Columnists : Joan Swenson

Wednesday, Apr 22 2009 06:24 PM

Zest up your garden with some basil

I am crazy about basil. Some years I have five or more varieties growing in the yard because it is a perfect summer herb.

Basil grows quickly and is not bothered by most pests, unless we have a lot of whiteflies in late summer. You don't have to wait a long time to begin harvesting the leaves, which can be cut as soon as the plant is just a few inches tall.

Most importantly, basil marries well with the king of summer vegetables, the tomato. The herb's aromatic, zesty flavor is perfect in tomato-laced pasta salads, with tomatoes and garlic heaped on bruschetta, on homemade pizzas and in sandwiches. I wash the leaves, pat them dry them with paper towels, stack them up and then roll them into a long tube. I either cut across the roll with a sharp knife or my kitchen scissors, creating a chiffonade, or thin slices of basil.

The herb is a cold-sensitive annual, so it must be replanted when the weather gets warm each spring in Bakersfield. There's no hurry to plant basil seeds before it stays above 50 degrees at night, and it seems as if we're finally at that point this spring.

You may buy transplants or start your plants from seed.

My seeds this year are from Renee's Garden, which can be found online at (a few packets are to be found at OSH, which carries Renee's seeds locally). I'm growing Italian pesto basil, Italian cameo basil (large-leafed container basil), window box mini basil (only 8 to 10 inches tall) and "Profumo di Genova" (an Italian import that the package says does not have minty or clove overtones). Any nursery has basil seeds and you may also find beautiful purple basil (ruffled or smooth leaves, lemon, lime and cinnamon basils, and Thai basil).

Basil seeds are quite small and my method to plant them is to scatter them on soil in which I've worked some mulch. I scatter more soil and mulch on top and keep the area gently sprinkled during termination. Seed packages recommend planting each seed one inch apart and a quarter of an inch deep. Thin out your young basil plants before they get too crowded so they are about six to eight inches apart. Either gently lift and transplant the extra plants or just clip them off at soil level.

Plant your seeds and your basil plants in full sun.

As the summer progresses, basil plants will produce pretty flowers spikes that you should pinch back to encourage the plants to continue to be productive. I used to think that I could get basil plants to reseed themselves, but I have yet see that happen. Dill seeds, on the other hand, will do that quite nicely.

You may be tempted to buy cilantro transplants at nurseries in the spring. I wish I could grow cilantro at this time of year in Bakersfield, given how well it, too, blends with tomatoes and some salads, but cilantro is a cool season crop that will do well at the coast, but not in the valley in the summer. I grew a great crop of cilantro many years ago as a winter crop, but found that I didn't have much use for it in February when I didn't have any tomatoes on hand.

Vegetable planting

Don't hold back -- get going planting summer vegetables. Some vegetables are best planted from seed while others do well when you buy professionally grown transplants. Some nurseries will put out all sorts of pony packs, however, that do not make sense to buy.

I would buy transplants of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and some herbs to get a jump on production. I would not buy pony packs with any kind of squash, beans, peas (it's the wrong time of year to plant peas, folks!) or corn. It's cheaper to buy seeds than to buy pony packs of these vegetables and with warm weather here, they'll quickly sprout and begin growing leaves.

Rose show

The Kern County Rose Society's 16th annual show is May 2 and 3 at the Veterans Hall, 400 W. Norris Road. Entries will be accepted from 7 to 9:30 a.m. May 2. The show will be open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. May 2 and from noon to 4 p.m. May 3. Admission is free. Plants and garden goods donated by members and local businesses will be raffled.

For rose show information contact show chairman Francis Ratliff, 366-7796.

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