A non-profit organization dedicated to education with regard to the culture and use of herbs
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 MHS 2012-2013 Herb of the Year   
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MHS Herb of
the Year
- Basil

Growing Basil From Seed
From the February 2012 MHS Newsletter
By Bonnie Kulke

One of the great joys during winter is looking at all the seed catalogs that come in the mail and fantasizing about the next growing season. Not everyone has a real garden but many do plant some favorites in pots. Basil is a great choice for containers for many reasons, including the many variet¬ies available, the color and texture of the plant as well as its culinary uses.

If you have always purchased young starter plants from your local nursery or garden center, you are denying yourself a real adventure. Starting basil from seed is so easy and it gives you almost limitless choices. With basil as the MHS Herb of the Year, this is a great time to order some seeds and start your own plants. Perhaps you have several friends that would make an order with you and share the shipping costs. Some year we should make plans to order collectively with other MHS members and decide which catalogs to try!

I always plant some lemon basil, a purple one or two, a large leaf basil, a small leaf bush form for containers, and one variety that is new to me. Pesto Perpetuo, the variegated hybrid has also become a favorite, but so far is only available as a plant. I am thinking strongly of a basil that is more orna¬mental than culinary like Siam Queen, Christmas or Oriental Breeze. Each of these have beautiful purple flowers on up¬right stalks that would add great color and texture in any setting.

Basil seeds germinate quite easily and most can be started as late as the middle of April* since basil plants should not be set out until early June when the soil has warmed sufficiently for it to thrive. (*NOTE—lemon basil and the purple basils are a little less vigorous so start them a good 8 weeks before transplanting.)

To start your own seeds, use soilless mix as your planting medium and either broadcast your seed in a tray or plant 3-4 seeds per cell or cup. I prefer to use plastic Dixie cups (bath¬room size) that can be used over and over. I like to plant the 3-4 seeds to form a nice clump and not have to transplant. Cover the seed and tamp down, cover with plastic and put in a warm place.

Once it germinates, remove the plastic and put the seed¬lings under fluorescent lights no more than 6 inches above the top of the plants. Leave the light on for 14 hours a day and keep evenly moist but do not over water. Pinch off growing tips after 2 sets of true leaves emerge and continue to pinch back for a bushy plant. It’s great to have these nice clippings for use in the kitchen!

Basil - Part II - Starting From Seed

From the March 2012 MHS Newsletter
By Bonnie Kulke

Basil has probably become one of the most popular herbs grown and used in America. But it hasn’t always enjoyed this kind of popularity.

History of Basil
Basil has not changed much in its more than 2,000 years of cultivation. It even went through a period of being described as evil – if you can believe it. In the 16th and 17th centuries, famous herbalists like Gerard and Culpepper wrote that basil was connected to bad omens, misfortune, venomous beasts and scorpions of the brain. Pretty harsh I’d say!

Many of these false ideas can probably be traced to its unfortunate Greek name. Basil in Greek is basilikon and the evil serpent (like in Harry Potter) is a basilisk, which in Greek is basilikos. Very similar spelling and in translations could have led to some very strange interpretations.

What is really interesting that most of the varieties of basil were already well known and documented in writings and herbals by Parkinson. His herbal listed “a stunning purple basil” much like our Purple Ruffles; a “large broad thick leaved and pleasant smelling basil” like the common Green Basil; “one small in stature but smelling of lemon,” the Lemon Basil and “a low growing fine leaved basil” which sounds like Bush Basil.

Even though nurserymen and herb growers continue to claim brand new cultivars, there is much less new than one might think. According to plant records English botanist George Ben¬tham counted 29 basil species and nine varieties in 1836!

In the 1930’s, the USDA tried grow¬ing basil in its test gardens in Virginia with some success. However the Ameri¬can love affair with herbs, and basil in particular, did not really start till the late 60’s and 70’s. As usual we are slow in catching on to a good thing.

Books About Basil

Last month I urged some of you to think about growing basil from seed indoors for the adventure. I recently have been rereading some of Tom DeBaggio’s writings about basil and growing herbs from seed. He died last year of Alzheimer’s Disease, but was a great herb plantsman and his books are wonderful sources on the culture of all things herbal. Check out your local library or Olbrich’s Schumacher Library, bookstores or on-line book sellers for Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting and Root: An Adventure in Small Miracles; The Encyclopedia of Herbs (written with Arthur Tucker) and Basil, An Herb Lover’s Guide by DeBaggio and Susan Belsinger.

Growing Basil From Seed

DeBaggio points out that basil is indeed an easy herb to start indoors in only 4-6 weeks. Some of his other advice for a successful project is worth repeating. He emphasizes the importance of proper lighting, watering, containers and growing medium. Basil seeds should not be exposed to sunlight as they are germinating which would be too hot for the sprouting seeds to survive.

Bottom heat is important however, and I have found using commercial heating mats for a day or so are great especially because I am using my base¬ment as my greenhouse. Fluorescent lights are also his favorite way to control light and heat as the seedlings emerge and grow on with no more than 3 inches above the plants (I erroneously instructed you to allow up to 6 inches between light and plant). A reliable timer that will enable the lights to turn on and off automatically for the 14-16 hours necessary for the plants to thrive is a must.

The correct amount of water as well as the proper timing for watering is also important. Mr. DeBaggio urges watering only when the growing medium looks lighter in color (a sure sign it is drying out) should be your guide. Watering first thing in the morning so the plants have time to absorb and excess can be evaporated is good advice. Proper watering is always an important issue for growing healthy herbs but never more so than at their most vul¬nerable stage as seedlings.

Here are several important points I forgot to mention last month. Proper containers come in many shapes and sizes. They should be clean and sterile if used before. The depth must be consid¬ered as well. A depth of 2-inches or less will prevent rotting of developing roots.

Drainage is always important for any herb so be sure your containers have holes in the bottom. The proper soilless mix will be made up of several materials that allow some water reten¬tion but good drainage as well. Moisten your medium before you begin sowing the seeds and cover with plastic to hold the moisture only until seedlings begin to emerge on surface. Then uncover immediately and place under lights.

Of course you can wait till April to begin your basil plants for outdoor planting but why wait when fresh basil cuttings can be ready for your salad bowl and cooking in just 4 weeks.

Garden Companions of Basil

Watering and Harvesting Basil

Cooking with Basil

Making the Final Case for Growing Basil



2011 - Mint
Labiatae (aka Lamiaceae)

2010 - Dill
Anethem graveolens

2009 - Bay Laurel
Laurus nobilus

2008 - Scented Geraniums and Edible Flowers
Scented Geraniums - Pelargonium

2007 - Herbs de Provence
Herbs de Provence
Lavender - In Your Kitchen and Throughout Your Home

2006 - Rosemary
For centuries, rosemary has been used as a symbol of friendship, love, loyalty, and remembrance.

2005 - Oregano/Marjoram
There are 36 different species of Origonum, which includes many fragrant and ornamental herbs.

2004 - Lemon Herbs
For the 2004 Madison Herb Society Herb of the Year, we’re revisiting Lemon Herbs. There are many and they come from a variety of herb families.

 2003 - The Alliums
The Alliums - an Introduction - learn the basics of edible alliums Onions, Onions, Onions - Culiinary uses for and growing onions.
Garlic - a culinary favorite, growing and harvesting garlic
Chives - an overview of this tastyherb

2002 Herb of the Year - Dill
Dill - Anethum graveolens
(a-ne thum gra ve o lenz) - is a member of the carrot (Umbellelliferae or Apiaceae) family that also includes parsley, fennel, and caraway.