Basil is my can’t-live-without-it herb. Its aroma simply exudes summer. I generously sprinkle it over caprese salads, add it whole-leaf into spicy Thai soups, muddle it into Bloody Marys, and make sweet basil syrup for my sliced summer strawberries. And don’t even get me started about how liberally I toss freshly chopped basil on my pizza; I know I'm not alone here.
Many times, an established basil plant is less expensive than those packages of basil you find in the grocery store. So stop purchasing those packages of so-called "fresh" basil and pick up a basil plant. Here’s everything you need to know to start growing your own.
Why Should I Grow Basil?
There’s nothing like clipping fresh basil leaves from your garden and running back into your kitchen to add it to whatever you’re cooking. I should more aptly ask, "Why shouldn't you grow basil?" Basil's fresh, spicy, clove-scented flavor profile is a natural addition to so many cooking styles and cuisines.
Just one well-pruned plant will supply you with about a 1/2 cup's worth of basil each week. Even if you're limited on space, simply find a sunny windowsill, fill a container with well-drained soil, and you’re in business. Basil for months.
Certainly the most common cultivar of basil is sweet basil or Genovese basil, but other culinary options — such as Thai, lemon, globe, and cinnamon — are also readily available. One of the main differences between basil and many of the other herbs we've discussed is the fact that it is a tender annual. It is very sensitive to the cold, so watch your plants carefully as the weather changes.
How to Plant Basil
- Where: Basil is a wonderful addition to a container garden. It thrives in well-drained soil, positioned in a sunny window. In the garden, plant basil among your tomatoes. It's a one-stop shop for your next caprese salad.
- When: Basil is easy to sow from seed and is relatively quick to germinate. When planting from seed, plant seeds about six weeks before the last frost. Basil is super sensitive to the cold, so whether you are transplanting seedlings from indoors or have plants in the ground, watch the early spring temperatures and cover if necessary. If you are planting a cutting or transplanting a seedling or smaller plant, make sure the ground temperature is at least 70°F.
- Propagation: In addition to sowing basil from seed, a cutting of basil will easily root when placed in water. Select a 4" section of basil that has not yet flowered. Roots will form within a week. Transplant the basil directly into the garden or container once a healthy root system is apparent.
How to Cultivate Basil
- Soil: Basil does its best in well-drained, moist soil with a neutral pH. I add a rich compost to the soil at the beginning of the season. Not much more soil amendment is necessary. In fact, if the soil is too rich, basil loses some of its flavor intensity.
- Sun: Basil grows well in warm environments that receive about six hours of sun each day. I have a couple of basil plants growing in an area that receives only four hours of sun, but they aren't as prolific as the others. My best basil plants actually grow in an east-facing area that doesn't get the scorching, midday sun.
- Water: Give basil water when the soil is dry to the touch, doing your best to water the plant at its base and not all over its leaves.
- Spacing: Depending upon the variety, basil grows anywhere from 12 to 24 inches in height. Space basil plants 12 to 16 inches apart. If you're limited on space or only grow in containers, consider spicy globe basil, which tends to form a small, mounding habit.
- Companion planting: Plant basil among other herbs and vegetables with similar lighting and watering needs, like tomatoes or parsley. Some even say tomatoes taste better when they neighbor basil. Plant basil alongside chamomile, lettuce, peppers, and oregano. I even like to keep a few pots of basil on my back porch to deter mosquitoes.
How to Harvest Basil
Basil is a pick-as-you-go kind of herb. You may harvest only what you need, or if you have an abundance on hand, you may clip a mass harvest. I'll have more ideas on what to do with all of that extra basil on tomorrow's preservation post. Harvest basil as you would mint, snipping a stem just above the point where two large leaves meet. Regular clipping encourages a more rounded, less leggy plant.
It's always better to harvest basil before the plant flowers. If you don't have time to harvest any leaves, just pinch off the flowering portion. The flowers are actually edible, but if you pinch them off, the plant can now direct its energy on growing tasty leaves. Also be sure to only harvest up to 2/3 of the entire plant, so it can continue producing.
Updated from post originally published July 11, 2015.