Every year we sow a modular tray of 40 basil plants in mid April in the greenhouse, plant the 30 biggest plants out in mid-May at 7” spacings, and take two huge harvests of leaves in July and late August to make about 20lbs of pesto for the freezer. Into the food processor go olive oil, home grown garlic, chopped mixed nuts, strong grated cheddar and salt and you should have about 20lbs of top quality pesto by the end of the summer. It goes in the freezer, or can be pasteurised. We find you do not need expensive pine nuts or Parmesan, just lots of good basil.
Basil is now in most seed catalogues, a bewildering variety of novelty types, as with most vegetables today. Greek basil tends to flower less, and has loads of fiddly little leaves. Red basil is beautiful and very slow to grow. Lemon basil adds a citrus delight in dishes such as ratatouille. Yet every year I come back to the original Sweet (sometimes called Genovese) basil.
This variety grows a lot of large leaves, making it quicker and easier to harvest. Basil is delicious in so many dishes, most famously anything with tomato in, and also in salads.
A basic rule with basil is that you must not let it flower. Pretty though they are, the plant and its leaves will soon look wretched as they try to produce seed. As the plant starts to flower, take your first main leaf crop, taking care to remove all flowering stems. This doesn’t make them look too pretty, but within a week new leaves start forming. A second crop can be taken in late August. Basil is a real heat lover, and by late September, the plants give up the struggle and die back, whether you have picked the leaves or not. We tend to take them out and plant wild rocket in their place in early September. In a greenhouse, you will get an extra month’s cropping into October.
If you do not have a greenhouse or cold frame, then you can sow your basil in May, but you will have to wait almost until July before you can start picking any leaves. Module or seed trays are recommended, especially as you can keep them in the warmth of your house for a week until they germinate. If you plant them out too early, they will just look wretched and not grow. June, July and August are their favourite months.
And if all you want is a few plants of basil, just buy a pot of basil from a good nursery and plant it in the ground. The leaves off an outdoor plant are much meatier than indoor plants, and more prolific. A pot in a window sill is a sure way of growing sickly basil, don’t do it! In addition, every time I tend my Basil, I think of John Cleese jokes and have a good laugh to myself. I’m afraid his jokes are all too risqué to print in this lovely magazine, so please enjoy a good giggle at home.