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Groundwork: The Sweetness of Summer Basil

Cardoons in gorgeous flower at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The cardoons, close relatives of the globe artichoke, are flowering nicely at the entrance to the demo veggie garden at Green Spring Gardens. Clearly, the deer are leaving them alone, which is saying a lot because they munch on pretty much everything else. Until Cindy Brown can get the funds for a deer-proof perimeter fence for the garden, each individual bed must be netted.

Recipe Included

"Wait till you see what they have done now," she said the other day, and when I got there I could see that the inventive string trellises for the pole beans still looked pretty but had offered little protection against Task Force Bambi. Leaves and beans up to about six feet have been nibbled off to leave bare stems, but with foliage and bean pods at the very top. Strange effect.

Heat-loving basil, pungent and vigorous. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Another plant that the deer won't touch, perhaps because of its oils, is basil. As summer heat has filled out the squashes and melons, the basil similarly has become large, bushy and inviting.

Sweet basil is notoriously churlish in cool temperatures, and one of my peeves is that retailers sell you plants in April, when it is far too early to set them out. You shouldn't plant basil until the second week of May, I'd say, once the soil has warmed a little and nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees.

The basil plants at Green Spring were started from seed in mid-March and spent their first eight weeks in the protection of the greenhouse. As you can see, the plants have become serious sun-loving herbs in midsummer, and this stand is about two feet tall and three feet across.

There are two problems with basil, one manageable and one not. The first is that you need to keep pinching stem tips to delay the formation of flowers, which then reduce the flavor of the herb. Pinching also keeps them bushy. If you find your basil has become too vigorous at this point, you can harvest heavily and make pesto, which you can freeze.

Sometimes by mid-August it's a losing battle, and I tell people to go out and get baby plants for a late-summer, early-fall supply of the fresh herb. If you can't find small plants at nurseries, look for rooted plants in the fresh produce section of supermarkets. They can be placed in pots and grown to maturity.

Thai basil Siam Queen. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The beauty of Thai basil varieties, here one called Siam Queen, is that they will keep their flavor even in bloom. Cindy Brown likes to make pesto with them, adding peanuts, then using it on summer rolls.

The second, more serious problem with basil is wilt disease, either Verticillium or Fusarium, which can be expected to show up in soils that are too heavy or wet and when plants are stressed. These wilted plants at Green Spring will have to be pulled and destroyed. If this has happened to you, don't plant fresh basil in the same soil. Grow some in a container using new potting mix. Try not to grow basil in the affected bed for a few years.

Wilt disease in sweet basil. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Purple basil looks fabulous. Cindy and the gang are growing a variety named Red Rubin. Another popular variety is Opal. Alas, what it yields in ornament, it takes away in flavor. I find it less sweet and flavorful than good old sweet, or Genovese, basil. But Cindy, ever the gardener-cook, says the purple-leafed varieties "make a beautiful vinegar."

For this week, though, she's heavily harvesting the sweet basil for an herbal mayonnaise.

And now, over to Cindy.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: This is high season for vegetable gardeners, as we are watering, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting, canning, drying and freezing. There's so much to do that we have very little time to cook dinner. The key is to keep menu items simple, yet special. A basic sauce or salad dressing can be herbalized. Okay, maybe herbalized isn’t a word, but it conveys the concept beautifully.

A great use for basil mayonnaise: Sprinkle 1 teaspoon chili powder and 1 teaspoon garlic powder onto 2 chicken breasts; grill for 6 minutes on each side. Let rest for 10 minutes, then slice into 1/4-inch pieces. Toast 2 slices hearty white bread, spread basil mayonnaise on both pieces of bread, top with several slices of chicken, then basil leaves and fresh tomato. (Cindy Brown)

Basil Mayonnaise
Makes 2 1/2 cups

Basil is the go-to herb in Green Spring’s kitchen garden. We grow varieties with all different flavors, colors and leaf shapes: Mexican Spice, Siam Queen, Sweet Dani Lemon, Magical Michael, Purple Ruffles, Red Rubin and, of course, Genovese.

This recipe goes great on a grilled chicken sandwich or in a tomato-cucumber salad or potato salad.

MAKE AHEAD: The mayonnaise can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

Leaves from 1 medium bunch basil (1 cup loosely packed)
Leaves from 1 medium bunch cilantro (1 cup loosely packed)
Juice of 1 lime (2 1/2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 1/2 cups reduce fat olive-oil mayonnaise, such as Hellmann's brand
1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine the basil, cilantro, lime juice, chili powder, mayonnaise and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the herbs are finely minced and incorporated into the mayonnaise, giving it a greenish cast.

Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate for up to 1 week.

By Adrian Higgins  |  August 3, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags: Adrian Higgins  
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Great article! I'm growing African Blue Basil in my herb garden this year. First time... And I must say I love it. It has a smaller leaf than sweet basil and does have a blueish tint, but the flavor is strong and the plant very bushy and full. I have been pinching and harvesting and I expect my plants will last until first frost - and best of all there is no loss of flavor after pinching!
Thank you for all the marvelous tips!
I'll be using mine to make this classic tomato sauce for sure:

Posted by: VivianeBauquetFarre | August 3, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

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