The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Gardening: A brush with basil

By Justin Newcombe

Basil is a herb with a bit of a history. Justin Newcombe delves into its past but also shares how to look after it in the present.

Basil varieties are used in many cultures, including Italian and Thai. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Basil varieties are used in many cultures, including Italian and Thai. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Basil is the king of herbs, ("basil" means king). And apparently it is not only the holy herb, it is also the herb of Satan. Is there no end to this herb's versatility? It's also good in a pot, just ask Lisabetta, a character in a poem by Boccaccio's Decameron who kept her lover's head in a pot with basil on top, so she could get up in the middle of the night and give the pot a cuddle when she felt lonely ... or peckish. Lisabetta's antics give a neat twist to the Portuguese tradition of giving your lover a pot of basil on the holiday of St John. The list of spiritual associations afforded this herb just goes on and on, mainly good but sometimes not. The ancient Greeks reckon it was a sign of hatred to be given basil and early Europeans believed it had satanic properties. Both cultures also used it as a surefire way to get the deceased through the gates of heaven, so the dead were sent off with a sprig of basil in their palm.

Basil has had a strong culinary tradition for a very long time, over 5000 years. Originating in India, it spread down through Southeast Asia (where cultivars such as Thai basil and lemon basil established) and west into the Mediterranean and on to northern Europe.

I'm not sure when the relationship between basil and tomatoes established, but it's now the Kenny and Dolly of gardening.

I find that the larger lettuce leaf varieties of basil tend to bolt (flower early) in the middle of summer but are beautiful with their soft ruffles and deep colour. Growing these among tomatoes has the added benefit of giving the basil shade from the heat of the day thus curbing its reproductive tendency (flowering). Fine verde or Greek basil are good in full sun and with their small fingernail-sized leaves and globe-forming shrubby habit they make great borders or patio plants. Like their more traditional cousins, the Genovese basil, they are available in a deep purple hue and will re-foliate well when picked or trimmed.

Basil likes a free draining soil and plenty of water. Although I mentioned they like partial shade in the heat of summer, that's not to say they like full shade all year round. Still plant your basil in a sunny spot but utilise areas near climbing frames or other structures. As I also mentioned earlier, basil will grow well in pots (severed heads aside). Again a free draining soil with a regular watering regime will see your basil thrive.

And as a sprout or micro green basil has proven itself as an interesting and refreshing addition to most summer salads. There's no doubt that if you propagate your own from seed (just use a good seed mix, water regularly and follow the instructions on the packet) having literally buckets of basil will be your holy legacy this summer... Amen.

- NZ Herald

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