Early summer is the ideal time to sow basil seeds for late summer pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. In fact, professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays says one of her favourite jobs of the year is collecting armfuls of basil leaves to blitz for pesto, filling her kitchen with the sweet, spicy smell of this fast-growing annual.
We asked Nic to share five of her favourite basil plants to grow from seed, along with some insider tips to guarantee success!
Five best basils to grow at home
There really is a basil to tempt every palate and suit every garden. Some of my stalwarts are chosen for colour, as well as flavour and aroma – including the sweet leaves of ‘Classico’, the dark purple foliage of ‘Crimson King’, and the liquorice aroma of ‘Siam Queen’. Here are my five all time favourites:
Although I’ve been growing basil to use in pesto for many years, this is the first year I’ve grown ‘Pesto’ itself. This variety has been especially selected to grow well in UK temperatures and has a strong flavour perfect for a peppery pasta dressing. Flushed with delicate purple, the leaves are carried on deep purple stems. The flowers are a pretty pale pink, so it makes a great ornamental choice too. Whether it’s grown in containers in a sunny spot or in the vegetable patch, basil ‘Pesto’ will add a touch of spice to any garden.
This variety is high on my list to try next year. It has a lemon sherbet flavour making it perfect for adding to fruit salads and summer drinks, as well as adding a citrus tang to savoury dishes. Not all basil varieties thrive in the changeable UK weather – but ‘Lemonade’, like ‘Pesto’ is tolerant of British summers and can be grown successfully outside once the plants are established and hardened off.
This Thai basil is a wonderful ingredient for spicy curries and soups. We grow ‘Siam Queen’ in pots in the greenhouse alongside Kaffir lime, chillies and peppers as the base for summer Thai green curries. Slightly taller than sweet basil at 45cm, ‘Siam Queen’ has larger, more elongated leaves and a spicy liquorice flavour. A little goes a long way in salads, and it’s one of the best varieties for cooking.
As soon as the tiny seedlings emerged, I fell in love with this basil. Not only does ‘Crimson King’ have a sweet flavour and softly cupped leaves, but the deep plum-coloured foliage means it’s a beautiful ornamental plant to grow. Some of my ‘Crimson King’ will stay in the greenhouse over the summer, but I’ll also dot some around the herb garden to add a splash of colour between my parsley and thyme.
Basil Christmas is a new variety – a cross between Genovese and Thai basil. It’s another great addition to both edible and ornamental gardens with glossy foliage and beautiful spikes of purple flowers that are a magnet for pollinating insects. With a spicy mulled wine flavour, ‘Christmas’ makes a delicious pesto that can be frozen and added to festive pasta to bring a taste of summer to dark winter days.
Top tips for growing basil
Sow your basil seeds on peat-free seed compost and cover lightly with vermiculite or sieved compost. Water and place in a propagator or cover with a plastic bag. Germination should take around 14-21 days. When seedlings have developed true leaves, prick out into small pots and grow on. Eventually the basil plants will need to be potted on into 20cm containers. For outdoor basil, harden plants off over a 10-14 day period and plant outside after all risk of frost has passed.
Slugs and snails love to munch on basil seedlings, so I bring mine indoors at night until they’re large enough to withstand a little nibbling. Basil dislikes drying out, but also hates wet roots, so aim to water plants in the morning. Pinch out regularly to keep your growing plants bushy and vigorous.
Read more about your favourite herbs at our herb hub page, where you’ll find helpful links to our full range of herb plants and plenty of great growers guides.
Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Beth Chatto Environmental Award, 2019). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She blogs at www.dogwooddays.net, and Guardian Country Diarist based in North Hertfordshire.
She works for BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine and her writing has featured in anthologies, journals and magazines including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS Magazine), BBC Wildlife Magazine and the John Clare Society Journal.