Hark, all ye gardeners, for this week I am writing that which I have never uttered before and will probably never utter again. Don't plant basil seed this year. Don't plant basil seedlings either. They will rot.
Basil likes what Miss McGrath our geography teacher (I'm still not sure how to spell her name so I hope she isn't reading this) taught us was "a Mediterranean Climate" i.e. one with cool wet winters and hot dry summers. The basil dies down in the cool dry autumn, the seeds stay dormant till spring heats up, then germinate in the gently damp spring and flourish in the hot dry summer - though not as hot and dry as a Canberra summer can be. The Mediterranean's reputation for endless sunshine was fostered by English writers escaping London fogs.
Most years our climate is perfect for basil. Basil loves a drought, as long as there is a gardener nearby with a hose and a bucket or two of plant food - lots of sun, lots of tucker and lots of pruning off any potential seed heads means lots of basil leaves. Once basil has set seed, or even flowered, it stops producing new leaves, so the leaves must be used profusely. This is not a hardship, as basil is good with anything from tomatoes to potatoes to marinated olives or mushrooms. I have never met a pizza topping that isn't better with basil, even potato pizza or ham and pineapple.
This year our weather could be muttering "death to basil". It is wet, alternating cool and warm. Basil seed will probably rot. If it doesn't rot, the seedlings will be eaten by the slugs and snails, who love the wet and are breeding even faster than the rabbits. If by any chance the basil seedlings escape the snail jaws, they will get "damping off", which is an insidious rot around the base of the stem that basil is especially prone to, and even more especially in weather like this.
Let the professionals grow the basil this year, and buy pots of it when the plant is about the size of your hand. Though still far from snail proof, it should survive. It will also have been grown in sterile potting mix so won't rot.
Sadly, this means you are going to be limited to whatever varieties of basil the seedling companies have decided to sell this year. This is not a real hardship either, as any basil you buy is going to be delicious, prolific, and with a scent that gets your stomach juices gurgling.
The best-flavoured basil is usually a small-leafed basil like Genovese, a bright green bushy plant to 1 metre (but only in hot, well-fed conditions) with tiny white inconspicuous flowers. The variety most commonly sold is a large or lettuce-leafed basil, which is still excellent, and possibly even better, as you can throw leaves into the salad bowl as lavishly as you wish.
With a bit of luck you may also find the dark red-purple leafed 'Dark Opal', as well as the wonderful ruffle-leafed forms of basil. All of these have a good strong basil flavour, and the ruffled ones look gorgeous. A big pot of them makes a lovely gift.
There is also a cinnamon scented basil, which is more basil than cinnamon and fabulous chopped into saffron rice with currants and pine nuts; a lemon scented basil, which is far more basil that lemon; and an aniseed flavoured basil, which will give your classic basil-based recipes a decidedly new flavour which you possibly may not appreciate, or, just possibly, adore.
Specialist nurseries may be able to sell you a perennial basil, but it will only survive winter if kept out of the frost in a sunny spot indoors or a glasshouse. One of the best is the tiny-leafed and strong flavoured 'Greek basil'. 'Sacred' or 'Thai' basil needs warmth and a frost-free spot, too. Thai basil is a more floral and spicier basil than most of the others. It's wonderful - of course - in Thai food, and makes superb friendships with fish recipes or coconut milk.
Sadly you are most likely to find these as seeds, not plants. Wait for next year, or, just possibly, microwave your potting mix and plant the seeds in the hopefully rot-free soil in pots that are left in the sunniest spot possible and well out of the reach of any slug or snail.
Unlike many plants where overfeeding produces insipid plants, underfed basil is less fragrant than a well-fed plant. Basil grown in dappled shade may survive, but the best basil needs full sun. It will do fabulously in the middle of your paving.
Extract one paver, plant your basil, keep it fed and watered and watch it reach for the sky. The dryness of the pavers will also help prevent leaf spot, which basil is prone to in wet years. This year make sure your basil is not trying to peer through the weeds, or is shaded by tomatoes, and do not believe the myth that ''basil loves tomatoes''. I'm not sure how tomatoes fare in that relationship, but the basil grown with tomatoes is far more prone to leaf spot.
The other advantage of buying well developed basil plants is that you can buy them now. Basil doesn't germinate till the soil temperature is about 20 degrees. Potted basil just needs to be kept away from massive frosts, or covered if a sudden frost descends. Have a pot of basil in your kitchen window sill, and you'll have the scent of summer, as well as all the flowers of spring.
If you have a lot of basil seeds harvested from last year's plants waiting in old envelopes to plant this year, try basil sprouts. Spread cotton wool on a plate. Soak in water. Scatter on basil seeds. Keep in a sunny spot indoors, and water every evening. The seeds will sprout in 7-14 days. Let them grow to 2cm or so, then scatter for a spicy crunch in salads or as a delicious garnish. Don't use any commercial seed that has been treated with fungicide for sprouts - if it isn't dedicated "sprout seed", don't try it.
This week I'm:
- Watching the parsley seedlings turn into decent-sized plants and hoping they don't think the next cold snap is winter and decide to go to seed.
- Planning to foil Possum X's feast on the climbing iceberg rose by wrapping a barrier of steel wool around both stem and pergola post, and expecting growls of rage when he discovers it.
- Picking great white glorious balls of viburnum or snowball bush for the vases. One day the viburnum was twiggy-looking sticks, the next suddenly bright green leaves and a host of glorious white.
- Feasting on purple asparagus, which apparently give an earlier crop in cooler wetter conditions than the green or fat white varieties, which are still waiting for some decent heat.
- Hauling out jasmine from far too many spots around the garden and muttering at the "friend" who gave us that first plant - and even planted it for us as a "surprise".
- Watching the plums and Earliblaze apples swell, and the fruit trees planted this year double in size in a week, and, finally, eating the first mulberries of the season.