basilOne of the easiest and most prolific herbs to grow in the desert is sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). In addition to being a regular culinary tool and treat, the pretty stalks of petite white flowers this plant produces make great summer bouquets.  In food, it is loved for its rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a trace of mint and clove.

A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), basil is native to southern Asia and islands of the south Pacific. There are also references that cite its home as Iran and even Africa.  A tender annual, it is primarily grown for its aromatic leaves, used fresh or dried, to liven up numerous dishes of both Asian and Western cuisines. Basil seeds are also used in Thai foods.

Basil is commercially grown in California and is readily available at supermarkets, but for cost and beauty you should definitely keep a plant in your garden.

Grow Your Own

Basil likes a sunny spot in a garden or pot that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day and well drained soil. It is easy to grow from seed sown directly into the ground when soil temperatures are at 70 degrees or above. Basil starts also transplant well when air temperatures are regularly over 75 degrees.  When sowing from seed, space seeds according to seed packet directions, covering with 1/4 inch of soil, and keep soil moist and free of weeds. Germination should take place within 5-7 days.

The basil seedling is recognizable by its two broad seed leaves, each shaped like a capital D, borne with flat sides facing each other.

Once seedlings have developed 2-3 pairs of true leaves, they should be thinned or transplanted to stand 6-12 inches apart as basil plants can grow to 2 ½ feet tall and wide.

Two to three inches of mulch around the base of a growing basil plant will help keep soil cool and moist during our hot growing season in the southwest desert. Basil likes deep watering every 4-7 days to ensure the roots are receiving adequate moisture. Container-grown plants will dry out faster than those in garden beds.  Pots should have a drainage hole and soil should contain  well-drained potting mix.

Fertilize sparingly – where compost was used to amend soil, additional fertilization may not be necessary. If plants are not vigorous and older leaves are yellowing, they may be nitrogen deficient. If fertilizer is applied, use a balanced fertilizer (roughly equal percentages of N-P-K) at about half the recommended rate for vegetables. Organic gardeners can use fish emulsion, bat guano, alfalfa meal, blood meal, etc.

Harvest Regularly

Begin harvesting after plants are 6 to 8 inches tall by snipping the fresh young leaves as they are needed. If whole stems are harvested, cut just above a pair of leaves. New growth will be encouraged at the cut point and should be seen within a week’s time. When it is in its

Basil flower bouquet

Basil flower bouquet

prime growing season your basil plant will grow faster than a weed.

If you plan to use your basil in the kitchen, it’s important to prune the plant regularly during the growing season to maintain productivity and promote succulent new growth. Watch for flowers to form and simply pinch them off the plant. Basil that is allowed to flower and form seed will stop growing and become somewhat bitter. However, we have seen recipes for basil flowers used in flavored oil and vinegar, as a garnish and in basil flavored ice creams! So, maybe you’ll want two plants – one for cooking and one to flower.

Basil is a tender plant and can survive a mild winter in the low desert but as the days shorten it tends to get woody and the flavor suffers. Most gardeners find it better to dig up the plant, use it in compost and plant new seeds in the spring. Basil can also be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill but it is also tends to become very leggy inside and doesn’t show robust growth.

Preserve It 

We love fresh basil.  The clove-like aroma and flavor is a wonderful seasoning in all kinds of cuisines,  and the fresh leaves have a tender texture. However, you can dry or freeze basil for use in the off season.

Leaves can be preserved by hanging the foliage upside down in small bunches and air drying in a warm, dry, well ventilated room for a week or so. Foliage can also be dried by spreading flat on a drying rack under the same conditions. Once the basil is thoroughly dried, strip the leaves from the stems and store whole or ground in an air-tight container away from heat sources and bright light. If stored properly, it should keep for about a year. If any sign of moisture occurs, empty the container and repeat the drying process. It is normal for basil leaves to turn brown when air-dried.

Freezing is another method of preserving basil, and usually results in a product with flavor more like fresh basil. Freeze whole leaves in small quantities in small plastic bags or chop up the leaves into small pieces and place in ice cube tray compartments topped off with a little water. Another freezing method is to make pesto that can be frozen in small containers. Omit any cheese from the recipe if you plan to freeze pesto. Whichever method is chosen, frozen herbs should be used within a year.

Here are a few basil varieties to try:

  • Spicy GlobeO. basilicum, 8″-10″. Use green foliage in many dishes. This is a small, compact plant that works indoors and is slower to go to seed than most other types.
  • Lettuce Leaf BasilO. crispum, 15″. Produces large, crinkled green leaves which have a sweeter flavor than other varieties. Very vigorous grower.
  • Lemon BasilO.b. ‘Citriodorum’, 12″-18″. Fine-leafed plant with distinct lemon fragrance. Use in potpourri, iced teas, salads.
  • Cinnamon BasilOcimum sp., 18″. This variety offers dark green shiny leaves and pink flowers. The flavor and fragrance in both foliage and flowers is very spicy. Use in dried arrangements, potpourri, vinegars and jellies.
  • Thai BasilO.b., 24″-36″. An upright, well-branched plant with flavor and fragrance distinctly different from other basils. Excellent for Asian cuisine; highly decorative with purple stems and flowers.

Sources: Universtiy of Arizona, Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County;  University of Minnesota Extension