basil you planted back in April to do a lot of work for the whole season.  Here are 5 reasons to include basil in your June planting.

1.   Seed grown basils, such as Genovese, Italian large leaf, and Thai, all have one goal in life – to flower, set seed and die.  Your goal is to stop them from doing that so you have plenty of delicious leaves to harvest.  But even under the best conditions, basil planted in the early spring will be pretty worn out by late summer/early fall, when you are trying to harvest to make pesto for the freezer, dry leaves and otherwise keep that delicious basil flavor for the winter months.  Planting a second round of basil in June means that this later planting will be fresh, delicious and sweet for the fall harvest.

2.  Some of your basil plants are ratty, have already gone to flower, and in some cases you forgot to fertilize them.  Yep, unlike so many of our perennial herbs, basil likes to be fertilized every 3 weeks in the ground, and every 7-14 days in a container.  I often get a lot of guilty looks when I ask the question ‘When was the last time you fertilized?’  Fish emulsion and sea kelp works great, worm tea, digging in a bit of organic fertilizer, or an inorganic fertilizer at half the recommended strength is critical to keeping your basils producing lots of leaves.  If they are completely yellow or have already set seed, why not just start fresh?  You still have 4 good months of basil harvest ahead!

3.  Everyone goes for the tried and true traditional basil first, but did you know there are now hundreds of varieties available to plant?  Now that the garden is settled, you can add some of the fun varieties – ‘Goddess’ or ‘Spicy Bush’ is small leaved, with strong flavor, great for sauces, salsas and pizza; ‘Lemon’ is out of this world for seafood and chicken (lemon basil pesto on salmon or shrimp, mmmm!);  ‘Thai’ is great for curry or cool Asian noodle salads; all of the purple basils are terrific for salad greens; ’ Napoletano’ has leaves so large you can you them on a sandwich or burger or as a wrap;  ‘Cinnamon’ is great with fruit and for iced tea; and it is finally hot enough for ‘Holy’ basil to put on adequate growth for delicious Ayurvedic  tea. 

4.  Some basils bloom, and it is a good thing!  If you want to bring pollinators into your garden, plant some of the new sterile varieties.  They are terrific choices to bring in honey bees and other pollinators into the veggie garden (having trouble getting fruit set on cukes, squash, melons?)  They are also so stunning in the garden, and bloom from April until heavy frost.  These varieties are more drought tolerant and more cold tolerant than our seed grown varieties, and since they are sterile and don’t produce seed, they will continue to grow and look good throughout the season.  My personal fave is ‘Wild Magic’, a stunning violet and green leaved variety growing to 18 inches with spikes of maroon flowers.  It is so lovely you can put it in a container, eat the leaves and enjoy the flowers.  Last year, it bloomed right up until the day it froze out in the garden, Dec 10!  A larger variety called ‘Magic Mountain’ grows to 30 inches tall and as wide, covered with flowers all summer, smells and tastes delicious, and is a honey bee magnet!  It is a smaller and more delicious form of ‘African Blue’ Basil, which grows to 4 feet tall but isn’t a good culinary variety.  ‘Ajaka’ grows to 30 inches and has huge green leaves, is strong and clove scented much like Thai, and our newest ‘Dark Lady’ maintains a striking violet leaf, crimson flowers and is stunning in the garden.  All of these selections will grow well until late November or early December, which is an amazing feat! In more temperate parts of the Bay Area they will even overwinter.  I find that gardeners in the know will come even in early August and add a few more of these sterile varieties to the garden for even more fall color.

5.  But what if you don’t want flowers, and you are not so good at remembering to pinch the flowers off or fertilize regularly?  Then this is a great time to plant ‘Pesto Perpetuo’, a variegated non-blooming Genovese style basil.  It is lovely and quite sturdy, with good drought tolerance and an incredible ability to thrive even under the crummiest horticultural care.  It has a strong basil flavor, and is a good specimen plant.

We are well stocked with basil varieties for our Father’s Day sale June 16-18.

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