Sowing | Growing | Picking
The botanical name for sweet basil is Ocimum basilicum, the latter part meaning ‘princely' and this is a prince of herbs. It is highly valued for its sweet but distinctively spicy flavour. It was known to the ancients and originally came from tropical Asia. Being of tropical origin, it is not happy outdoors in this country and must be grown under protection of a greenhouse or conservatory. It does grow outside but always looks pretty miserable because the temperatures are not high enough.
On the other hand, it is easy to grow in a greenhouse, either in a pot or in the open soil. The plants make neat bushy growth. Apart from the sweet basil, the holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, has become available as seeds in recent years. Used in eastern, especially Thai, cookery, it has a somewhat different flavour from pointed leaves covered with fine hairs. It makes a bigger, more vigorous plant.
Basil is grown from seed sown each year in late spring. It can be sown later too because it develops very quickly. The seeds like warm conditions for germination and that is the reason for not sowing too early. Basil reacts badly to cold, wet compost and this is often a reason for lack of success. In the right conditions, the seeds germinate within a few days. They should be pricked out almost immediately into small pots and later moved on into larger pots, or planted out in the greenhouse soil.
Keep basil growing strongly. Do not over-water until the weather warms up in late spring or early summer. Wait until growth begins, when it does keep the compost nicely moist. Feeding should be carried out for plants in pots every two weeks using a dilute liquid plant food. In the open soil, it will not need liquid feeding if the soil is already rich. It likes plenty of organic matter in the soil and an open structure.
When the required number of plants have been pricked out, the seed tray with surplus seedlings can be left as it is, but watered and liquid fed to make the seedlings grow as a group. This will give a first pick within a few weeks, simply cutting the tops of the little plants. As the other plants start to make some size, they can have the tips of the shoots picked off with two to four leaves and these tips used. This technique helps to keep the plants small and bushy, and delays flowering. Later the leaves can be used as required. When the plants are on the point of flowering, the leaves can be picked off for freezing, which is an excellent way to preserve the delicate flavour of basil.