A Gardener’s Secrets for Growing Basil Perfectly Every Time

how to grow basil

 

Name a food that’s good on pizza, pasta, panini, and toast points. If you guessed basil, then you’re correct. (Bonus points if you also guessed garlic.) As a fan of this wonderfully versatile herb, you know that having a homegrown supply of fresh basil is invaluable. Read on to learn tips for growing basil.

More than 31 flavors of basil

Basil has more than 160 different cultivars (types). It seems that every time I flip through my favorite seed catalogs I discover a new basil variety that I’m dying to try.

Popular varieties have reached that designation because they are easy to grow and packed with sweet flavor. Tried and true varieties include sweet basil, lemon basil, dark opal basil, and Christmas basil.

If you’re becoming bored with common basil varieties then try red rubin basil, purple spicy globe, purple ruffle, and cinnamon basil. These showcase the varied flavors that basil offers beyond simply sweet.

purple basil

image of purple basil via Shutterstock

Start seedlings inside or outside?

Your local nursery will likely have a selection of basil seedlings, but buying only from the nursery limits your options. Starting your own basil plants from seed gives you greater variety and complete control over growing practices.

If you live in a chillier climate, then you should start seedlings indoors because of the short outdoor growing season. Six to eight weeks before the last frost start seeds indoors. (If you’re not sure when your last frost date is, check out this site.) Basil likes heat so choose an especially sunny windowsill for growing basil.

If you don’t have a windowsill that gets at least six hours of sun per day, then use a UV grow lamp or heated pad for starting seedlings.

Gardeners in warmer climates can plant basil seeds directly outdoors. Sow basil seed thinly (8-10 seeds per inch) in a well-prepared garden bed. Basil does well in a raised bed because the soil heats up more quickly than the ground and because it has better drainage. Plants should emerge in 8-14 days.

Growing from basil cuttings

If you have a healthy basil plant, then you can use cuttings from that plant to start a new plant. How? Here are 3 easy steps:

  1. Clip a stem off of the basil plant that is at least four inches long.
  2. Place that cutting in water (cut end down). Change the water every few days.
  3. In a few days you will see roots emerge from the cut end. Once these roots are 2-3 inches long plant the cutting in soil.

How to grow basil from seedlings in 3 easy steps

Now that you have basil seedlings (or you’re direct seeding in your garden) it’s time to plant! (I love this part–it’s when I get dirty!)

  1. Plant basil in compost-rich well-drained soil. Not sure that your soil is well-drained enough? Here’s a way to test your soil from the knowledgeable folks at Cornell:

To test drainage, dig a hole about 1 foot deep. Fill with water and allow it to drain completely. Immediately refill the pit and measure the depth of the water with a ruler. 15 minutes later, measure the drop in water in inches, and multiply by 4 to calculate how much water drains in an hour.

Less than 1 inch per hour is poor drainage, indicating the site may stay wet for periods during the year. Plants that don’t tolerate poor drainage will suffer. One to 6 inches of drainage per hour is desirable.

  1. Plant the seedling just deep enough to cover the roots. Each plant should be 10-12 inches apart.
  2. Mulch around the plant. Place a 2 to 4 inch layer of some kind of organic mulch such as chopped leaves, straw, or hay under the plants when they get to be about 6 inches tall. As the mulch settles down in mid summer, you might want to add a bit more to get the plants through the fall season.

Basil plant care

Like all plants, basil appreciates the nutrients found in organic compost. However, there’s no need to go crazy with the fertilizer. Because basil is harvested continually for lots of leaves, it needs a little fertilizer.

When to pinch flowers: Leaf production slows or stops on any stem which flowers, so you should pinch off any flower stems to keep the plant in production.

Basil can be susceptible to whitefly, thrips, aphids, and Fusarium wilt.

Whitefly can usually be dealt with by blasting the nasty buggers with a garden hose. Some folks even use a vacuum to suck them off. Thrips can be controlled by using blue sticky traps. If that doesn’t work, then a natural insecticidal soap may do the trick.

Try attacking aphids with a solution of one quart of water, 1 tsp of liquid dish soap and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Do not dilute before spraying on plants.

Leaves affected by Fusarium wilt should be removed. If the wilt persists, use the organic fungicide Mycostop.

Secrets for planting basil

Basil benefits from companion planting.

Planted near tomatoes, peppers, oregano, asparagus, and petunias. Basil can help these plants repel or distract asparagus beetles, mosquitoes, thrips, and flies, and is said to make tomatoes taste better.

Planting chamomile or anise near basil is said to increase the essential oils in basil.

growing basil

image of basil in pot via Shutterstock

Growing basil indoors

If I want fresh basil through the winter, then I have to grow it indoors. Even when the temperatures are warmer and I can grow it outside, I often have some indoors as well. Why? It’s just easier to pinch a few leaves off a plant that’s a few feet from my kitchen counter than schlepping outside (yes, I’m that lazy sometimes).

Thankfully, growing in basil in pots is a great option for the lazy or apartment dwellers with limited outdoor space.

Just like outdoor basil, growing it indoors  in pots requires well-drained soil. But, unlike basil grown outdoors, basil in a pot requires more fertilizer. So, keep that organic compost handy!

Harvest time!

Harvest basil leaves by pinching them from the stems any time after the young plants have reached a height of 6 to 8 inches. Pinch the leaves from the tips of the stems to encourage the plant to branch and make more leaves.

So. Much. Basil.

Congratulations! You successfully grew beautiful basil! And then there was more. And more. And even more. What to do with your great bounty?

Once you’ve shared with your friends, family, doggie daycare staff, random tween on a skateboard, and the bearded guy in line at the post office, consider dehydrating your leaves.

This can be done by purchasing a dehydrator (try it, you’ll like it) or using your oven. Simply set your oven to its lowest temperature, rinse any dirt off basil, remove basil leaves from the stem, lay the leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet, and put in oven until crispy (approx. 2-4 hours). Once dry store in an airtight container.

Alternatively, clean the basil leaves, chop, and freeze with a bit of water in ice cube trays.

If you just need to keep fresh basil hanging around for a few days, treat it like a cut flower; leave it in a glass of water in a cool spot in your kitchen and use it as you need it. Never store basil in the refrigerator because it wilts.

Organic?

As you probably know, some produce is more heavily treated with pesticides. Because of those nasty pests mentioned above, it is important to buy organic basil whenever possible. The same is true for home gardeners. Aim to employ the most natural growing practices when growing basil.

Making basil pesto for the family

Most recipes for basil pesto call for two cups of packed leaves. So, how much basil do you need to grow to make a batch of pesto to feed a family of four?

Generally speaking, a healthy basil plant that’s more than a foot tall (and wide) should give you the required amount. If pesto is a family meal staple, then you’ll want to grow multiple plants to keep up with your family’s demand.

My friend is south Florida has so much basil from a few outdoor plants that she can’t give it all away. In chillier New England I can’t keep up with my family’s pesto demands from only homegrown basil; I have to supplement with store-bought pesto.

Beautiful Basil Recipes

The best way to celebrate basil is to show it off in sumptuous recipes. Check out these for inspiration:

recipes with basil

bruschetta image via Shutterstock

This recipe screams “Summer!” and celebrates the bounty of the season.

recipes with basil

image of salsa via Jennifer Meier

I love the versatility of salsa. Try this recipe and show off your serious basil growing skills.

recipes with basil

brunch image via Organic Authority

Who doesn’t love brunch? Fresh basil is the perfect addition to these recipes.

Have your grown basil? If so, what worked for you? Let us know on our Facebook page or Tweet at us @organicauthority.

Related on Organic Authority:

How to Grow Garlic in 3 Steps for Maximum Flavor (and Vampire Prevention!)
How to Grow Basil at Home From Tiny Seedlings to Scrumptious Leaves
Summer Eats: Grilled Pizza Recipe with Cherry Tomatoes, Basil and Cheese

image of basil on butcher block via Shutterstock

 

Chris Hull

Chris is a gardener living in southern Maine.