How to Grow Basil

comments (12) June 29th, 2010

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ChrisMcLaughlin Chris McLaughlin, contributor
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Photo is by foam under the Creative Common Attribution License 2.0.
Photo by amandabhslater under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0
Photo is by foam under the Creative Common Attribution License 2.0.Click To Enlarge

Photo is by foam under the Creative Common Attribution License 2.0.

When I first fell in love with gardening, my biggest seducer was herbs. I found herbs to be not only one of the easiest types of plants to grow, but they were also the most fun to create a garden with - not to mention the most versatile group of plants out there.

Among the tremendous species of herbs from which I could choose, basil (Ocimum basilicum) was one of my favorites to experiment with. I found that not only was basil easy to grow and handy for the kitchen, but storing and propagating basil was a snap.

Basil is a bushy, tender annual with glossy-surfaced leaves that reaches about 18” in height when mature. She’s fast grower, has a prolific leaf-harvest, and blooms tiny white or purple flowers on spikes. Of course, the idea is not to end up seeing these flower spikes which is a signal to the plant that it’s time to stop producing leaves – which is your harvest.

Various cultivars have been bred for different subtleties in flavor, appearance and size. Basil plants may have the common green leaf color but also come in gorgeous purples. There are fine-leafed, broad-leafed, and lettuce-leaved basils, as well as lemon, cinnamon and anise flavored varieties.

Basils are used in tomato, pesto, pepper, eggplant, soup, fish, and meat dishes. Another popular way to use basil is as an oil or vinegar flavoring.

Home garden grown basil (like all other fresh food) has the purest flavor. If you enjoy cooking, you won’t be able to live without fresh basil in the kitchen garden. If you enjoy Italian food (and by “Italian”, I mean “tomatoes”), you’re going to be hooked on home-grown basil for life. You can bet Giada De Laurentiis has fresh planted basil by her kitchen door.

Basil in The Garden

Most gardeners plant basil seeds directly into the garden bed (or in garden jargon, “in situ”) after the last frost date in their region has passed. As a native Mediterranean herb, basil likes to be planted in full sun (that’s 8 hours – or as close as you can get to it), and well-drained soil with some composted manure or other organic materials. Avoid over-watering the seedlings as basil is prone to “damping off” disease.

The basil seeds can be started indoors in individual little pots a few weeks before the last frost date, as well. Your success rate will be greater if they are placed on a plant growing heating pad or coils as basil craves heat and despises cold temperatures. It's also a perfect candidate for container gardening if you'd like to grow some by the back door like Giada.

Once the plants are growing by several inches, you can mulch basil (as well as any other herb) with coarse mason sand. Don't buy regualr playground sand - it's too fine. Mason sand is a great weed barrier and helps regulate temperature fluctuations in the bed. The most useful part of using the sand as mulch in an herb bed is that it reflects the sun and douses the sun-worshipers with heat. While the basil is actively growing, pinch off the plant’s outer leaves to encourage a bushy growth habit.

You may begin harvesting basil as soon as the plant leaves are plentiful. Cut several inches of stems and leaves off of the plant especially at the first signs of forming flower spike clusters. You want to beat the signal for the plant to shut down production of your leaf harvest.

As a companion plant in your flower or vegetable garden, basil plays a intricate role as a repellent against mosquitoes, mites, and aphids. Basil also acts as a fungicide as it slows down the growth of milkweed bugs.

Start Basil From Cuttings

Basil is one of the simplest plants in the world to start from cuttings which is awesome. Not only because I am much better with cuttings than I am seeds, but because when you start this plant from cuttings it grows much faster, which means more basil and an earlier harvest.

Just get a long-necked bottle and fill it with room-temperature water. If you have a regular-sized basil plant, take a 6” cutting off of it; if it’s dwarf basil, take a 4” cutting. Now remove the lower leaves from the stem, leaving about three sets of leaves at the top.

Place the lower half of the stem into the water letting the leaves at the top hold it in place. The water level needs to be kept high and fresh and in a couple of weeks you’ll have roots on your cutting.

When you have some really nicely established roots going, take the cutting out of the bottle of water and put in into a 4” pot with peat-based potting mix. After a couple of weeks, plant the new basil plant outdoors into the garden bed or keep it as an indoor plant. If you take a cutting or two at the end of the growing season this could be a great way to bring a basil plant indoors for winter use.

Drying Basil For Storage

There are a few different ways to store herbs, but this is one of the easiest ways that I have found to hang onto home grown basil; and you know how I love easy. Herbs dry fairly well when tied upside down and hanging around your kitchen or what-have-you. However, when herbs are dried this way they tend to lose their lovely color, not to mention it takes quite a while for them to be dry enough to place into jars for later culinary use.

Refrigerators have a dehumidifying action that makes them the perfect place to dry herbs quickly while maintaining their rich color. Gather a bunch of basil or any other herb stalks and place them loosely into a paper lunch bag. Close the top of the lunch bag with a chip clip or other such handy item so you can peek at them every so often. Don’t forget to label them.

The herbs will be completely dry within a couple of days. At that point you can either keep them right where they are (just tape them to the inside of the fridge to save space) or break the herbs apart to fit into air-tight containers for storage in a cool and dark place.

I’m always finding reasons to use aromatic basil in my recipes because of its incredible flavor. Well, that and there’s nothing like the scent of fresh basil on my hands.

More info on basil:

How to Grow Delectable Lemon Basil
Video: How to Harvest Annual Herbs
Video: Freezing Herbs for Winter
Additional Information on Growing Basil

Basil recipes:

Basic Pesto Recipe
Pacific Rim Pesto
• Wilted Spinach and Basil Salad 
• Crispy Okra with Basil Pesto and Bacon 
Lemon Basil Ice Cream 

posted in: herbs, basil

Comments (12)

antn7887 writes: Very useful articles and hints on drying, storing and if i can do the same for oregano?any ideas?
Posted: 11:55 am on September 20th
Addassamari writes: Wonderful article about a wonderful and easily grown plant. I am a container gardener and love to grow basil-any variety I can find, as well as other herbs such as parsley, marjoram, oregano, thyme, mint, and rosemary. (I plant everything in pot-tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, pineapple, mango, avocado, cherry, corn, peas, beans...)

I recently discovered some different "flavoured" basil, like lemon and will actively seek out the others. I thought only mint came in chocolate, and thyme in lemon!

Besides being easy to grow and propagate, basil helps lower blood sugar. (I wonder if that is why Nona, always add fresh basil to all her pasta dishes?)

Last year I had so much herbs that what I did not give away or use fresh, I simply washed, dried with a salad spinner, and spread out on a paper towel lined tray and leave to dry on kitchen counter. Then I carefully remove the leaves from the stems, without crushing, and store in glass jars with tight lids.

Use generously every day.

I do the cuttings and water thing so I have basil plants that are technically about five years old. Lovely way to have basil and other herbs that lend themselves to cutting, year round.

Posted: 6:30 pm on June 28th
CocoDawn writes: Great article, really enjoyed the information. I shall be out in the garden, taking some cuttings, very soon. I have always picked the leaves in the fall, washed and dried them then packed in bags and freeze. Works great for cooking, lovely color and flavor but you can't use as a garnish. I do the same thing with tarragon and it really does taste like fresh from the garden. Just cut off a chunk of the basil or tarragon and chop fine while still frozen.
Posted: 10:19 am on June 22nd
ajp101 writes: And don't forget to swear when you plant your basil!

"Ancient Greeks and Romans believed scorpions bred under basil plants, and they associated the herb with insanity. They believed that you must curse and swear loudly while planting basil seeds or the herb would not grow."

I do every year just for fun and I've yet to have basil that didn't grow beautifully :)

And on the health side: "Basil is as nutritious as any of the leafy green plants, chock full of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and potassium. It has omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, essential fatty acids that can protect against cardiovascular disease. For medicinal purposes, basil is a warming and moistening herb. It is antiseptic and antibacterial. Basil has been used to relieve nausea, headaches and diarrhea, help with sleep and increase
lactation in nursing mothers.

The phytochemicals in basil include rosmarinic acid and caffeic acid, polyphenols which are strong antioxidants. There are also several flavonoids, with all the great anti activities: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic. Basil has the volatile oils camphor and cineole with antibacterial properties."

And don't forget basil for love! "In Haiti, basil is associated with Erzulie, the voodoo goddess of love. Italians also associated this herb with love, and girls would place a pot of basil on their balcony to signal that they were looking for a suitor. If a man accepts a gift of basil from a woman, it is said that he will fall in love with her."

Basil Pesto

3 Tablespoons toasted pine nuts
3 Tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, cut in several pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves

1. Grind pine nuts, cheese, garlic and salt in a food processor or blender. You can also grind them up in a mortar and pestle.

2. Add basil leaves to processor. While processor is running, pour olive oil into mixture in a thin stream.

Posted: 9:50 am on June 22nd
semajsmadda writes: I've got a dozen little clones going now.I used the strongest of my plants that i brought in and even have successfully gotten some fresh store bought Thai Basil to root.
Posted: 2:11 pm on December 28th
semajsmadda writes: I LOVE my basil. We had about 30 sweet basil plants in the garden this past year and I brought three inside about six weeks ago. I live in an apartment that gets very little sunlight so I have just kept them under a regular 75 watt spotlight bulb in a swag lamp in my living room. They seem to be doing very well. And I am definitely going to try starting from cuttings next year to get a jump on things.
Posted: 3:14 am on November 18th
2Ireland writes: Thank you!! This article was the best I have ever read about basil. You gave great information about how to grow, store and propagate basil. I copied it and I'm definately going to refer back to the article.
Posted: 8:02 am on September 20th
dmf2103 writes: My basil plant seems to have stopped producing big, dark green leaves. I pick every flower I see as soon as it shows up,m even before it blossoms. Is there anything I can do to get it to resume producing big, dark green leaves. The ones on there now just don't look or smell like basil leaves should. Thanks!
Posted: 3:45 pm on September 15th
Amilowmil writes: Hi! Good day! I just want to ask, what if the flowers from my sweet and lemon basils have already bloomed, do I still have to cut it? The basils are probably 14" long, how long should I cut? Also, from the looks of the lemon basil, it seems that it lacks nutrients. What do I have to do to bring back it rich green color because its current color is dull pale green. Sorry if I have many questions. Honestly, Me and my sister have just started growing plants and I admit that we have scanty knowledge of caring for them. I hope that someone can respond to my questions as soon as possible because I want to save my basils. Thank you very much!
Posted: 9:44 pm on September 2nd
jackio writes: While basil doesn't freeze well, I have found this works very well: In a food processor, chop basil leaves with just enough olive oil to coat the leaves. Place in small freezer bags and flatten so only about 1/4" thick. After it's frozen, it's very easy to simply break off whatever you require for a recipe and keep the rest frozen. The color and fresh flavor are nice preserved. Does anyone have seed for a Thrysiflora basil? I had some years ago and it was an unusual but pleasant scent and flavor.
Posted: 6:31 pm on June 8th
marieteresa writes: Living in England its not possible to grow Basil outside but if you plant it in the greenhouse and keep several plants there you will never have bugs in the greenhouse, best wishes Marieteresa
Posted: 11:22 am on May 4th
SS1818 writes: Great discussion! I just have small front and back courtyards as I live in the city. I amy lucky as the front courtyard faces south. I love herbs for both smell and culinary use and they do very well in pots. I grow sweet basil, globe basil, thai basil (slightly licorice) and lemon basil. They are all great for slightly different flavors on fish and chicken or pasta and pesto. I also find that I get a few returning plants the following year, and since I plant different varieties together the new plants often have a slightly different flavor that is a combination of the others. It is also fun to grow different flavors of thyme for the same reasons. I grow lemon, lime, and german thyme for cooking. I also grow creeping thyme between my pavers for the great smell it releases.
Posted: 11:16 am on May 4th
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