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Did you know there are many types of basil you can grow in your garden? While strolling through the paths of my own raised bed vegetable garden, I realized that I had planted at least one type of basil in every single bed. There was Genovese basil, lemon basil, Thai basil, Greek basil, and a handful of cultivars of sweet basil. I guess it’s fair to say that I’m a big fan of basil!
Why try different types of basil?
Why grow so many different types of basil? For me, there are several reasons. First, I love the variety of flavors. Sweet basil has that classic spicy clove flavor that is essential to so many dishes, including pesto. But, Thai basil is also delicious and adds a burst of licorice to curries and stir-fries, and lemon or lime basil has a fresh citrus fragrance and mild lemony flavor so good in tea, marinades, and salad dressings.
But I don’t grow basil just because it tastes good, I also enjoy the variety of forms and foliage colors. Aristotle is a cultivar of Greek basil and forms tight one-foot tall balls of tiny, flavorful leaves. It’s perfect as a specimen plant, for edging beds, or in pots. Pesto Perpetuo is a variegated columnar basil that grows one-foot across, but up to three-feet tall! They add a formal element to beds but also look great in pots or planters on a deck or patio. Thai basil is another knockout with deep green leaves, purple stems and purple flowers that are beloved by bees and beneficial insects.
While basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs planted in gardens and containers, it can be a bit tricky to grow. It needs plenty of sun, well-drained soil, and heat, so wait until the spring weather has warmed to plant. I grow most of my basil in my raised beds, but you can also grow them in elevated planters like this handy VegTrug 8 Pocket Herb Garden. If you’re growing basil in containers, choose pots that offer excellent drainage and use a high-quality potting mix. For more on growing great basil, check out this post and short video.
Types of basil to grow in gardens and containers:
Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
The essence of summer, sweet basil is the widest grown type of basil. It has rounded, cup-shaped leaves with the classic spicy clove flavor beloved by gardeners and cooks. This type includes common and Genovese basils and is the one to grow if you want plenty of leaves for pesto. ‘Everleaf’ is a recent introduction that is slow to bolt, compact, and very productive. Lately, I’ve found myself planting more of the lettuce leaf Italian basils like Napoletano, also a type of sweet basil, which has massive four-inch long ruffly leaves perfect for pesto, salads, or grandma’s tomato sauce. To encourage the largest harvest of homegrown basil, harvest often by pinching stems with your fingers or cutting them cleanly with herb snips.
Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. citriodorum)
If you love citrus, you may wish to plant lemon, as well as lime basil. This heat-loving basil grows great in containers as well as gardens and offers an intense citrus aroma and flavor. ‘Mrs. Burns’ Lemon’ is a standard variety with the plants reaching about 18-inches in height with leaves that are larger than most citrus-type basils. Use lemon or lime basil in drinks like teas, lemonade, cocktails, or even to jazz up a glass of water. Sprinkle them in salads, or cook with chicken and fish. Dry the foliage for fragrant DIY sachets and winter teas.
Greek Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum)
Greek basil, also called little leaf or fine leaf basil, includes small growing varieties with a compact, rounded growth habit. I’m obsessed with these gorgeous little plants that are extremely ornamental, yet offer much culinary value. The tiny leaves have a strong basil flavor and fragrance, and can be used in the same way as sweet or Genovese basil. A few varieties to try include ‘Spicy Globe’, ‘Aristotle’, ‘Pluto’, and ‘Fino Verde’.
Purple Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens)
When I first started growing herbs, I planted at least a dozen ‘Purple Ruffles’ basil plants and was disappointed when they failed to grow. While the deep purple leaves and white or purple flowers are dazzling in the garden, these plants tend to be less vigorous than their green counterparts. The key is to not plant them out until a week or two after the last spring frost (I planted too early!) and to give them rich, but well-draining soil. They thrive in my container gardens with their smooth or ruffly purple leaves and bee-friendly flowers.
Cinnamon Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’)
Also called Mexican basil, this type of common basil produces strong cinnamon-scented foliage. The leaves are smaller than sweet basil and the bright purple stems and flowers make it a standout in the garden or bouquets. Add a few leaves to a cup of tea, or in stir-fries and salads.
Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora)
Thai Basil is an essential ingredient when we make pho, a Vietnamese soup with broth, noodles, meat, and vegetables. But, we also use it liberally in salads, curries, noodle dishes, and stir-fries. The plants are beautiful with deep green leaves and reddish-purple stems and flowers. ‘Siam Queen’ is an All-America Selections Winner with improved characteristics like compact growth, slow flowering, and excellent flavor.
A word on basil and Downy Mildew
I wanted to highlight the tremendous breeding work that has been done in developing downy mildew-resistant varieties of basil. Downy mildew is a recent, destructive basil disease that is quickly spreading across North America. It’s identified by yellowing on the upper leaf surface followed by a black ‘fuzz’ that develops on the bottom of the foliage. It generally starts at the bottom of the plant but quickly moves up the stem.
If this is becoming an annual issue in your garden, opt to grow downy mildew-resistant varieties like Amazel, Prospera, Eleonora, and Everleaf. Read your seed catalogs carefully to check for disease resistance and expect more resistant varieties to hit the market soon.
For further reading on growing basil, as well as the various types of basil available from seed companies, check out this handy booklet, Growing and Using Basil.
What are your favorite types of basil to grow?
If you enjoy growing basil and other culinary herbs, take a peek at these articles:
- Learn how to grow great basil
- How to trim basil for big plants and even bigger harvests
- Growing basil from cuttings for more plants, fast and cheap
- Growing a culinary herb garden
- The 7 best herbs for container gardening
- Grow your own herbal teas