Summer time is basil time in the Southwest. The nights stay warm, the sun shines for hours on end and the soil temperatures are nice an warm. All these are conditions that this (originally) tropical plant loves.
Basil was first brought to our area by Father Kino over 325 years ago. Planted in the gardens of the missions Father Kino founded throughout the lands then known as the Pimería Alta, now southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.
All basil has the potential to grow well in our area, but quite frankly, it isn’t the easiest herb to grow. It has some very specific preferences if it is to thrive. Here are some tips to successfully grow basil in your yard.
You Can Grow That!
Basil needs a rich, well-drained loamy soil that is high in organic matter. Sandy soils drain too quickly and clay soils become waterlogged and don’t hold oxygen well. Either case makes for unhappy plants. Ideal soil pH is 6.2 to 7.0. Most desert soil is around 8.0. Add ample organic matter (compost) to your soil or grow in large containers in nice store-bought potting soil.
Like many herbs, basil prefers around 8 hours of light per day, but ideally provide noon or afternoon shade. The east side of a home, or east edge of a shade tree is a good place to plant.
The ideal is between 55 to 95 degrees F. Since we get more than that, afternoon shade is ideal to reduce heat-stress on the plant. Just know this – as winter arrives, basil will leave. Basil can not take freezing. Thus most of us must replant every spring. If you grow basil in large pots, you could move it to a sheltered site for winter.
Water for Basil
Not a low-water plant! Provide ample moisture for healthy flavorful, not bitter, basil. Leaves that taste bitter is a sign of water stress.
A leafy herb, basil does best with high levels of nitrogen mixed with all the other major and minor nutrients. Southwest desert soils are mineral rich but lack nitrogen. Adding ample organic matter or growing basil in containers generally solves this, but additional fertilizer yields large plants with lots of lovely leaves to eat.
Basil is grown as a companion plant with beans, peppers and tomatoes. Some people also inter-plant it with their roses to deter pests.
Basil and Wildlife
One further reason to plant basil – it is a useful crop for garden wildlife.
First. Rabbits avoid the plants, making it a good barrier crop.
But! Native solitary bees visit the nectar rich flowers, as do honeybees if you are a beekeeper, this can be a useful crop.
Seed-eating birds, especially the charming and colorful lesser goldfinch, adore the oil rich seeds.
Although basil is not an easy plant to grow, there are over 150 varieties to select from (sign up for our newsletter to learn more on this topic). If first you don’t succeed, try another variety! You may need to try several different varieties until you find the one that does well for you in your yard and your style of plant care.
My style of plant care (minimal) and hot yard means that I killed a few plants until I discovered the two varieties that work well for me “Queen of Siam,” from any seed catalog, or “Mrs. Burns Famous Lemon Basil” from Native Seeds/SEARCH
Harvesting and Use – are covered as a “Food” post
Thanks for reading!
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