Basil is one of the easiest and most satisfying herbs to grow, for both beginning and experienced gardeners alike.
One of the oldest known cultivated herbs, basil has long been valued as a ceremonial, medicinal, and culinary delicacy, with varieties sure to please any gardener.
Basil is also an especially beautiful plant, making it an easy addition to flower beds and borders as both an ornamental and edible feature.
Here’s what you need to know to grow basil successfully in your garden.
Fast Facts About Basil
- Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual herb. For most of us, this means it is planted in the spring and dies at the first fall frost. It can be grown year-round indoors or in frost-free climates, where it spreads by dropping seeds.
- In the vegetable garden, basil is often planted alongside tomatoes and peppers. Some believe that basil stimulates those veggies and repels pests, but others just like having their spaghetti sauce all in one spot!
- While we usually associate basil with Italian cooking, it was originally cultivated in India.
- There are many varieties of basil, with different flavors and looks. Leaves are generally green or purple, with smooth or lacy edges. Most plants grow around two feet tall, and there are also dwarf varieties that work well in containers.
Popular types of basil include:
- Sweet Basil: The familiar green variety used in pesto and tomato dishes.
- Cinnamon Basil: Purple flowers and a spicy, cinnamon flavor.
- Lemon Basil: This type has a flavor tinged with citrus.
- Purple Basil: As the name implies, it has purple leaves and makes a dramatic addition to flower beds.
- When to Plant: Basil needs daytime temperatures over 70° F and nighttime temps over 50° F. Plant outdoors in spring, after all danger of frost has passed.
- Where to Plant: Choose a sunny, sheltered spot protected from chilly winds and temperature extremes.
- Light Requirements: Full sun (6-8 hours per day).
- Soil Requirements: Rich soil that drains well but also holds moisture.
- Time Until Harvest: Basil will be ready for harvest in 2-3 months.
- Size of Plants: Varies, but usually 18-24 inches high by about 12 inches wide. There are also dwarf varieties that work well in containers.
- Spacing of Plants: 10-12 inches apart.
- Planting: Mix in plenty of organic matter about a foot deep, to hold moisture while improving drainage.
- Water: Basil likes soil that is moist but not soggy. Water regularly, but don’t allow the soil to be come soggy. When watering, try not to splash water onto the leaves.
- Fertilizer: In good, rich soil, basil doesn’t need to be fertilized, although it will benefit from applications of compost and compost tea.
- Mulch: Basil doesn’t like competition, so mulch around plants to suppress competing weeds while helping to hold in moisture.
- Heat and Drought: Basil will quickly “go to seed” when stressed by heat or drought, which results in a loss of flavor. Stressed plants will bloom and become tough and spindly. If your plants are stressed, they may need more water or some protection during the hottest part of the day.
- Frost Protection: Even a light frost will mean the end of basil season! Use row covers to protect your plants on chilly nights, or be sure to harvest before the first frost.
For the best basil harvest:
- Pinch off flowers as soon as they form. This keeps the plant focused on leaf production and also helps the plant branch out.
- Once your plants are about 6 inches tall, start pinching off the tops to encourage branching.
- Don’t forget to use the pinched-off leaves in tonight’s dinner!
Growing Basil From Seed
Basil is quite easy to grow from seed. Start seeds indoors about a month before your last frost date, or sow directly in the garden after the last frost. Seeds need a soil temperature of 70° F to germinate. Here’s how to go about it:
- Prepare the soil by digging. Work in organic matter, remove all weeds, and moisten the soil.
- Scatter the seeds, then cover with about ¼-inch of soil.
- Water well.
- Seeds should sprout in a week or two. Once the seedlings start forming true leaves, thin them about to about one every square foot.
Growing Basil In Containers
Basil is an excellent container plant. In fact, I like to tuck purple basil into mixed flower pots for a little edible color!
Try growing basil indoors on a sunny windowsill, or plant several types in a large planter or strawberry pot for a variety of colors and flavors.
When growing basil in containers:
- Use high-quality potting soil.
- Feed with a balanced fertilizer about once a month.
- Don’t allow the pot to sit in water.
- To harvest, simply pinch off leaves as you need them.