Summer time is basil time in the Southwest. The nights stay warm, the sun shines for hours on end and the soil temperatures are nice an warm. All these are conditions that basil loves.
Basil loves the heat because it is native to India and other tropical regions of Asia. It has been cultivated for over 5,000 years with a long and rich tradition of use, a tale that could fill books. Our word for the plant comes from the Greek “basileus” meaning “king,” and indeed, it is considered the “king of herbs” by many chefs. The herb is featured prominently in both Italian and Southeast Asian cuisine. The species used in Italian food is typically the sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), as opposed to Asian basils, such as Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora), lemon basil (O. X citriodorum), and tulsi (O. sanctum).
Basil in the Southwest
Basil was first brought to our area by Father Kino over 325 years ago. Seeds were planted in the gardens of the missions Father Kino founded throughout the lands then known as the Pimería Alta, now southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Quite frankly, this is not the easiest herb to grow. It has some very specific preferences if it is to thrive. Here are some tips to successfully grow basil in your yard.
You Can Grow Basil!
Basil needs a rich, well-drained loamy soil that is high in organic matter. Sandy soils drain too quickly and clay soils become waterlogged and don’t hold oxygen well. Either case makes for unhappy plants. Ideal soil pH is 6.2 to 7.0. Most desert soil is around 8.0. Add ample organic matter (compost) to your soil or grow your basil in large containers with potting soil.
You can grow basil from seeds, or by plants already started (seedlings) from the nursery. Avoid being tempted by those plants at the supermarket. Those are generally not suited for Southwest living.
Basil prefers around 8 hours of light per day, but ideally provide noon or afternoon shade. The east side of a home, or east edge of a shade tree is a good place to plant your basil.
The ideal is between 55 to 95 degrees F. Since we get more than that, afternoon shade is ideal to reduce heat-stress on the plant. Just know this – as winter arrives, basil will leave. Below 55 and plants become unhappy. Most of us simply replant every spring. If you grow basil in containers, you could move it to a sheltered site for winter.
Basil is not a low-water plant! Provide ample moisture for healthy flavorful, not bitter, basil. Basil that tastes bitter is a sign of water stress.
This herb does best with high levels of nitrogen mixed with all the other major and minor nutrients. Our desert soils lack only nitrogen. Adding ample organic matter or growing the plants in containers with ideal potting soil generally solves this, but additional fertilizer yields large plants with ample foliage.
Basil and Wildlife
One further reason to plant this fragrant herb, it is a useful crop for garden wildlife. Rabbits avoid the plants, making it a good barrier crop. Native solitary bees visit the nectar rich flowers. Seed-eating birds, especially the charming and colorful lesser goldfinch, adore the oil-rich seeds.
So Many Basils – So Little Time!
Basil is not the easiest plant to grow. Good news is that there are over 150 varieties to select from (sign up for our newsletter to learn more on this topic). If first you don’t succeed, try another variety! You may need to try several different varieties until you find the one that does well for you in your yard and your style of plant care. My style of plant care (minimal) and a hot yard means that I killed a few plants until I discovered the two varieties that work well for me = “Queen of Siam” from Renee’s Garden Seeds and “Mrs. Burns Famous Lemon Basil” from Native Seeds/SEARCH.
Harvesting and Use
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More about this charming herb in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute eventually will a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
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