The overpowering aroma of basil fills my kitchen. A huge pile of green leaves and stems occupies the counter, next to a bottle of olive oil, several heads of garlic, and a mound of grated Parmesan cheese. It’s pesto time.
I enjoy using basil all year long, but I’ve had bad luck growing plants indoors during the winter. White flies, mealy bugs, and other pests agree that this mint family member is delicious. I’ve finally come to realize I have to do my growing during the summer, but I can still enjoy basil’s fresh flavor in the middle of February.
Basil hates even a hint of frost, so deciding where to grow it presented a bit of a challenge. I have a small solar greenhouse that stays about 10 degrees warmer than the air outside, plus protection from wind and hail. However, inadequate ventilation means it gets very warm on sunny days. This spring I set out 18 basil seedlings in the greenhouse: six Lettuce Leaf, six Italian Large Leaf, and six Sweet Dani (a robust lemon basil).
It’s a long trip out to the garden when I’m in the middle of making dinner, so for convenience I also grow herbs in containers on the balcony outside my kitchen. There, they’re subject to reflected heat from a southern exposure—ideal for thyme and sage, but how about basil? Curious, I planted a 2-foot wide container with six Italian Large Leaf seedlings.
Finally, I have plenty of space in my garden, but it’s mostly unprotected—vulnerable to cloudbursts, hail, and hungry critters (especially pocket gophers). The rest of my basil seedlings were planted across the end of one bed—a dozen each of the three varieties mentioned above. Then I watered, weeded, and waited.
By early August, the basil in the greenhouse had burned to a crisp, in spite of plenty of water. It was just too hot. What managed to survive was mowed down by hungry grasshoppers. Since other crops (chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant, for example) do well even in the heat, I won’t waste precious greenhouse space on basil again.
The basil on my balcony thrived, and was plenty for making salad dressings, pizza, and other tasty dishes. I’ll plant another pot next year, and I might try once again to haul this one inside for the winter.
Happily, the basil in my garden also did very well. I’ve made two cuttings so far, and have a respectable amount of pesto, lemon basil pistachio butter, and basil paste (basil and olive oil puree) in the freezer.
Sweet Dani is a strongly-flavored lemon basil on more substantial plants than the typical variety. You get more leaves with more citral and essential oils in less time. Not surprisingly, it was an AAS winner the year Purdue University introduced it. I highly recommend it.
As you might expect, Lettuce Leaf Basil has large, blistered leaves—just right for wrapping fresh mozzarella and tomato slices. Big leaves mean less work when making pesto. I’ve grown it for years with good results.
This was the first time I tried Italian Large Leaf. I definitely will grow it again. It out-performed Lettuce Leaf by a wide margin: the leaves were thicker, sweeter, and there were more of them. Compared to Lettuce Leaf, Italian Large Leaf’s stronger flavor more than made up for its slightly smaller leaves.
Well, there you have the results of my basil trials. One happy consequence of comparing varieties is that I ended up with a lot of basil. I think I can live with that.