It is basil time in the greenhouse. The greenhouse is slowly emptying of seedlings as the weather warms up and I start to feel that it is safe enough to plant some things out, and so that makes room for those plants that will always need the little extra warmth. Basil is one of these plants. It is highly temperamental in these spring days when daytime can be hot and night-time cold. It hates that, and will not thrive at all. But the greenhouse can give just enough protection to even out those night temperatures, and that means you can get some really happy big leafy basil plants on the go.
It’s a good time to start seedlings off, and you should do this in the house, in a heated propagator. Remember that basil is a diva and treat it as such at every stage, and starting the seeds in a heated propagator means they will be mollycoddled by gentle but constant heat day and night. Sowing your own seed means that you will have access to a wide range of basils, and not just the usual Genovese kind. Purple basils such as ‘Crimson King’ produce deepest purple leaves with a strong basil flavour that look beautiful scattered on tomato salads later in the summer. Greek basil, Ocimum basilicum var. minimum ‘Greek’, has tiny leaves that grow in a neat dome making it perfect for little pots, and incidentally is far less temperamental than the larger leaved kinds. Thai basil, Ocimum tenuifolium, has a stronger aniseed flavour than Mediterranean basil and is the perfect basil for use in Thai dishes. Start all of these seedlings off thinly sown into pots in the heated propagator, and then prick them out into individual cells or small pots when each is large enough to handle and has produced two true leaves. Water them in and transfer them to the greenhouse to grow on through the summer.
But starting basil from seed now will mean a wait of at least a month before you are picking and eating, and the greenhouse allows us to get started on bulking up bog standard basil immediately. If you are not too bothered about fancy basils – or even if you have some on the way – there is little point, I always feel, in sowing sweet Genovese basil. This is the basil of pesto, and that we strew over tomato salads. It is also the basil that is sold in supermarket pots, still growing, for freshness. The supermarkets want us to chop off the basil we want to use and throw away the plant, but these if you hunt around at the base you will see that there are tons of plants all squeezed in together, and it is very easy to separate these out and give them a new lease of life. Water your pot thoroughly and then tip the rootball out before carefully teasing it apart to separate it into small clumps of plants or even individuals. Pot these up into pretty terracotta pots of fresh compost, a few plants to a pot. Water them well and nip out the tips, which will encourage the plants to bush out from below, and will also give you your first harvest.
It is always good to have big bunches of sweet basil to hand, mainly because home made pesto is a league above the pesto that you get in jars, and is also incredibly quick. It takes pasta pesto from a bog standard lunchtime filler to something really special and summery. And while you are enjoying your abundant basil harvest, your fancy basils will be coming along.