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Wonderful world of basil

Whether you say bay-zil, or baa-zil, there’s one thing everyone will agree on. Juicy, sun-warmed tomato chunks mixed with olive oil, freshly torn basil and garlic spooned over hot pasta is truly a feast sublime. What’s pesto without fresh basil?

Besides having extraordinary taste, basil is incredibly easy to grow, and the numerous shapes and sizes make excellent additions to a perennial garden, shrub border or container garden. Smaller basil cultivars make a superb edging for the perennial border or vegetable garden. Plant a large maroon-leafed basil between lettuce and leeks for a splash of rich color. Cinnamon basil and orange-scented geraniums in a sunny container radiate the scent of warm orange-cinnamon rolls.

Seed racks and catalogues are filled with amazing varieties. There are sweet, scented, Italian, Thai and Greek basils, each with a different leaf shape and flavour. Most edible basils are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum.

The smooth-leaved types that grow two to three feet tall are the best known for culinary use. There are also highly perfumed crinkle-leaved and ruffle-leaved varieties that make superb pesto and double as smashing focal points in the landscape. Opal basil’s deep-red to purple leaves display a striking contrast to green, grey and blue-leaved plants in the perennial border. Culinarily, they make beautiful soft pink sorbets and vinegars. Although their flavour is superb, be cautious about using them in foods such as creamy white soups — their colour may lend a dark-purple or grey tint to the food — not very appetizing by most standards.

In contrast to the large types, the tiny-leaved basils produce small, six-inch mounds and are unmatched as edging plants. These small globe basils have a delicate flavour that is best used fresh.

Basil asks for nothing more in the garden than full sun and well-drained soil. It grows quickly from seed, and multiple seedings provide a season-long harvest. Basil thrives on warm weather and is frost sensitive, so don’t get impatient and sow seeds too early.

Harvest basil just before flower buds form and continue harvesting to keep the plant producing in a bushy form. Once the plant begins to expend energy in flower and seed production it will lose some of its potency.

Cut or pinch basil just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than a quarter of the plant. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and looking good.

To preserve basil, you can air dry, oven dry or freeze: Simple air drying preserves the basil taste for use all winter. Rinse leaves in cool water and gently shake off extra moisture. When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle. Place bundle in a paper bag, gathering the top of the bag around the stems then tie again. Label and hang to dry where the temperature doesn’t get above 26.6 C (80 F). After two to four weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.

To oven dry, place leaves on a cookie sheet and put into an 82.2 C (180 F) oven for three to four hours, leaving the door ajar. Once basil is dried, store in an airtight container in a cool, dark cabinet. Keep the leaves whole if possible to preserve the oils.

To retain just-picked flavour, freeze basil in water or olive oil. Put a handful of washed leaves in a food processor with enough water or oil to make a slurry. When processed, pour into ice cube trays to freeze. Once frozen, store in a well-labelled freezer container. You can also make your favourite pesto recipe and freeze the final product.

There are also many popular herb vinegar recipes available as yet another way to preserve your basil harvest for months to come.

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