Southern Gardening: Basil is straightforward to develop, nice cooking addition

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After going through this recent cold snap, because of the glorious weather last weekend, I want spring to come here as soon as possible. When I visit garden centers and see all of the herbal transplants, I may get my spring wish.

One of my favorite herbs for growing and cooking is basil. And because I grow everything in containers, basil is my main herb.

If you ask me what a good strain to start a herb garden, my answer is always Genoese Italian basil. The large leaves of this plant are intoxicatingly aromatic and look beautiful when garnished with tomato-based sauces.

Most of the Genoese Italian basil I grow is used in homemade pesto. Here is my easy pesto recipe. Combine in a food processor for 30 seconds or until smooth:

2 cups of fresh basil; 1/4 cup pine nuts (cashews are good too); 2 cloves of garlic; 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.

One of my favorite varieties with purple basil is amethyst. The light purple leaves resemble the broad flat leaves of Genoese basil and have a similar taste with a hint of licorice.

Amethyst is a great ingredient in my simple purple basil mojitos recipe. Mix eight amethyst basil leaves with the juice of one lemon. Add 2 ounces of simple syrup and 6 ounces of white rum. Shake with ice, then pour over ice into a tall glass. Finish with a squirt of soda water.

This drink is a lovely pink amethyst color and is a refreshing drink for a great day in the garden.

Taking care of basil is really easy.

First, make sure that the flowers have died. While they are attractive on their own, the flowering stops leaf production. Make sure to keep the containers evenly moist. For best flavor, harvest the branches in the morning when the essential oils have peaked. Put them in a small vase or glass until they can be used for dinner.

I think growing basil in containers is a fantastic way to enjoy fresh flavor without weeding. The cultivation of containers is perfect for the veranda or terrace and ideal if you have limited space in the garden or live in an apartment and only have a balcony.

You can even put your containers on benches or tables to take the garden to a higher level for those with accessibility concerns to have fun.

The type of container you use doesn’t matter, so it can be as simple or fancy as you want. Personally, I like terracotta or just black plastic pots. More important than the type of container is using a good, professionally growing mix available at your preferred local garden center.

These blends can contain a variety of ingredients such as peat moss, coconut, bark, and forest by-products that will ensure a well-drained container.

When using the container mix, basil will benefit from the addition of fertilizer applied at half the recommended amount. Personally, I like to use a controlled release product. There are both inorganic and organic fertilizers, with more choices becoming available each season.

Growing your own basil is easy and makes for delicious home-cooked dinners.

Gary Bachman is Professor of Horticultural Expansion and Research at Mississippi State University’s Coastal Research and Expansion Center in Biloxi.