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Growing Holy Basil

This year as your tomatoes thrive in the sunniest spots in your garden beds, make a little bit of space in the sun for: Ocimum basilicum, or basil. This tasty herb has quite a history in culinary circles, medicinally and in folklore from around the world.

Full of Flavors

Chemically speaking, basil has three main flavor profiles derived from different compounds in the plant: sweet or anise-like, floral, and spicy or clove-like. Basil also boasts rose, thyme, lemon and camphor to its profile. No wonder we are so devoted!

There are many different cultivars of our most familiar basil, O. basilicum, including ones with purple leaves, ruffled leaves, small or large leaves, and this includes Thai basil, a purple-stemmed and green-leaved variety, with a more upright and sturdy profile than the more-familiar Italian varieties.

The classic pesto choice is either Italian large leaf or Genovese basil. Thai basil is best for a green curry dish or other spicy and warm dishes. All basil belong to the mint family, recognizable by their squared stems. They are grown as an annual, as they are not tolerant of cold soil and weather, so June is the perfect time to plant them in the garden.

Holy Basil, Also Known as Tulsi

Holy basil, has a devoted following, being closely entwined with the complicated love story of Vishnu and Tulasi in Hindu lore. My earliest memory of Tulsi comes from playing with my grandma’s tulsi beads necklace called Kanthi when I was 4. 

On my travels recently I was fortunate to visit Tanshikar, a working spice farm stewarded by Chinmay and Gauri. The picture is of the Tulsi that is planted in the center courtyard of their beautiful ecological home. Gauri starts her day by first worshiping the plant. Chinmay mentioned that having this plant inside their home cleans air and infuses it with oxygen 24/7 during the day through photosynthesis, and at night by a process called CAM (Crassulasian Acid Metabolism).

Holy basil is used for religious and medicinal purposes and often brewed as a restorative relaxing tea.

There are different types of Tulsi. Rama green leaf (mellow tasting), Krishna purple leaf (peppery), Vana wild variety and Kapoor heavy flowered (pollinator friendly). I have used them interchangeably in the teas, though the flavors vary a bit.

Cultivating Basil 

Basil likes well-draining and healthy soil in a sunny, warm space. Six hours of sun daily is best for a healthy plant with the most flavorful oil content.

Apply a diluted seaweed fertilizer for a strong and sturdy plant. These liquid kelp-based products can be added to the watering bucket weekly.

Because basil is an annual, your plant will make attempts all summer long to go to flower and then to seed. Pinch out the flowers as they appear on the tips of the branches to prevent them from completing their reproductive goal. Once seeded, the plant loses flavor and will decline. Use the trimmings as a flavor enhancer in your iced tea or as a little spice for your dinner salad.

Basil is a relatively problem-free plant if cared for properly. If aphids, white fly or spider mites pester your basil, it is likely your plants are water-stressed and the soil is too dry. Conversely, if you find black spots on the leaves and limp stems and leaves on the plant, your basil’s soil likely needs to dry a little between watering, the drainage needs improvement or the plants need more direct sun.

ANITA WAGHANI  leads the Soil and Water Stewardship program and the learning garden in Kirkland at McAuliffe Park, sharing with the community how to grow food organically and sustainably. 

LAURA MATTER is an educator and Garden Hotline program director for Tilth Alliance.