Basil has stolen my heart as of late but it is probably not for what you think. It’s not because the foliage such as that of Purple Ruffles as Mississippi Medallion Award Winners is as pretty as a coleus. Nor is it for the culinary delicacy provided by Siam Queen an All-America Selections Award Winner. It is for pollinators.
The fact I am promoting it for pollinators tells all herb lovers and culinary artists I am going polar opposite on recommendations and letting it go to flower as quickly as possible. As you may be aware you are suppose-to keep flower buds pinched off and harvest fresh leaves for that mouth-watering pesto sauce and oriental cuisine.
They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too but I suppose you could harvest your leaves for a while, even dry and store, and then let it go flower. Holy pollinator this could be a good idea for gardeners everywhere!
Now let me present what I have been witnessing. Every 10 days or so, I have been going out to Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain Ga. This has been one of my favorite places in the country for the last 25 years. Now that I live close by, it makes multiple trips easy and, besides, it’s kind of like the ‘The Garden Guy’s’ day out.
The Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center is one of the most famous butterfly conservatories in the country. While I enjoy that aspect, I spend hours outside of the center browsing the plants to attract butterflies for adult food as well as those plants that sustain their caterpillars, too.
At various intervals in the garden, they have drifts, or sweeps, of blooming basil. It is Thai basil and the blooming stalks are as pretty as salvia. All summer they have been loaded with bees and various butterflies. You’ll find the pollinators as well as those that eat them.
I have concluded that whether you say “bay-zil” or “baa-zil,” we’ll all agree on one thing, this is a perfect plant for the landscape, herb or vegetable garden, or backyard wildlife habitat. This plant earns a living from the time it is 12 inches tall until it freezes. If you dried leaves it keeps on giving.
Basil asks for nothing more in the garden than full sun and well-drained soil. Prepare the soil by spreading 3- to 4-inches of organic matter and 1 pound per 100 square feet of a slow-release 5-10-5 fertilizer, and till to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Set transplants 18- to 24-inches apart. They will grow to around 2 feet tall and wide. Water and apply a layer of mulch. Basil thrives in our warm summer weather and excels in fall plantings as well.
If you want to go dual-purpose eat and finish with the feast of the pollinators, keep it watered, harvested and flower buds pinched and you’ll have a long crop. Harvest just as the flower buds are forming for the most concentrated oils, flavor, and fragrance. Apply a light application of the above fertilizer every 4 to 6 weeks or after harvest.
If you are going for blooms, bees, and butterflies let it bloom as quickly as it wants, maintain moisture and fertilizer, and keep the camera handy. A little deadheading will keep the patch producing and looking good all summer.
Norman Winter is a horticulturist, garden speaker and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him on Facebook @Norman WinterTheGardenGuy.