Delectable sweet basil is easy to cultivate

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)m is possibly the simplest herb to cultivate, both indoors and out. An English culinary expert, Tom Stobart, claims that if he were limited to one home-grown, fresh herb, his choice would be the spicily scented leaves of sweet basil.

A little background may help you sympathize with the plant's needs.

A member of the mint family, sweet basil (rhymes with dazzle) is native to tropical Asia, Avrica, and the Pacific islands. It probably came overland from India to Europe, arriving in Britain in the 16th century.

Several species of this pretty annual are cultivated, including one with purple leaves. In its most-common variety, sweet basil is a bushy plant reaching 18 to 24 inches in height. It grows easily from seed in light, sandy soil enriched with compost.

You can start the round blue-black seed indoors two months before the last frost, then set out the young plants at about the same time you would your tomatoes. In fact, set them out next to each other, because they make excellent companions.

With its strong aroma, sweet basil seems to have no insect pests and improves growth and flavor of the neighboring tomatoes.

Or you can sow sweet basil seed directly in the garden, in a sunny sheltered spot, being sure the soil is well warmed. The seed germinates in 4 or 5 days. (Kept in the freezer, sweet basil seed has been found to remain viable for many years).

When the plants are 3 inches high, thin them to stand about one foot apart. Don't discard those delicate, sweet-tasting thinnings, however. They can be stored briefly in the refrigerator in small plastic sandwich bags, then shredded over your salad or pizza.

The smooth, bright-green leaves of sweet basil, slightly toothed, grow in opposite pairs. Leaves and stems are dotted with tiny oil cells. The flowers are tiny and creamy white, in spikes, and bees love them.

Plants can be pinched for fresh seasoning anytime after they are 4 to 6 inches tall. Sweet basil shoots into flower about 6 weeks after planting and should be pinched back at this time to promote bushiness.

For a winter supply of dried herb, harvest the leaves just before flowering, when the quantity of foliage is the greatest. The essential oil is strongest at this time, too, and yields the best aroma and flavor.

A mature plant should yield 3 cups of leaves during the growing season. Cut back the plants every 3 or 4 weeks, adding 5-10-5 fertilizer to help them recuperate.

The day before harvesting, hose-spray the plants to clean them. Cut the branches early in the day and tie them together with clean white string, inverted, in a brown paper bag. Hang the bag in a warm airy closet or attic for 1 to 2 weeks.

During this process, handle the sweet basil leaves as little as possible, because they bruise and blacken easily. When the leaves sound and feel crisp within the bag, crumble off the stalks and store in tightly covered containers on a dark cupboard shelf away from heat.

Sweet basil leaves can be spread in single layers on trays in a shady place to dry instead. This method takes only 2 or 3 days. But we find the brown paper bag of tied branches simpler.

Fresh leaves also can be stored in the freezer. The appearance is altered but the sweet spicy taste remains intact.

To preserve the greatest amount of summery flavor, aficionados recommend layering Fresh sprigs with salt. Using an earthenware crock or lidded casserole , cover the bottom with a layer of flagrant young stems and leaves, sprinkle on a layer of salt, and repeat until all your basil is used, ending with a layer of salt. Cover the crock or casserole. To use the leaves, simply shake off the salt and wash.

Pinch back the centers to the first set of leaves. New tops will grow quickly and the plants will bush out attractively.

Sweet basil needs to be well watered when it becomes dry and can fertilized once a month. Keep it growing on a sunny kitchen windowsill.

For indoor culture, experts recommend common basil or Italian basil. Purple, the "dark opal" variety, makes a good house plant, too.

You also can sow seed in a pot in the fall, thinning to one attractive, healthy plant. Or take slips from established plants.

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