My small basil farm

Judith Adam

Updated on:

I always include a basket (or three!) of basil on the deck, where three hours of sun seem to be enough for leafy herbs like basil, dwarf dill and parsley to make a good showing. Anything that makes a fruit, such as tomato and eggplant, goes near the front steps where sunlight lasts longer. Last year I grew an Italian basil and ruffled ‘Lettuce Leaf’ basil in containers, combined with dark purple and red coleus. The light green, puckered leaves of ‘Lettuce Leaf’ are elegant and have lots of flavour.

This year, I’m selecting from Richter’s 2011 Herb & Vegetable Catalogue (, which lists 49 varieties of basil! There are exotic basils from Asia, India and Africa, with flavors of cinnamon, lemon, lime, allspice, camphor, mint, vanilla and anise. Then there are the Italian varieties like ‘Napolitano’ and ‘Genovese’, with the traditional taste of basil. High-yielding ‘Dolly’ produces 50 per cent more leaves than standard Genovese varieties and has improved tolerance to low temperatures. ‘Dolly’ could extend the harvest into early autumn when more cold-sensitive basils begin to drop their leaves. ‘Edwina’, ‘Emily’ and ‘Marian’ are bred for pot culture, and might also do well in a sunny kitchen window during the cold months. ‘Superbo’ was bred to delay the onset of flowering, allowing for a longer cropping period. If you want to grow basil to dry, try ‘Sweet Salad’ with a surprising cinnamon-clove flavor, and leaves that remain green when dried.

This season I plan to have basils with showy foliage and ornamental flowers sharing containers with summer annuals. I like to sweep a hand across the plants and have the spicy basil scent float up by my deck chair. Dark purple ‘Purple Ruffles’ and intense purple-red ‘Rosie’ hold their foliage color all season without fading to green, and they’re striking in a salad, as well as good companions in a pot with white geraniums. ‘Oriental Breeze’ and ‘Siam Queen’ have long-lasting sprays of purple buds opening to pink flowers above green leaves, and would be pretty with pink petunias.

If I had a French kitchen garden I’d certainly want a row of the sweet globe basils in pots along a walk or filling a window box. These have miniature leaves and form dense, globular bushes so uniform that they look pruned. The spicy leaves are perfect for scattering over an omelet or pizza as it comes out of the oven. ‘Green Globe’, an Italian variety also known as ‘Finissimo Verde e Palla’ (“finest green and like a ball”), makes a mound 20 to 28 inches (50 to 70 cm) across suitable for planting along a walkway. ‘Pistou’ and ‘Marseilles’ are more dwarf, growing into uniform mounds eight to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm) tall and wide. A row of these little globes in clay pots outside a kitchen door would be charming and useful.

Basil is easy to grow from seed in late May indoors under lights or outdoors in early June. I plant seed one-half inch (1 cm) deep in soilless mix, directly into the containers I intend to use all season. I sow generously for good germination, keeping the pots inside by a bright glass door, and I pull out surplus seedlings. The pots go outside when the seedlings are one to two inches (1.5 to 5 cm) tall and daytime temperatures are reliably warm and night-time temperatures well above freezing—basil dislikes cool temperatures. If you can find interesting basil seedlings at a nursery, set them into containers for a quicker start.

Recently, my friend Clare B. gave me a large bag of worm castings that I’ll use to enrich the soil in my basil containers. Apply a water-soluble fertilizer once a month, and begin harvesting leaves when the plants are about 10 inches (25 cm) tall. Sometimes basil is as productive as zucchini, raising the issue of what to do with it all—but that’s another story.

Resources: Among other suppliers of basil seeds are William Dam Seeds, Veseys, Stokes Seeds and McFayden Seeds.

Wonderful wire brushes

I have my collection of wire brushes out, getting ready to clean my hand tools and shovels. Late autumn work is always chaotic, and I’m glad to put the tools away even if they’re still caked with clay soil. But I really don’t like to start spring with dirty tools, so now is the time to get scrubbing out in the garage with my wire brushes. Scrubbing metal tools with wire cleans off particles of dried soil and plant debris, producing a smooth surface on spades and trowels that slips right through soil. I’ve found that wires also get deep into crevices and around the bolts on secateurs and loppers, places where I can’t get steel wool to go.

I have three different wire brushes, and I’m always looking for more. One from a hardware store has stiff bristles and a long handle. It’s good for getting clay off shovels and spades, and for cleaning the organic brown patina from birdbath bowls and clay pots. A softer, more flexible wire brush (found with cleaning supplies at a supermarket) works well on secateurs and loppers, getting into springs and around bolts. I also use this brush to clean pruning saws by running the bristles through the teeth repeatedly, always in a downward direction. The third brush is my mother’s ancient suede brush, with stubby half-inch (1-cm) wire bristles meant for briskly buffing soil from suede shoes and boots. This is a terrific spot cleaner for soil dried onto trowels.

Finally, I use those copper-like coiled kitchen scrubbers to finish up and smooth flat metal surfaces and clean the plastic and wood handles on rakes and snow shovels. I usually do all this cleaning without water, although there are times when a soap and water solution is useful to soften debris, particularly when cleaning the birdbaths. Wire brushes are not noticeable in a world of increasingly fantastic cleaning devices, but keep an eye out for them—for gardeners, they’re indispensable.

Thanks for visiting with me at Making a Garden. Hope to see you next week.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “My small basil farm”

  1. To Kathleen, March 9

    Yes, timing is important when germinating seeds. It would take some experimenting for a northern gardener to figure out when to plant in Texas, USDA hardiness Zones 9 and 10. You can plant a fall crop there and harvest through the winter. Next autumn you'll be harvesting before the end of the year!

  2. I too planted lettuce leaf basil this winter while in Texas. It produces large, gorgeous,fragrant leaves. I learned this year that basil cannot germinate until there is a sufficient amount of daylight. My first seeding in December didn't germinate but uopn re seeding in January, they germinated like crazy and I've enjoyed harvesting the plants weekly ever since. This fall I know I need to start them as soon as I arrive in SPI [Ed: South Padre Island?] in October so I'll bring my own seeds!


Leave a Comment