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High-Flavored Herb

Grow basil to add fresh zest to your culinary dishes

By T.L. Dew

Basil is one of the most popular garden herbs, most likely because it is relatively easy to grow and has become a staple of Italian and Thai recipes.

If you’re interested in growing this sun-loving herb, begin by deciding whether to start from seeds or buy plants.

“One of the benefits of starting your own seeds is you can have the entire spectrum of cultivars to grow,” says Dr. Natalie Bumgarner, assistant professor of Residential and Consumer Horticulture at the University of Tennessee.

Indeed, growers or retailers tend to sell only two or three kinds of a particular variety, but starting from seed allows you to experiment with several kinds.

The seeds will need plenty of warmth and light.

“Basil is a warm-season crop,” Bumgarner says, adding that the seeds will need a soil temperature of 70-75 degrees to germinate well.

Starting seeds indoors in winter and very early spring can be difficult without enough warmth and light. Basil needs about 6-8 hours of sunlight daily to grow.

Because starting seeds indoors can be challenging, many gardeners opt to purchase their basil plants.

“I think that if somebody doesn’t really have a lot of familiarity with growing plants, I would encourage them to buy for the first time,” Bumgarner says.

When buying basil plants, first inspect them for signs of disease or insect damage.

Check the leaves for brown streaking on the stem, which can be a sign of a wilting disease that will destroy the plant’s ability to move water through its vascular system. Also, beware of a light yellow coloring between the veins and grayish purple fuzz on the underside of the leaf. These can be signs of downy mildew — a disease — in unhealthy plants.

Once you have taken your healthy plants home, ensure a healthy root system by placing small plants in small containers. As the plants grow, increase the pot size gradually.

Basil prefers medium moisture levels. Feel the soil to ensure moisture levels remain even. If the soil dries out, that can affect the plant’s ability to produce a bountiful harvest. Watering it too much can cause root decline or poor performance.

Gardeners can begin harvesting basil as soon as the plant contains six to eight leaves. Under good growing conditions, plants can be ready for harvest every three weeks.

“One of the keys to extending the harvest season is consistent harvest,” Bumgarner says.

The plant will continue producing new shoots if gardeners continue to pinch or cut the plant.

After every harvest, fertilize the plant with a balanced fertilizer.

Basil enthusiasts like to add the tasty herb to salads, sandwiches, soups, pasta, tomato sauces, and, of course, to make their own fresh pesto. It’s also used as a flavoring agent for vinegars and oils.

But there is another summertime favorite basil lovers share, including Bumgarner.

“I have a hard time finding a better use than a fresh basil leaf, combined with a slice of tomato and fresh mozzarella,” she says. “That is the taste of summer to me.”