Crimson King basil: Useful in the yard and in the kitchen

Want to have your cake and eat it too? Start growing Crimson King basil. It will be showy in the landscape, while providing enough for your favorite Italian cuisine.

Crimson King is a Genovese-type basil reaching 18-plus inches in the garden. These types of basils are the culinary aristocrats used in Italian cooking, ideally suited to those favorite pesto and tomato-basil recipes.

They are known for having crinkly turned-in leaves with a rich spicy clove scent.

It would be hard to find a prettier basil for the garden as it is every bit as striking as a coleus in the flower bed.

Whether you pronounce it “bay-zil” or “baah-zil,” you are sure to agree on one thing: Freshly harvested leaves of Crimson King basil mixed with juicy tomatoes, olive oil and garlic is a true feast over hot pasta.

Besides being a culinary delight and a stunning garden plant, Crimson King is incredibly easy to grow. It adds grace to both the herb and vegetable garden. In the landscape the deep dark purple leaves will go with just about any other flower color, actually making them look showier. It is kind of like the way a jeweler places the diamonds on black velvet.

Crimson King 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 about 18- to 24-inches tall and wide. Mulching will help conserve moisture and deter weed growth. Crimson King basil thrives in summer and excels in fall plantings as well.

Keep your plants watered and harvested and flower buds pinched for a long crop. Harvest just as the flower buds are forming for the most concentrated oils, flavor and fragrance.

Apply the same fertilizer with small applications every four to six weeks, or after harvest. Cut or pinch Crimson King just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than one-fourth of the plant at any one time.

This leaves enough foliage to keep the plant healthy and looking good in the landscape.

Simple air-drying produces a bounty of tasty basil for use all winter. Rinse the leaves in cool water and gently shake off extra moisture. When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle. Place the bundle in a paper bag, gather the top of the bag around the stems and tie again.

Label before hanging the bag in a dry place where the temperature doesn’t get above 80 degrees. After two to four weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.

Once basil is dried, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard. Keep the leaves whole if possible to preserve the oils; crush or grind only when using them.

You have to love it when a plant is beautiful in the landscape and yet edible too, and Crimson King basil is one you will want to try.

Norman Winter is executive director of the Columbus Botanical Garden, Columbus Ga., and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.”

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