The Coastal Gardener: Basil -- so universal and so delicious

Basil is certainly the most popular summer herb in local gardens.

The warm, long days of this time of the year are perfectly suited to these easy-to-grow plants.

Basil supposedly derives its name from a terrifying beast of Greek mythology, the Basilisk. Legend says a Basilisk was a half-lizard, half-dragon creature, with a piercing stare that was fatal to whomever it gazed upon. Fortunately, a single basil leaf was considered a magical cure against the stare, breath or bite of the feared Basilisk.

Today, basil may not fend off any dragons in your garden, but is one of the most prolific herbs used throughout the world. Often associated with Italian recipes, basil is also used in herbal remedies, to create flavored vinegars, in teas, and as a key seasoning in many other recipes.

Fresh or dry leaves can be added to stews, soups and sauces, as well as meat, fish or egg dishes. Basil seasons salads and vegetables. Of course, almost any tomato dish benefits from basil, adding flavor to pizza, spaghetti sauce, soups, dressings, salads, sausage — virtually anything tomato based. When blended with pine nuts, oil and cheese in just the right amounts, it creates pesto.

There was a time when the only basil we could buy was the common large leaf variety called sweet basil. Although delicious and a workhorse of the summer garden, sweet basil is also just the tip of the basil iceberg. Depending on where you shop, the number of basil species and cultivars can be intimidating, if not overwhelming. My suggestion: Try one of each.

Once graduated from standard sweet basil, the next variety to try is lemon basil, particularly a variety called Mrs. Burns. Supposedly discovered growing in a New Mexico garden several decades ago, Mrs. Burns is the most lemony of all the basils. It is a green-leafed basil with a wonderful citrus flavor and aroma. Excellent for use with seafood, or add a couple of crushed sprigs to a pitcher of iced water, fresh lemonade or sun tea.

Purple-leaved varieties may be the prettiest of all the basils and are worth growing, if only for their dazzling appearance in the garden or on the table. Purple-leaved varieties might be named purple ruffles or dark opal, or just simply purple. By whatever name, they are all useful, in much the same way as standard sweet basil, although a bit milder in flavor.

Lettuce leaf basil is a hybrid of common sweet basil, but with enormous leaves, sometimes reaching 6 inches long and 3 inches wide, with a nice ruffle that makes the leaves look especially pretty.

Thai basil and anise basil are stronger-flavored varieties with a distinct anise essence and are especially popular in Mediterranean cooking. Greek basil has miniature green leaves and a very small, compact habit that make it ideal for a pot on the balcony or windowsill. A variety labeled spicy globe is very similar.

Basil prefers full sun, but in a pinch can get by with a little mild shade. On hot days, especially in a pot, it will wilt quickly, so be sure to keep it well watered. To keep basil growing and producing lots of leaves, feed basil regularly with a balanced organic fertilizer.

Garden folklore says to prevent basil plants from flowering by pinching out the buds. "Good luck" is my opinion on this. When basil decides it wants to flower, no amount of pinching is going to change its mind. Flowering is supposed to cause basil leaves to grow increasingly bitter in flavor, but I can't say I have found this to be true. I suspect that this is just one more example of gardening folklore, handed down from one author or expert to the next without any real evidence of its accuracy.

Basil hates cool air and cold soil. Seeing it for sale in winter is a little annoying because it has no hope of growing until temperatures are consistently in the mid- to upper 70s. No matter how hard you try, culinary basils will always be annual herbs and cannot be grown outdoors during the cool months of the year. But, it can be potted and grown reasonably well in a pot in a bright window, where the leaves are easily clipped while cooking.

Many herbs have the ability to charm, but surely the most beguiling of all is the basil. What else appears as fresh in the searing weather of August? Basil is easy to grow, shrugs off most pests and disease, perfumes the garden, flavors the kitchen and just looks fabulous.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar.

Ask Ron


I've tried copper soap and a Bayer systemic solution but my Iceberg roses are still putting out new leaves and buds covered with white powder. What next?


Newport Beach


One of iceberg's only defects is its susceptibility to powdery mildew. With any disease I always want to deal with it through culture and environment first, if possible. Be sure the plant is in full, all-day sunlight and in an area with very good to excellent air movement. If the rose is growing in tight quarters or next to a wall, mildew may be a persistent issue. The same rose moved five feet away may never get a touch of mildew. Also be sure the rose is pruned well each winter and all the leaves are stripped, then the plant sprayed with a dormant fungicide. This will reduce powdery mildew pressure significantly.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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