AS SUMMER TEMPERATURES get underway, so too does this heat-loving herb. It can be tempting to start sowing and planting basil as soon as spring begins, but as the seeds require soil temperatures to be 20°C or more to germinate, this often ends in disappointment. The only way around this problem is to raise seedlings in a greenhouse or growhouse where it's warmer – or use a heat pad to increase soil temperature.
HOW TO GROW To raise basil from seed, fill a tray with seed-raising mix and firm down gently. Scatter the fine seed sparingly and sprinkle a little extra seed-raising mix over the top. Water lightly and place the tray in your greenhouse.
Germination can take up to a fortnight, so don't despair if you don't see any action straight away. Thin out seedlings as they emerge and transplant to your garden when they reach 5cm tall. Space seedlings at least 5cm apart and keep well watered. Plants mature two months after transplanting, but the leaves can be picked at any time.
In the warmth of summer, you can also simply scatter seeds straight into the garden. The soil should be warm enough not to require any under-cover mollycoddling, although this will depend on where you live. In the garden, basil needs full sun and a regular supply of water. If it's left to survive in very dry soil (or in small containers) for long periods, it will wilt or bolt to seed prematurely. Basil growth is stunted in small containers.
To multiply an existing plant, take cuttings and place them in a glass of water. Keep the cutting in a warm spot out of direct sun and leave for a week or two. Roots will form. Pot up and keep warm until a root system has developed, then plant outdoors.
VARIETIES TO TRY There are four types of basil grown: sweet basil, dwarf basil, purple-leaf basil, and scented-leaf basil. Of these types there are: • ‘Dark Opal': A striking dark purple plant in the garden but with the classic basil taste. • ‘Mrs Burns Lemon': Lemon-scented basil with a citrus kick. Great in summer salads. • ‘Sweet Genovese': This basil has broad green leaves with a strong flavour. Perfect for pesto. • ‘Cinnamon': A Mexican basil with a cinnamon taste. • ‘Greek Mini': Dwarf basil with a compact habit and tiny leaves. Looks fabulous in containers. • 'Thai': It has a sweet taste with a peppery fragrance. Used extensively in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. A highly ornamental variety.
• 'Holy': Also called Tulsi or sacred basil. It's highly revered in India and grown around temples. Holy basil is spicy rather than sweet, with notes of cloves and musk and a hint of mint and camphor. If a recipe calls for holy basil and you don't have it, use sweet basil and mint.
VIRGIN PLUM & BASIL MOJITO Muddle together ¼ cup sugar syrup (1:1 water and sugar), the juice of ½ lemon or lime, 2 finely chopped plums and 12 basil leaves. Pour one-third of the mix over ice in a glass and top with sparkling water. Add a tot of white rum if you wish. You can make mojitos from berries, watermelon, or mint and cucumber too.