If you have room for only one herb in your garden, make it basil (Ocimum basilcum). No longer just for pepping up spaghetti sauce, pizza, and pesto, this versatile herb is available in an array of flavors and a dozen or more different looks.
If your basil isn't performing well this year, blame it on not enough hot weather, too little water or sunshine, or infrequent harvesting. Success is assured if you plant in full sun (especially where summers are cool) and keep soil moist but not soaked.
Lack of flavor can often be traced to overfertilizing or letting plants flower. If basil has bloomed, gardeners have several alternatives: Use the dainty blossoms as a colorful garnish for salads and to impart a mild basil taste to cooked dishes such as tomato soup, corn chowder, or pasta. Or leave a few flower stalks to attract butterflies; when the seeds turn dark, harvest them, let them dry thoroughly, and save to plant next year. Or cut plants back to six to eight inches high after they've flowered, and they'll regrow tender, aromatic leaves.
When harvesting and storing basil, handle it carefully since the foliage bruises easily. The simplest way to preserve basil is to place it in a clean eight-ounce plastic tub, cover completely with olive oil, replace the lid, and store in the refrigerator or freezer. Or make colorful basil vinegar by placing leaves of purple cultivars in bottles that you fill with white vinegar.
Drying is also possible, but not as foolproof. Pick leaves when they're dry, strip them from the stems, and lay on paper towels. To preserve the green or purple color, immediately cover with another paper towel; otherwise the leaves turn black. Texas herb expert Madalene Hill says she's placed basil leaves on a plate or tray inside a frost-free refrigerator and "in a day or two we have beautiful dried leaves." Drying basil in a microwave works well, but requires experimenting; hanging branches of basil from the rafters usually isn't successful for culinary use.
If you're not currently growing basil, you should be. A diversity of types will produce a symphony of scents and flavors. But don't segregate them in the herb garden - with numerous shapes, sizes, and leaf colors, basils are ideal for the flower border. Some of the best to look for next spring after all chance of frost is past: bush basil, cinnamon basil, clove basil, dark opal basil, holy basil, lemon basil, lettuce-leaf basil (or Italian basil), licorice basil, purple basil (Purple Ruffles is the most popular variety), red basil, and Thai basil.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society