Answers to your gardening questions
effective Deer Fence!
Most Popular Herb in America
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! There's no doubt about it—more basil is planted, nurtured, harvested and enjoyed in America than any other herb. Few herb gardeners—especially connoisseurs of zesty Mediterranean dishes—can resist the wonderfully lively fragrance of basil leaves brushed against in the garden or corner nursery. Few indoor winter herb "gardens" remain without this useful and flavorful annual for long (and even fewer basil plants get to keep all their leaves for very long!).
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a native of the tropics and Europe, and part of the 3500-member mint (Labiataceae) family.
Traditionally, basil was nearly always teamed with pasta but has been a popular complement to a great many dishes including chicken, fish, potatoes, soup and a wide range of others as well. Pesto—originally created in Genoa, Italy, and an all-time favorite dish of many all across the globe—combines basil with hard-grating cheeses, pine nuts and olive oil.
Basil is typically grown from seed and is usually quite anxious to burst out upon it's bright new world. I've found that germination rates are very high (above 90%) and the local supplier of packaged seed is most generous. Start seed early in the spring (indoors: between the first week of March and the first of May; outside: when danger of frost has past—basil needs warm soil to germinate). Indoors, I use what's called a "plug" tray with 96 or 100 individual cells because, after plants are up and root systems are well developed, they're more easily handled without root disruption, and diseases like dampoff—should they occur—are confined to just one "cell" rather than spreading throughout the entire seed tray.
ProMix-BX, sifted through a 1/4-inch screen, makes a good starting media but any good, sterilized garden soil mixed with some peat and clean sand or vermiculite will do just as well (sterilizing eliminates weed seeds, soil insects and most potential disease problems). Sprinkle seed on the surface at the rate of about six or eight seeds per cell (a "clump" of seedlings makes a better finished plant in the garden or container, and they seem to thrive in close company). Cover with enough fine vermiculite or screened media to hide all the seeds and lightly firm to remove air spaces. Now water from below until the surface "glistens," allow to drain, cover with a sheet of glass, clear plastic or a humidity dome, and place in a sunny window. Once the seedlings are up, remove the cover to allow air movement...that'll discourage dampoff or rot.
Outdoors, prepare your seedbed as usual: deep, rich, and fine on the surface. Make a slight depression for a row or cluster of seeds, cover lightly and sprinkle (be careful not to splash and splatter).
Once your seedlings are up and beginning to produce true leaves, they are not meant to be separated before transplanting to their final place in your garden; leave them in clumps...you'll get a better crop and a much more attractive plant.
Basil, whether indoors or out, requires warm nights and cool days. Air circulation is also important, so don't crowd them too tightly with other heavily-foliaged herbs.
Fresh basil leaves are ready to be picked almost as soon as they are formed, and you could expect to harvest several quarts from these fast-growing herbs...even during our short growing season. Resist the temptation to pick more than half the leaves at one time.
Fungus disease could be a problem but not a serious one. It would be unwise to apply a chemical fungicide to anything you plan to serve to your friends or family, so the best approach is cleanliness and a watchful eye. Immediately remove and destroy any signs of mildew or rot (and wash your hands before you handle another unaffected plant.)
As weather warms during late spring/early summer, about the only insects which might be an annoyance are whitefly and spider mites. Both are easily controlled by applying Safer's Insecticidal soap about once a week. Since both types of insects live on the undersides of leaves, it's important to spray from underneath to completely saturate their homes (and their eggs and hatchlings).
Basils are "big eaters" and should be fed frequently with any good, balanced, organic food you care to use. Since it's foliage you're after, select one with more nitrogen than phosphorus. (Phosphorus, you'll remember, is for flowers, fruit and seeds; they're not what you want.) Liquid fertilizer types are easily combined in irrigation water and therefore provide a constant source of nutrition. Don't forget lots of compost!
There are many different kinds of basil seeds on the market these days but the ones to look for sport the names: "Genoa," "Italian," or "Sweet Italian." They're the ones with the real flavor!
For those who'd like to add interest and a little color to their dishes and garnishes, there are purple-leaved varieties with almost the flavor of the green-leafed Italian kind.
Both types are available locally at Johnny's Selected Seeds (955 Benton Ave., Winslow, ME 04901). (Find them on the Internet: http://www.johnnyseeds.com)
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