I was out in the garden this morning planting out my second basil crop of the summer, and the funny thing is, summer hasn't officially started here yet (although with 40°C last Sunday and 32°C yesterday my garden certainly thinks it's summer already). Basil crop? Yep, basil crop. I've changed my attitude to growing basil. I'm treating it as a cross between a vegie and a herb. I use it as a herb in the kitchen, but I grow it like it's a vegie in the garden.
Basil lives hard and dies young. Here's some of last year's crop telling me that it's ready to flower and make babies then slowly fade away.
Just a week or so after the first photo was taken, it was in bloom. Around this stage the leaves lose their soft lusciousness and, as a herb, it's not a patch on its youthful self. And so last year I started up a second crop, then towards the end of summer, a third one. And the crops became fairly small, too, as I don't really need lots of basil at any one time. But I do like the idea of having fresh, tender young basil on hand at all times.
One thing I did wrong last year was sow the seed too thickly (I sowed them directly into the pot). Sure, I thinned out this dense little patch of seedlings to separate the plants, but it turned out I didn't quite thin them enough.
Overcrowded basil certainly looks nice, but while I had plenty of leaves to harvest for cooking I could just tell that the plants weren't happy. Some plants thrived but others died off amid all the competition.
This year I have raised seedlings in punnets and planted them out in pots, with about six seedlings planted into this pot. This is the first batch of this 'summer' and you can tell by the flower buds that it's already on the way out (last weekend's searing-hot heat didn't help, either). So, about three weeks ago I sowed the next batch of seed in punnets and got them going.
This morning I planted the new babies out into their pot in a spot on the path edge which gets maximum sunshine. This pot will need almost daily watering, but that's the only problem with doing things this way. All my other sunniest spots are taken up with tomatoes, zucchinis, zinnias and salvias, so it's a pot on the path or nothing! It will get light liquid feeds of one of those nitrogen-rich organic liquid foods (eg, Nitrosol or Seafeed 3-in-1) every fortnight.
I expect that I'll get another batch of basil seeds going some time later in the summer, probably late January, making that my third 'crop' of the summer. Many other herbs live a more leisurely life as perennials, lasting for years in the garden. But some herbs are (correctly) classed as 'annuals' which live for a year or less. With basil this 'annual' label is a bit misleading, as they don't last a whole year (well, at least not here in Sydney they don't). For my basil, it's three to four months from go to whoa. Coriander is another herb which lives fast and dies young in the same way, but I only grow that in the cooler autumn-winter months here.
Basil has so many uses in cooking, it's one of my favourite herbs. Of course, like everyone else I use it with tomatoes, in salads, and in Thai-style stir-fries, and I am also a great fan of turning the end-of-the-line plants into traditional pesto and freezing that in little batches.
I use tiny plastic Tupperware containers which hold about two tablespoonsful of pesto each, and that's the perfect size. Small batches of pesto unfreeze fast, so they're also very easy to use in a last-minute kind of way.
However, as a variation on the traditional 'pesto pasta' dish served on its own, I sometimes serve pesto mixed with smaller quantities of penne or shell pasta as a 'carb' side dish, instead of potatoes or rice. Pesto is also wonderful in a potato salad that includes lightly cooked green beans and some chopped walnuts. And it's also lovely as a dollop-style sauce to make grilled chicken more interesting.