Thursday, July 5, 2007

Growing Basil on the Northwest Coast (A Labor of Love and Insanity)

Finally, FINALLY, we are bringing basil to market this weekend! It has been a long, cool, wet summer so far, and our basil has just been sulking in the greenhouse, refusing to grow and shrieking like a two year old having a meltdown whenever we even suggested that it might like to step outside for an afternoon and see how things felt.

Basil is one of the most wonderful herbs- the very fragrance of crushed leaves can send me into a state of bliss, and many people comment that basil just plain ‘smells like summer’. All this may go some way to explain why, in spite of the fact that I live in a climate that is not really all that favorable to basil growing I, and many of my fellow basil-mad North Coast neighbors, insist on trying to grow it every year.

The problem is that basil really likes to be warm- especially at night. The two things that is really does NOT like are to be cold and wet, and anyone who has spent any significant part of a summer in this area knows that cold and wet are not unusual here in the summertime. Our costal climate is very dynamic, and though we may get days of glorious sunshine (in fact, we have just had two days in a row of some of the most beautiful sunny weather I can remember in recent months) what generally happens is that all that lovely heat reacts with the cool Pacific ocean, and the fog just gets sucked in onto the coast, often bringing with it a cooling drizzle that can last until the ocean breezes decide to blow it away.

Once you understand that your basil plant would really much rather be spending the summer in Tuscany, you can get to work helping your plant be as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Basil will sometimes resign itself to its location, and you can often be rewarded with a decent basil harvest for your efforts. Or it can all end in a tragic, black-leaved, fungus-ridden death. Gardening is just full of these amusing risks and challenges, isn’t it?

I won’t lie to you- this is where having a greenhouse or a decent sunroom really can be a matter of life and death. Just the added protection of a layer of plastic or glass can make all the difference- it will keep the plant warmer at night, and keep moisture off it, the two worst potential killers. The next best option is to grow your basil in a container- a two-gallon sized pot is good for one plant. Place it in the warmest, sunniest spot in your garden, and let it grow outside until we get one of those inevitable summer storms blowing in, then bring it inside to your warmest, sunniest spot in the house, and keep it there until the danger has passed. Then put it outside again. Repeat every few weeks throughout the summer until a hard frost kills the plant anyway.

In the meantime, you will be able to savor the unique and irreplaceable flavor of fresh basil harvested from your own garden, and feel justifiably smug that you have managed to grow basil successfully on the Northwest Coast.

We have selected six varieties of basil to grow this year, trying to focus on ones that seem to do as well as basil can here.


A classic Genovese-type basil, this is the one most people thing of when they think ‘Basil’. The good thing about ‘Nufar’ is that it is a strain bred to be resistant to fusarium wilt, that ‘sudden basil death’ that can plague even the best of gardeners. We have found this variety to be pretty hardy here (given proper care) and the flavor is fantastic- wonderful fresh, frozen or pounded up into pesto. Grows to about 24” tall, good branching habit, great leaf production.

Lettuce Leaf

Another classic basil, sometimes called ‘Neapolitan Basil’. ‘Lettuce Leaf’ is prized for its distinctive foliage- huge, crinkly, bright green aromatic leaves that really do resemble loose-leaf lettuce leaves when they get big. Wonderful flavor, great for all your classic basil needs. A little less hardy than ‘Nufar’, but this remarkable basil with its enormous leaves is worth the effort. Grows to about 24” tall.


Thai basil is used throughout Southeast Asia where it adds distinction to a wide variety of regional cuisines. It has a sweet basil flavor with an undertone of anise- unusual and delicious. Thai basil grows about 18-24” tall, has slightly smaller, narrower leaves than its Italian cousins, and the leaves grow more purple as they near the flower. It is particularly delicious cooked with poultry, fish and vegetable dishes, and many Thai recipes are pointless without it. We have found this variety to be slightly hardier than the Genovese- type basils.


In Greece, this little basil is THE basil, found growing in containers (often old olive oil cans) outside most homes and many restaurants. It is a compact or ‘globe’ basil, its small leaves forming a 6-10” round somewhere between a ball and an umbrella shape. Sweet tasting and just a little bit spicy, it is slower to flower than most other basils, and it is the hardiest of all the basils we have grown here. It seems able to tolerate fairly cool, wet weather and does not give in to death without a fight. Greeks are tough, and their basil is too.

Sweet Dani Lemon

A 1998 All-American Selections winner, this yummy basil packs a high citral content in its essential oils that gives is a sweetly pungent lemony basil flavor- a perfect addition to your summer culinary menu. A lovely ornamental plant as well as a highly fragrant one, it grows 24-30” tall, with light green, narrow leaves. Wonderful paired with fish, poultry, vegetables, in salads- any where you can imagine basil and lemons working well together.


An attractive, stocky plant with lovely purple-green leaves and spikes of rose-colored flowers, Cinnamon basil is another vigorous basil that seems to be able to tolerate a bit of cooler weather. It has a warm, spicy flavor- basil with a hint of cinnamon and cloves, most unusual. Try it chopped up into fruit salads, curries or stir frys for an delicious twist. Grows to about 2 1/2’ tall.

Swiss Sunset

Our favorite purple basil! ‘Swiss Sunset’ comes from the fabulous Territorial Seed Company, who get it from a biodynamic farmer in Switzerland who has been growing and selecting for “ deep red, full flavored and vigorous” plants for over 20 years. This is a great plant- beautiful and delicious. The purple leaves make for an unusual pesto, add color and flavor to salads and pasta dishes, and they make the most beautiful infused vinegar, turning a decent white wine vinegar into a deep rich garnet color treat. Grows to about 24” tall.


  1. Basil is one of my favorites. I have a problem with the leaves turning black and then the plant dies. From reading your article am I over watering or watering too late in the evening? Could this be the fungus you referred to? Any help would be appreciated.

  2. It sounds like you may well be watering at the wrong time of day, and also perhaps giving it too much water. There are a few key things to remember when watering basil, and once you get the hang of it, it is much easier to keep your plant happy.

    First, only water at the base of the plant- never get the leaves wet if you can help it, as this dampness can lead to disease. Second, water early in the day, so that if you DO get the plant wet (it is very hard not to get any water at all on the leaves!), it will have plenty of time to dry off before the coolness of the night kicks in. Third, basil likes a regular supply of water- it hates to get completely dried out. BUT, it also doesn't like to be soggy wet. It truly is an annoyingly Goldilocks kind of plant, and needs everything to be 'just right' to be happy. A good way to check if you actually need to water your plant is to get a water meter- these are available at most good garden centers. It is a little metal stick with a display on top that goes from 'very dry' to 'very wet'. If it reads anywhere above halfway, the plant is probably fine for water- I water mine when the indicator gets to the 'quarter tank of gas' level- just above very dry.

    One disease basil is very prone to is fusarium wilt- it is a soil borne fungus, and very hard to get out of the soil once it gets in. (It can live there for 8-12 years!) It starts off with brown streaks on the stem, then the leaves fall off and the plant keels over. There is also botrytis- sort of a grey fuzzy mold that can kill the plant. This usually occurs when things are too damp and cold. Just being cold and wet stresses the plant as well, and causes the leaves to go brown and die. This is why, when you buy fresh basil you should not store it in the fridge, but keep it like a cut flower in a glass of fresh water, out of the sun. It's a fussy little plant, isn't it? Good thing for it that it tastes like heaven, or no one would bother with it.

    You can avoid the soil disease by growing basil in a container, so you get fresh soil every year. Also, it is really mainly the sweet Genovese- type basils that are really vulnerable to fusarium wilt- the more specialty basils like Thai, lemon, cinnamon, purple or even the Greek basil seem to have more resistance to it.

    I'm sure this is far more information than you needed! But really, once you understand the things that basil doesn't like, it is much easier to make it happy, and actually grow a plant successfully. Good luck!

  3. Congratulations on the new crop! Hard work pays off eventually, especially when it comes along with a steady devotion to plants. Thanks for the detailed explanation about each of the plants