Basil brings the flavor in food to life. Muddle this summer herb into a tomato cocktail, add the whole leaves to Thai soup dishes, and sprinkle it generously over Caprese salads. Fresh basil is a go-to herb in the kitchen, for professional chefs and foodies, and its surprisingly easy to grow it yourself.
Basil grows well in most climates, and it’s suitable for growing inside the home and outside in the garden. Pick your basil from your indoor or outdoor herb garden seconds before you add it to your food – is there any way it could taste any fresher?
In this brief guide to growing basil, we’ll give you everything you need to know about cultivating this delicious and fragrant herb.
Why Grow Basil?
Sure, we could go on about the costs of buying basil, but let’s be honest, most of us are only spending a few dollars every year on the herb at the grocery store. The real benefit of growing basil at home is that you control the growing process, and your basil is fresh, not a few weeks old like the stuff at the store (although dried basil is a great herb to add to many dishes as well).
When your basil starts producing, you can expect to harvest around ½-cups worth of the herb each week. When growing basil, you don’t need a huge veggie garden to cultivate the herb. Set up a windowsill herb garden and plant your basil. The herb grows well, as long as it has light and moisture.
There are plenty of varieties of basil available. However, the most popular type is the “sweet basil,” or “Genovese basil,” but there are loads of other varieties, each with unique characteristics. Other popular options include globe, lemon, and Thai basil.
Basil is different from most other herbs, in that it’s an annual, not a perennial like most others. The herb is sensitive to cold climates conditions, so the best time of the year to start planting is in the first week of May.
While basil makes an excellent addition to food, it also has value as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments. Blend the fresh leaves with raw honey to make a potent and soothing anti-bacterial cough syrup that tastes fantastic.
The Basics of Growing Basil
All varieties of basil are easy to grow, and even the novice gardener won’t have any issues cultivating the herb. All the plants need is some sunlight, moisture, and a well-drained, nutritious soil. If you’re living in colder climates, you can keep your basil growing in the full sun, while they prefer shade in warmer regions.
You’ll find that basil requires slightly more watering than other Mediterranean herbs, and you’ll need to ensure that the soil stays moist at all times. Water basil plants in the morning, providing them with the moisture they need throughout the day.
Monthly feeding of your basil plants produces luscious leaves and pinch off the tips of young plants to promote bushy growth.
If you’re planting your basil in the vegetable garden, it makes the ideal companion plant for tomatoes, increasing the flavor and color of the fruit, while keeping insects like aphids at bay. Plant basil as a border around your veggie garden, and keep it safe from pests that want to feast on your produce.
Basil suits growing outdoors in an herb or vegetable garden, or containers indoors. As long as you provide the plant with water, soil, and light, it has everything it needs to produce tender and fragrant basil leaves.
Gardeners can grow basil directly from seed, as it’s easy to germinate and sprouts readily. If you’re planting from seed, start them indoors, at least 6-weeks before the last frost of the season. Check your local listings for frost dates in your area.
Basil is hypersensitive to cold conditions, so you’ll need to ensure you finish harvesting before the later fall ends if growing outdoors. If you’re planting a seedling or cutting, make sure temperatures are above 70°F.
While it’s easy to grow basil from seed, planting a cutting is also an easy method of growing your favorite herb.
Select a 4-inch section of a mature basil plant that has yet to start flowering. Cut the stem at a 45-degree angle, and then let it sit in water, there’s no need to add any rooting hormone to the cutting.
You should start to see the roots form in 7 to 10-days, and you can plant the cuttings directly into the garden once the roots are big enough to take in the soil.
Gardeners need to ensure that if they’re growing indoors or outdoors, they’re using soil that drains well and contains plenty of nutrients.
Basil likes growing in pH-neutral soils for best results. Add some rich compost to some garden soil and mix well. Toss in a handful of perlite to the mix to improve aeration and moisture retention in the soil.
That’s about all the soil amendments you need to grow the best basil at home. Adding too many soil amendments and fertilizer products causes the basil to lose its sweet flavor.
Basil does best in warm climates that receive around 6-hours of sunlight each day. Plant your basil in an east-facing part of the garden, or an east-facing window to avoid the scorching midday sun beating down on your basil.
Give your basil water when the soil starts to turn dry to the touch. However, you should be able to poke your finger an inch into the soil and feel moisture at all times. If the soil dries out, your basil will start to turn hardy, losing its color and fragrance.
When watering, ensure that your water around the base of the plant, and not on the leaves, watering the leaves may result in the onset of disease and attracts pests to the plants.
Spacing Your Basil
Basil can grow up to 24-inches in height, depending on the variety. Gardeners can space plants around 12 to 16-inches apart for best results. For those growing basil in containers, stick to smaller types, such as the spicy globe, which grows in small mounds.
Companion Plants for Your Basil
As mentioned, basil is an excellent companion plant for both indoor and outdoor gardens. Planting basil wards off insects, and helps the other plants in the garden thrive. Some gardeners swear that growing basil with tomatoes makes the tomatoes taste sweeter.
Plant your basil alongside other plants like lettuce, chamomile, oregano, and peppers. The fragrance of fresh basil even does a great job of chasing away mosquitoes.
Harvesting Your Basil
One of the best parts about growing basil for cooking is that it’s a pick-as-you-go plant. You don’t need to harvest all of the basil leaves in one go, just take the ones that are ripe for picking. If you’re growing your basil outdoors, and you find that your plants are all coming in at the same time, then you might have to plan a mass harvest.
You can harvest your basil in the same way you would with mint. Snip the stem above the node where the two leaves meet. If you regularly clip your basil plant, it encourages growth into a rounded, less leggy shape.
Always ensure you harvest your basil leaves before the plant starts to flower. If you still have leaves you want to mature, then pinch off the flowering parts of the plant as they appear. Basil flowers are edible, but if you pinch them from the plant, the basil can focus its energy on producing tasty leaves instead.
If you want the plant to keep producing leaves, only harvest 2/3rds of the plant at a time.
Storing Your Basil Harvest
Freezing your basil is the best storage option after completing a mass harvest. Freezing preserves the flavor in the leaves, making them last longer in storage. If you want to freeze your harvest, package the chopped or whole basil leaves in a sealable, air-tight plastic freezer bag, and then place them in a chest freezer.
You can also dry out your basil for use in the kitchen, although this method causes the basil to lose some of its fragrance and flavor. To dry your basil, pinch off the stems, and place them on a drying rack in a shady and well-ventilated area.
If the leaves are still not dry after 3 to 4-days, place them on a baking tray in the oven on low heat to finish the drying process.
Pests and Diseases Affecting Basil
Some of the more common pests you need to be on the lookout for when growing basil indoors or outdoors are the following.
- White powdery mildew
- Variety of fungal and bacterial stem, leaf, and root diseases
Unfortunately, basil is prone to developing numerous fungal and bacterial infections, such as gray mold, WPM, Fusarium wilt, and black spot. Seedlings may also experience damping-off as well.
Avoid problems with diseases affecting your basil by waiting until the weather warms up before planting. Don’t overcrowd the plants, as this also promotes the onset of illness in your basil.
Japanese beetles may also eat the leaves, and you can control them by picking them off of the plants.