In the U.S., most people grow basil into large plants and pick individual leaves from them all summer. That's how we did it when we were market farming: we would start the seeds indoors in winter, transplant them into the field with at least 12 inches between plants, harvest leaves and side shoots, and bag them up for sale.
In Italy I noticed that many cooks have a pot of basil growing right outside the kitchen door. But not just one plant. Often the basil is seeded so thickly it comes up as a carpet of green leaves. In fact, there are greenhouses in Italy that are a solid swath of bright green basil plants. And the basil is not cut -- it's pulled up as entire small plants and gathered into handfuls like little bouquets. Then the roots are wrapped to preserve the moisture and keep the basil fresh. They are sold upright, in bunches, with the roots moist in a bin.
When I first saw that, the lightbulb in my head went on. This goes a long way to explaining why Franchi's packets of basil are so huge -- about 3,500 seeds in a regular $3.50 packet! You can direct seed thickly and repeatedly. Harvest is much quicker than pinching shoots from large plants. And because the basil matures and gets harvested so quickly, there is much less chance of disease or insect problems.
This year, I decided to grow my basil the Italian way. I filled a 12-inch terra cotta pot with an organic potting mix, sprinkled the basil seed on the top, lightly covered with a fine potting mix, and kept it regularly moist until the seed germinated. Then I placed it in a sunny spot outside the kitchen door.
Within 30 days, I had basil big enough to make a Caprese salad or blend with olive oil for a salad dressing. The flavor is just as intense as larger leaves, maybe moreso. I harvest the largest plants first, pulling them out by the roots, which makes room for the remaining plants to grow. I expect to have sweet young basil for at least three weeks from this one pot. And I have a second pot already prepared for the next round.
Whether you have a farm or a balcony, all you need to grow your own basil is a pot and full sun. Take your pick from our large selection of basil varieties here.