While you can grow basil all year round on a bright, light and warm windowsill inside your home, basil in a unheated polytunnel should be considered a summer crop. The best place for basil is next to your tomatoes – some even say that having basil planted nearby will improve the flavour of the fruits. There are several different sort of basil, each of which has a number of culinary uses. Basil is an aromatic herb with a delicious flavour and is used in many Mediterranean dishes.
Basil seeds should be sown indoors in March or April. As a general rule of thumb, it is best to sow around 4-6 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Sow seeds shallowly and make sure that the young seedlings get plenty of light. Seedlings can then be hardened off and planted out in your polytunnel as soon as the weather warms up properly. You may wish to plant out the basil seedlings at the same time as the tomatoes – they are said to be good companions both on and off the plate.
Basil will like a moist but free-draining soil and may appreciate a little shade cast by tomato plants, especially in warmer southern parts of the UK. Alternatively, you can keep basil in containers in your polytunnel or possibly in a warm and sheltered spot outside. When watering, try to do so early in the morning as basil abhors having wet roots overnight.
You can prolong the harvest of the basil by regularly pinching the growing tips for use. Harvesting regularly by taking the tips will encourage the plants to become bushier and more productive. Remove any flowers that start to develop as soon as possible, unless you are ready to let the plant go to seed.
As well as tomatoes, peppers and other members of the same family may also benefit from proximity to this herb. Planting chamomile or anise near basil may help to increase the essential oils in the plant. Essential oils collected from basil are used for relaxation and soothing.
Basil is a versatile herb and there is plenty to do with the tips and leaves you have taken. Fresh basil works especially well in a range of Italian recipes. A pesto is wonderful if you have a lot of basil to use. If you keep up with the tip pinching then you can be harvesting basil right through until the autumn.