The quintessential taste of summer starts now

On my list of must-have plants in the sunny raised beds of my backyard, basil ranks second only to tomatoes. Sweet basil makes a tall backdrop for zinnias mid- to late summer. I love the contrast of hot reds, sassy oranges and dizzy pinks against the deep green crinkle of basil leaves. Like tomatoes, growing one cultivar is rarely enough; sometimes I sneak sweet basil into front yard flowerbeds to extend my growing space.

Pretty as they are, however, I grow basils for the taste. Fresh basil is so good it’s nearly sinful. Basil’s not exactly ready to harvest in St. Louis in April, but if you want basil in your garden, now is the time to buy bedding plants.

Local farmers’ markets are a good place to start. Each winter, Alice Chartrand’s green-thumbed husband Lenard grows specialty basils, herbs and vegetables from seed at their farm in East Carondelet, Ill. By spring, their stand at Soulard Farmers’ Market is awash in shades of green, the counter a pattern of deeply cut leaves and fern-like foliage. Rub a basil leaf between finger and thumb to release a scent so evocative you can almost taste summer. “This year, we’ve planted sweet basil, lemon, cinnamon, plus red and green ruffled,” said Lenard Chartrand. “I’ll pick up a small seed packet or two when I find something interesting, so we’ll have new things as well.” The Chartrands will also offer miniature basil for folks who garden in small spaces or containers.

The Chartrands’ plants will be on sale early in April, but they won’t bring the basil to market until mid-April if the first weeks are too cold. “If basil is taken from the greenhouse into the cold, it just wilts,” Chartrand said. “I tell my customers [not to] plant basil until the ground warms up. When you feel warm enough at night [that] you don’t need a lot of covers or [are] comfortable outside in shirtsleeves, that’s when you put in the basil.”

Biver Farms will have bedding plants, including basils, again this year. “I’ve got a Genovese basil with a higher oil content – great for pestos,” said co-owner Brett Palmier. He’ll have other selections, including lemon, lime and Italian, plus Siam Queen, a Thai basil Palmier calls “a bit spicy.” You’ll find Biver Farms basils at several local farmers’ markets, but Palmier’s gone a step further with marketing his fine plants. He now sells at Garden Heights Nursery on Big Bend, University Gardens on Delmar, O2 Houseplants in St. Charles, Whole Foods Market and at the Market Basket stores.

Sugar Creek Gardens, a gem tucked back off Woodlawn Avenue near Manchester in Kirkwood, is a must-stop for unusual herbs. Herb buyer Roxanne Cronin counted 16 varieties of basil on order. “We’ll have the sweet and the lettuce leaf basils early April,” Cronin said. “Mid-April, the more unusual varieties – the Thai basils, lemon and lime, Purple Ruffles, and Red Rubin.”

Some newer basils seem designed to solve problems for gardeners. “Greek Columnar grows tall and straight,” Cronin said. “It’s good for smaller spaces. Pesto Perpetuo has a variegated leaf, white edging green. My co-workers love this plant; it doesn’t flower.” When sweet basils flower, the leaves take on a bitter taste, so no flowers to pinch back saves time.

Eight varieties of basil will be available at the St. Louis Herb Society sale at the Missouri Botanical Garden this month, including a large-leafed Napoletano and the potent Thai Magic for adding kick to Asian cooking.

All summer, fresh basil enchants: A chiffonade of lime basil under grilled whitefish; a simple syrup of chopped sweet basil, water and sugar on strawberries; a basil leaf wrapped around fresh mozzarella stuffed in a cherry tomato or a fat green olive. Almost nothing tastes as rich as the first batch of pesto on toothsome pasta. It’s the quintessential taste of summer.