New Basils That Take Their Time
As summer arrives—or doesn’t—I gotta say that I sometimes envy gardeners in Oregon and California. There, summer is a real presence, with warm days and sultry nights that keep heat loving plants growing happily. I love my little island home, but I admit that there are times when I could willingly exchange the gentle grey mornings for the routinely sunny days southern gardeners enjoy. When it’s blisteringly hot down south, I’m grateful for the marine layer that keeps our nights blissfully cool. When days are chilly and night temperatures remain in the 40s in what’s supposed to be summertime, heat lovers tend to sulk, people and plants alike.
This year, my poor beans sprouted cheerfully in our little sunporch, but turned yellow when I planted them out and the temperature wobbled for a week. They’re back on track now, after a spell of warmer days, but so far, only the grafted tomatoes are flourishing (they’re definitely more resilient than most of the “regular” tomatoes). As for basil, the plants in my sun porch are growing lustily, so much so that I’ve already made pesto twice. One of the issues with my usual go-to Genovese basil is that when it gets happy, it starts to bloom like crazy. To keep it bushy and productive, I have to pinch it every few days, which makes it bush out and start blooming again, which means we eat a LOT of basil-flavored sauces and omelets and salads and sandwiches.…
This year I’m excited to be trying out a trio of later-blooming basils, including Everleaf Genovese, which is bred to bloom as much as 8 weeks later than usual on plants that may reach two feet in height and girth. That’s a boon for those of us who want to stagger the harvest and have fresh plants coming on when the earliest are petering out. Some forms of the Everleaf series promise to extend the harvest for up to ten weeks past the typical annoying bloom stage, and some are also columnar, making them easier to squeeze into small gardens like mine, where space is at a premium.
As the season progresses, I’ll replace overblown sprawlers with Everleaf Emerald Towers, a sturdy Genovese type with big leaves on upright stems that form natural columns as much as three feet high. So far, trial nibbles show that the foliage is every bit as fragrant and flavorful as its wider-spreading kin, and the plants look amazing, truly rising (ok, towering) above their neighbors. A third form, Everleaf Thai Towers, has pretty purple stems and stout foliage with a spicy-sweet licorice-like twist on the Genovese types. It’s also got a great, sculptural form and looks pretty enough to grow as a dramatic ornamental accent in a mixed pot or on its own. Everleaf Thai Towers basil can reach three feet in height without losing its columnar form and looks astonishing rising straight up from a deep pot, as if pot and plant were extruded together. When it finally blooms, as much as ten weeks after traditional basil, the pinky purple flowers are pretty enough to pick for cocktail garnishes and tabletop tussy-mussies.
How To Please Basil
I never tasted fresh basil until I went to school in Italy; nobody I knew grew basil except our Italian neighbors (same goes for cilantro). These days, basil is one of the most popular herbs in America since pretty much everyone loves pesto. Native to India, basil appreciates hot, sunny, and relatively dry environments, gaining extra savor and snap from conditions some plants find mildly stressful. When happy, many culinary basils will quickly build into bushy mounds that reward frequent tip-pinching with ample new shoots and leaves. A single plant can turn into a green balloon the size of a large beachball. Alternately, a happy, healthy seedling can damp off into grey mush, or limp along, leaves yellowing and dropping drearily, without quite dying.
Why? For starters, any decent, neutral garden soil will please basil, but where soils are heavy or sandy, it’s wise to create a more benign and encouraging environment by layering several inches of mature compost on edible beds every year. For optimal results, add an inch each spring before planting and add more each fall after harvesting your edibles. Those who tend to pamper their plants may struggle with basil, which prefers benign neglect. Like all herbs, basil loses intensity when over-fed, which promotes rapid growth at the expense of flavor. Similarly, over-watered basil may rot and its leaves will be relatively tasteless.
Helping Basil Succeed
Basil is very sensitive to cold, making it harder to please in cooler climates. Since night temperatures have a lasting effect on soil temperatures, cool nights can retard growth in heat lovers like basil, tomatoes, peppers, corn and beans. Water-filled plant wraps or tents can help, as will placing a sheet of floating row cover over heat lovers at night. However, good air exchange is vital, since damping off, molds and mildews can all plague basil. To minimize problems, give plants an airy spot and spray weekly with diluted (90% water) skim milk (calcium helps strengthen foliage).
Basil’s most common disease is fusarium wilt, a soil-borne fungal pathogen that can devastate basil crops overnight. There’s no cure, so if your basil plants develop it, just pull them immediately, and don’t replant in the same bed for at least a few years. However, some sweet Genovese basils, including Nufar Genovese and Dolly, are especially fusarium resistant. If basil’s soft, lush foliage attracts aphids, whitefly, and other sucking insects, hose them off daily.
What do you do when basil just won’t quit? You can always whirl it into a slurry with a little oil and freeze it for a welcome touch of summer when autumn arrives. For now, fill large basil leaves with slices of nectarine and ripe brie, or crisp mini peppers and goat cheese, or shredded carrots and a dab of hummus. A handful of thinly sliced fresh basil can garnish gazpacho or be tossed with salad greens. Minced basil adds a refreshing bite to appetizers, sauces, and even cocktails as well as dressings and marinades. Basil-infused oils can be drizzled over steamed corn, spooned into hot dishes, or basted on grilled fish. And if you love pesto but don’t like the way it can discolor, here’s an Italian tip: pesto will stay bright green without pre-blanching the basil if you grind the basil with non-iodized sea salt. If you freeze extra pesto, leave out the garlic and add it fresh after thawing to avoid off-flavors.
A Traditional Pesto
Rich, creamy, savory and spicy hot from the garlic, this is an authentic basil pesto recipe from my cooking teacher in Perugia. I admit that these days, I use a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. Include some stems for fullest flavor!
3 large cloves red-skinned garlic, chopped
1/4 cup raw pine nuts or walnuts
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt (non-iodized)
1 bunch (about 4 cups) Genovese basil, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese
2-3 teaspoons fruity olive oil
In a mortar, mash garlic and nuts into a rough paste with the pestle (or grind in food processor). Add basil by the handful, adding salt and grinding each addition well. Work in cheese, adding olive oil sparingly as needed to make paste smooth and creamy. Spoon into glass jars, cover with a little olive oil and store, tightly sealed. Makes about 2 cups.