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Summer basil is beautiful, tasty
For fresh summer recipes, nothing beats the taste of basil. Gardeners who want to grow basil for cooking can choose from a variety of colors, textures and flavors, making this herb a garden showpiece.
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow during the hot summer months. Most gardeners start with common, or sweet, basil, which comes in a wide range of leaf sizes and textures. Lettuce leaf basil has leaves as big as a man’s hand, and they are textured like lettuce. Try replacing traditional lettuce with a single leaf of it on a sandwich.
But basil plants are used for many things besides eating. They can also be landscape ornamentals. Purple-leaved varieties with pink flower heads are perfect for recipes and for adding to any mixed bouquet.
A basil that is attractive in both the vegetable and flower garden is the Mississippi Medallion winner Purple Ruffles basil. The deep purple leaves are very fragrant, and the mature plant reaches 24 inches high and wide. Use this basil as a fresh garnish or harvest as baby greens to add color to salads. Purple Ruffles is a winner in the landscape when companion planted with another Mississippi Medallion plant, Port Gibson Pink verbena.
One of my favorite purple varieties is Amethyst. The bright purple leaves resemble the broad, flat leaves of common basil, and they have the same taste. This variety could be used to create a beautiful red pesto.
African blue basil is a member of another basil group that makes a good addition to the landscape. All parts of the plant have hairy surfaces. When properly cared for, African blue basil can grow up to 4 feet tall. The flowers are an attractive pink or purple.
Another member of this group is Holy basil, which has green and purple foliage. Flowers are pink and white, and the plant can grow to 3 feet tall. Both African blue and Holy basil can become perennial in the coastal counties. And don’t worry about these getting too big; you can deadhead both to control growth.
You should also deadhead faded basil flowers if you are growing it for cooking. This keeps plants producing tasty leaves rather than seeds.
If you are growing basil just for the landscape, pinching spent flower heads is not that critical. Many basil varieties have attractive flowers. For instance, the Thai basil varieties Siam Queen and Queenette have gorgeous purple stems and flower heads that provide beautiful contrast to the bright green foliage.
Basil thrives when grown in raised beds planted in well-drained soil, but the roots need consistent moisture. Water deeply each week, and use a good-quality mulch to help conserve soil moisture and keep the soil cooler.
If you have limited space, grow basil in containers. Place containers on the porch or patio to keep them near your outdoor living area and handy for fresh summer recipes. Fertilize with a slow-release fertilizer at planting or use water-soluble formulations every three to four weeks.
After you make your first batch of fresh pesto from basil picked in your garden, you will never go back the prepared versions.