Basil is an easy-to-grow annual herb that thrives in Northeast summers and has several culinary uses. Many varieties are readily available. Plant some in your garden this summer to enjoy year-round.
Plant basil seeds directly in the garden after all danger of frost has passed and water thoroughly. Enrich the soil before planting with compost. The seeds will germinate quickly, in five to seven days. Wait until the soil has warmed and air temperatures average in the 70s before planting basil transplants.
Basil loves sun and heat but may need afternoon shade if planted in an exceptionally sunny spot. The plants need to be kept moist but do not overwater as the roots are prone to rot.
Pinch back leaves once the plant reaches about six inches tall. To do this, look for a point where two leaves branch off from a stem. Clip just above this point. Continue pinching back to encourage bushy growth and leaf production, but avoid harvesting more than one-half of the plant.
Genovese basil, or other sweet basil varieties, are the go-to varieties for pesto. If you end up overrun with basil and want to try something different, I like to keep some in my freezer. This adds a spicy touch to pasta, soups and vegetables. Any variety can be preserved this way.
To freeze basil, add oil to prevent the leaves from turning black. Trim and clean the leaves. Add the leaves and olive oil to a food processor and process until the basil is finely chopped.
Put the mixture into small ice cube trays to freeze. Remove the cubes when frozen and store them in a freezer-safe container.
Basil also can be dried for later use. Using a food dehydrator preserves the vibrant color. Separate individual leaves along trays and follow the instructions for your dehydrator.
In addition, clean leaves can be dried in the oven. Spread the leaves on parchment-lined baking trays. Set your oven to its lowest temperature setting (below 200º F). Check frequently for dryness and remove when leaves crumble easily.
Some other varieties of basil to try this year are Thai, lemon and cinnamon. All can be grown and dried using the methods described above. However, they have slightly different culinary uses.
Thai basil has a subtle anise or licorice flavor that enhances the flavors of Asian dishes. The fresh leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Add to salads, stir-fries or simmer in curries. Dried Thai basil can be added to your cooked meals.
Lemon basil has a subtly tangy citrus flavor. Try blending it into salad dressing, using it as a garnish or muddling it in cocktails or lemonade. Lemon basil is best used fresh.
Cinnamon basil is another interesting variety that adds a sweet, cinnamon-y flavor. Fresh or dried leaves can be added to baked goods, steeped for tea and used as a garnish. Try including some cinnamon basil in baked applesauce for a twist on your usual recipe.
View additional resources on growing and using herbs at www.uvm.edu/extension/mastergardener/gardening-resources.
by Andrea Knepper, Extension Master Gardener, UVM