Inspired with the success of last summer’s dwarf tomato plants (grown in deck containers), I’ve decided to branch out into dwarf basil, a natural complement to the tomatoes in the kitchen and also ornamental on the deck. I’ve selected ‘Italian Cameo’ basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Italian Cameo’, from reneesgarden.com), for its large leaves on dwarf plants. The cultivar was bred in Italy by crossing traditional Genovese basil with a dwarf species, and it is described as having a rich flavour, more pungent than minty.
Many kinds of dwarf basil are available, such as ‘Green Goddess’ (O. basilicum ‘Green Goddess’) with small leaves on little globe-shaped plants. These are charming in terracotta containers, and can also be used to line pathways or the front of an herb bed. The tiny leaves are pungent, with intense flavour, and ideal for strewing across salad greens or a platter of thick tomato slices. They’re perfect when you only need a handful, but it’s not so much fun to pick them in quantity.
What I have in mind are larger leaves to use for making pesto for the freezer. I’ve always used standard-size Genovese-type plants that grow to about 24 inches (60 cm), planted in large baskets on the deck. Two of these baskets and their mature plants take up space, and get a bit tatty as the summer goes by. However, I’m looking forward to starting ‘Italian Cameo’ seeds this year, and having dwarf plants only 12 inches (30 cm) tall, with lots of large flavourful leaves. The plants can be grown in small pots or a window box, or transplanted directly into the ground. They reach maturity in 60 to 70 days from seeding.
‘Italian Cameo’ plants will be more ornamental than what I’ve grown previously, and I’ll be looking for some pretty terracotta containers for them. It has been my experience that plants bred for dwarfness are accommodating to various sizes of containers, and will remain small (or grow larger) in relation to the root room available. In Italy, ‘Italian Cameo’ is sold in small pots at grocery stores, and can be kept small in their original containers. Given a roomy container, these little basil plants will be a bit larger, and produce lots of broad leaves for pesto production in the kitchen. I’ll start the seeds indoors, and set them outside in their containers when night temperatures are above 12°C (basil doesn’t like a chill). It’s always exciting to try out a new and improved plant with remarkable features. I guess those Italian plant breeders never really sleep.