How to grow your own basil

For Mat Pember life is not complete without basil, making this heat-loving herb a highlight of summer.

By Mat Pember
For Mat Pember life is not complete without basil, making this heat-loving herb a highlight of summer.
Life is often defined and then separated by moments, both good and bad. There are pivotal events that divide your life, be they work, former partners, even flashy new cars, and anyone with children could easily describe their existence as pre-kids and post-kids. I find that each year there's a seasonal sliding door that can throw life into turmoil: the time when there is basil and the time when there is not.
As a gardener, I've broadened my horizons beyond the tomato and basil man I used to be.
But successfully growing these plants continues to have a profound impact on me - life seems brighter, and I'm not discounting the impact my culture has here, too, being an Italian-Australian.
Basil is one of those charismatic plants that changes a garden for the better. Each year, around February or March, my bond with sweet basil peaks as we push oversized leaves into the VB bottles we've so lovingly prepared for storing pasta sauce. But it's not all about sweet basil.
I've come to love others, such as the red-leafed Sapphire or almost bonsai-style Greek - even the anise-flavoured Thai variety. They all find a place in my garden.
Basil can be planted any time from late spring, to late summer, but come January the heat is on and that's prime time for basil. It's also late in the growing season, so it's preferable to grow the herb from seedlings and jump a step closer to harvest, but growing it from seed also works fine.
When choosing where to plant basil, snuggle it up to tomato plants if you're growing them, too. Working in small spaces, we don't often promote companion planting, but this is a notable exception. While we often keep tomatoes apart from most other spring/summer crops, basil is its close companion - each is happier in the other's company. Sow basil seeds about 20cm from your tomatoes. Place two seeds in each hole at a depth of one centimetre - giving just enough cover to keep the birds and wind from dislodging them - and 10 centimetres apart, then keep them well watered.
Given the time of the year, it's likely to be hot, and once the seeds germinate (roughly a week after they've been sowed) they'll need daily watering for the first month. Getting the plants and their delicate young leaves through the early phase is a challenge, but once established, they're known to survive and even thrive with a little tough love.
After a month, basil will have found its feet and won't mind a bit of picking to kickstart further growth. Pinch off the top portion of each stem just above the next leaf junction. At this stage a little less water won't be as harmful as in the early stages. This doesn't mean it's okay to leave town for an extended holiday, but if the daily routine slips, basil will hang in there. In saying that, an irrigation system - drip or wicking (see below) - is advisable, and mulch two to three centimetres deep with nitrogen-rich sugarcane, lucerne or pea straw to provide extra food.
When harvesting basil, don't pull off random leaves or attack it with scissors; again, take off sprigs down to the next leaf junction to encourage growth, meaning more leaves over the plant's lifetime.
As the season progresses, the plants will begin to produce seed-heads, but before you make the obligatory end-of-season pesto, saving the seeds for the next season, pinch the seed-heads off to refocus he plants' energy on more foliage.
Once the plants' colour dulls and the seed-heads start emerging faster, however, it's time to let go. Basil is over for another season and life loses that little bit of sheen.
Tip of the month: wicking beds
By some fluke you have a patch full of edible plants on the cusp of delivering their bounty. It's hot, you're tired and about to go on a long-anticipated holiday. Your neighbours are fed-up with pulling your garden through the month yet again, and instead use an extension hose from your tap to water their garden. It's payback time.
The solution
This scenario can easily be avoided by growing your plants in a wicking bed. A wicking bed is essentially self-watering; using a reservoir of water below to "wick" moisture through the soil to be used by the plants as they require it. Ever dipped the tip of a tissue in a glass of water? The way the moisture is drawn through the tissue is called capillary attraction and the same happens with your soil in this system.
The theory
Some might think of wicking beds as the inherently lazy person's style of gardening, but it's the smartest system for busy people who often don't have the time to water their gardens. It's also the most water-efficient.