Summertime is basil-time in the Old Pueblo. As the nights stay warm, the sun shines for hours on end and the soil temperatures rise - all conditions that basil love. Originally native to India, basil is now grown around the globe wherever (and whenever) it is warm enough.
Basil is a real taste treat. It can be used in Italian cooking, fresh, in green salads, and it even has a reputation as a medicinal herb. Basil does grow well in the Tucson area, but it isn’t the easiest herb to grow. It has some very specific preferences if it is to thrive. Here are some tips to growing basil in your yard.
• Soil should be a rich, well-drained loamy soil that is high in organic matter. Sandy soils drain too quickly and clay soils become waterlogged and don’t hold oxygen well. Either case makes for unhappy basil plants. Ideal soil pH is 6.2 to 7.0. Most desert soil is around 8.0. Add ample organic matter or grow your basil in large containers with potting soil.
• Light preference is for around eight hours per day, but since we a blessed with more than that, ideally provide noon or afternoon shade. The east side of a home is a good place to plant basil.
• Temperature range is ideally between 55 to 95 degrees F. This gets back to providing some afternoon shade to reduce heat-stress on the plant. Basil can’t take freezing. Thus many of us must replant our basil every spring. If you grow basil in large pots, you could move it to a sheltered site for winter.
• Water needs keep basil off the xeriscape plant list. Provide ample moisture for healthy flavorful, not bitter, basil. Basil that tastes bitter is a sign of water stress.
• Fertilizer may be required. Basil does best with high levels of nitrogen mixed with all the other major and minor nutrients. Our desert soils lack only nitrogen. Adding ample organic matter or growing basil in containers generally solves this.
Lastly, basil is not an easy plant for all people to grow. It’s a good thing that there are over 150 varieties to select from. You may need to try several different varieties until you find the one that does well for you in your yard and style of plant care. For my tendency towards minimal care gardening I grow the variety called “Mrs. Burns Famous Lemon Basil” an Heirloom variety from Native Seeds/SEARCH here in Tucson.
The National Institute of Health reports that Americans consume too much salt. Cooking with flavorful herbs like basil could help you reduce your salt use and stay heart healthy. Plus they say that the way to stay young is to learn something new every day. Growing basil could be a great learning experiences for your mind, body, and heart.
(Editor’s Note: Jacqueline’s latest book “Fruit and Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest” (Cool Springs Press, 2014) is due to be available at Lowes and other retail locations this month. Learn more at Jacqueline’s website: www.gardeningwithsoule.com/.)
Basic Basil Needs in Tucson
Light: 8 hours per day, but shade at noon in Tucson
Temperature: 55 to 95 degrees F (can't take freezing)
Soil: well drained loam, rich in organic matter
Soil pH: 6.2 to 7.0
Nutrients: high levels of nitrogen mixed with all the other major and minor nutrients
A Suite of Basils
Most commercially available basils are cultivars of sweet basil. With over 150 cultivars available and more new ones every year, it's hard to keep up with them all. For our area, in general, go with the basils with smaller leaves (need less water) and purple leaf colors (less likely to sunburn).
sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)
cinnamon basil (O. basilicum 'Cinnamon')
lettuce-leaf basil (O. basilicum 'Crispum')
dark opal basil (O. basilicum 'Dark Opal')
purple basil (O. basilicum 'Purpurescens')
Rubin basil (O. basilicum 'Rubin')
globe basil, dwarf basil, French basil (O. basilicum 'Minimum')
Queen of Siam basil (O. basilicum citriodorum)
African blue basil (O. basilicum X O. kilimandscharicum)
camphor basil, African basil (O. kilimandscharicum)
lemon basil (O. americanum)
hoary basil (O. canum)
holy basil (was O. sanctum, now considered O. canum)
---------------end basil box II -----------------------
4 oz. fresh basil leaves (a generous double handful)
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, peeled
8 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Rinse basil and pat dry.
2. Toast pine nuts in an ungreased skillet over medium heat until golden. Cool.
3. Place cooled pine nuts, basil, garlic and olive oil in a food processor or blender and puree until creamy.
4. Stir in the cheeses and serve over pasta or rice. Also excellent with quinnoa or toasted tofu. Vegans can omit the cheese or use shredded soy cheese.