There is nothing more satisfying than growing your own food in your own garden - there is magic in creating something of you own, and giving it life. It's therapeutic and powerful at the same time. I am lucky to be in sunny Singapore, where herbs like basil don't just grow, but thrive in the heat of the sun. And just imagine the aroma and flavor when it's been picked just before using, let alone hundreds of dollars I save each year at the grocery store - yes! I do use a lot of basil in my recipes - Thai basil as well as Italian basil.
If you are unsure of the difference between the two, Thai basil has purple stems, perkier leaves, and smells spicy like anise. Italian basil, on the other hand, has glossier leaves and guess what it smells like... Pesto :) There are several different kinds of both Thai basil and Italian basil, but that's a topic for another day.
WHERE DO I START?
Let me make this super-easy for you with a few simple steps:
I personally don't have the patience to grow plants from seeds, especially when they take weeks to germinate, which is why I always opt for young plants that I can simply transfer in a bigger pot later.
Start by investing in a good, healthy looking pot of basil at your local nursery or your supermarket. Most supermarkets now-a-days carry small pots of herbs - this can easily be your starting point. Bring it home and place it in the sunniest spot in your balcony.
Next step is to take care of your little friend. You will need,
WELL-DRAINED SOIL - Make sure your soil is well-drained. You don't need one of those trays that hold water at the bottom, as they prevent aeration and are in fact a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
WATER WHEN NEEDED - Touch the soil for moisture and water it when necessary. In Singapore, I water it once a day at 9-10am in the morning, and sometimes in the afternoon when the weather is too hot. Water the soil and not the leaves. Keep an eye on your plant - tired, withered leaves are an indication that your plant is thirsty. On rainy days, leave it alone.
GIVE IT PLENTY OF SUN - Basil needs a good 6-8 hours of direct sunlight, and loves warm weather conditions. In cooler climates, May is the best time to grow it. Lucky for us, we can grow it all year long in hot and tropical Singapore.
FEED IT ONCE IN A WHILE - Give it food every 3-4 weeks if outdoors, and every 4-6 weeks if indoors. My basil is all outdoors and I give it "chicken manure compost" every 3-4 weeks. DO NOT overfeed it - adding too much fertilizer may result in larger leaves, but these will be way less intense in terms of flavor.
HOW DO I GROW MY OWN BASIL?
Now that you have a pot of your own basil, here's how to grow more,
SAVE CUTTINGS - Save cuttings the next time you need basil. Trim the tops of the plant whenever you need leaves; using sharp scissors snip just above the part where two large leaves meet (you will need about 4 inches or 10 cm of stem). Pluck the leaves off it and use; set aside stem cuttings for replanting. Don't replant stems that are already flowering.
PLANT CUTTINGS - Plant the stems back either in the same pot if there is space or into a new pot of potting soil mixed with some compost (just about 1/4 - 1/2 inch layer of compost on top of your potting soil should suffice). Within the next few days, you will have a new basil plant thriving in your garden. Follow the same steps each time you snip basil for using in your recipes, and in no time, you will be sharing your basil with neighbors and friends too.
HOW OFTEN DO I CLIP MY BASIL?
WHEN TO CLIP: The answer is as much as you like and as often as you like. And if you are like me and end up with a garden full of basil, you can do a mass-harvest of up to 2/3 of the plant at once, and pass it on to friends. The more you clip, the healthier and more rounded your plant will be.
WHERE TO CLIP: Clip at the point just above where two large leaves meet.
CLIP THE FLOWERS: Keep clipping the flowers off. This way your plant can focus all its energy on healthy leaves rather than the flowers. Clip off the flowers immediately if your plant starts to flower. It is best not to let your basil get to the flowering stage as it leads to the end of its life cycle. The more you clip, the longer your plant will last.
Now that you are a basil expert, it's time to learn how to use it. Here are some of my favorite basil recipes. As always, leave any questions you may have in comments - happy cooking!
Payal Thakurani is a cooking instructor, consulting chef, and author of the popular Southeast Asian cookbook “Curries for the Soul”. Originally based in Shanghai China, chef Payal has been in the food industry since 2012, working in training and brand development in central kitchens. She was also the proud owner of a cooking school and several food brands in Shanghai. She now lives in Singapore and heads Commune Kitchen in Downtown Gallery, where she hosts affordable, hands-on cooking classes for all ages.