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Summertime is basil-time. The sun shines for hours on end, the nights stay warm, and the soil temperatures rise – all conditions that basil love. Originally native to India, basil is now grown around the globe – wherever and whenever it is warm enough.
Basil is a real taste treat. It can be used in Italian cooking , fresh in green salads, and it even has a reputation as a medicinal herb. Basil does grow well in the Southwest, but it has some specific preferences if it is to thrive.
A rich, well-drained loamy soil that is high in organic matter is great for basil. Sandy soils drain too quickly and clay soils become waterlogged and don’t hold oxygen well. Either case makes for unhappy basil plants. Ideal soil pH is 6.2 to 7.0. Most desert soil is around 8.0. Add ample organic matter or grow your basil in large containers with potting soil.
Basil does best with 8 hours of light per day, but we are blessed with more than that in summer! Ideally provide noon or afternoon shade. The east side of a home is a good place to plant basil.
Temperature range roe basil is between 55 to 95 degrees F. If you provide some afternoon shade you reduce heat-stress on the plant. Basil can’t take freezing. Thus many of us must replant our basil every spring. If you grow basil in large pots, you could move it to a sheltered site for winter.
There’s a reason basil isn’t a xeriscape plant. Provide ample moisture for healthy and flavorful, not bitter, basil.
Basil 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 basil in containers generally solves this.
There are more than 150 varieties* to select from, which is good because you may need to try several different varieties until you find the one that does well for you in your yard and with your style of plant care. For my tendency to minimal care gardening, I grow the variety called ‘Mrs. Burns Famous Lemon Basil,’ an heirloom variety from Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson Arizona.
You can start your basil from seed, buy seedlings at your local nursery, or even purchase a plant at the grocery store. No matter how you start – You Can Grow That!
~ ~ ~ Plant Nerd Section ~ ~ ~
* Some Basil Varieties
Most commercially available basils are cultivars of sweet basil. With over 150 cultivars available and more new ones every year, it’s hard to keep up with them all. For the Southwest, go with the basils with smaller leaves (need less water) and purple leaf colors (less likely to sunburn).
sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)
cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’)
lettuce-leaf basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Crispum’)
dark opal basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)
purple basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purpurescens’)
Rubin basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Rubin’)
globe basil, dwarf basil, French basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Minimum’)
Queen of Siam basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum)
African blue basil (Ocimum basilicum X Ocimum kilimandscharicum)
camphor basil, African basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum)
lemon basil (Ocimum americanum)
hoary basil, frosted basil (Ocimum canum)
holy basil (was Ocimum sanctum, now considered Ocimum canum)
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $23). And yes, this book includes how to grow basil!
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PS – I do love my Fiskars garden shears and think you might like them too.