I love to grow basil — there’s nothing better than walking outside to snip a few stems for whatever you’re cooking at the moment. Basil is a great plant for gardeners from beginners to experts because it’s easy to care for and doesn’t require lots of space. It can easily be grown in a container and only requires a sunny spot. If you want to grow basil in your garden, here’s what you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Basil? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
Basil is a critical ingredient in homemade margarita pizzas, crusty bruschetta and fresh pesto — three of my favorite things. It also goes in sauces, soups and salads, plus it can be used to make herb-infused oil. Once you have a thriving basil plant, it’s sure to bring out your inner chef.
When and How to Start Basil
Basil is very cold sensitive, so it’s not a plant that you should rush outdoors. Wait until after temperatures consistently stay above 50°F to plant seeds.
You can get a head start by starting seeds indoors four to six weeks before your last frost date. Using a sterile potting mix kept at a soil temperature between 70° and 85°, plant seeds a quarter-inch deep. The seeds should sprout in about a week and be kept under grow lights. Once the first true leaves appear, transplant into 4-inch pots. The seedlings can be planted outdoors once it’s warm enough, but they must be hardened off first.
To harden off, slowly introduce the plants to full sun by putting them out for a half-hour on the first day, and gradually increasing the time outdoors each day for a week to 10 days, until they have spent a full eight hours in the sun. At that point, the plants will be fully acclimated and won’t become sunburned.
Where and How to Plant Basil
Basil isn’t fussy as long as you provide it with plenty of sunlight — about 6 to 8 hours per day — and rich, well-drained soil, with an emphasis on good drainage.
Basil’s minimal demands and its manageable size make this a great plant for containers. If you go that route, be sure to use an outdoor potting mix rather than garden soil which is too dense for a pot and won’t provide adequate drainage.
Once you are past the mark of consistent 50°-plus days and nights, you can plant seeds or seedlings outdoors. Space plants between 1 and 2 feet apart, or one per container.
Types and Varieties of Basil
The most common basil grown in North America is sweet basil, and it is revered for its flavor somewhere between sweet and savory and subtly minty and pepperish.
Culinary basil is most often green but there are a number of purple varieties that impart color in both the garden and on a dinner plate.
Genovese basil is a cultivar of sweet basil that is traditionally used in pesto.
Lettuce leaf basil grows extra-large leaves that are not quite as sweet as common sweet basil. For basil that stays short and compact, there’s bush basil, which has a more intense flavor than sweet basil.
If you only grow one variety, you’ve gotta go with the classic: “Sweet Italian Large Leaf” basil. It’s THE go-to plant for so many uses in the kitchen. Still, there are so many other varieties to choose from. For a splash of color, add the variety “Red Rubin,” an All-America Selections winner offering the best of both worlds with its intense spicy flavor.
Lemon basil is another popular choice and the variety “Sweet Dani” is an All America Selections winner that offers 75% more essential oils than standard lemon basil varieties.
Basil does not like wet feet, so ensure it has proper drainage whether it’s grown in-ground or in a container. In the ground, basil only needs 1 inch of water a week. In a container, which typically drains and dries out faster, more water may be needed.
Avoid overhead watering so the leaves remain dry. Apply water at the base of plants, under the foliage.
Basil is a light feeder, so it doesn’t require supplemental feeding. But if you do desire more vigorous growth, you can apply a liquid organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion once a week. Avoid synthetic fertilizers, which can cause nitrogen burn.
Basil Pests & Diseases
If you harvest basil leaves frequently, you will likely enjoy this herb before any pests or diseases can effect the older growth. Still, there are pest and disease issues to watch out for.
Brown spots on basil leaves could be caused by a variety of fungal pathogens, from Cercospora to Colletotrichum. To reduce instances of fungal diseases, avoid overhead water and site basil plants in full sun, where rain and morning dew will quickly evaporate.
Downy mildew can affect basil leaves and stems. Lower leaves are affected first by yellowing and then browning. The leaves will curl and wilt, and gray fuzz will appear on the underside of leaves. It’s caused by an oomycete, or fungus-like water mold. It can be soil-borne but also carried in the wind. It’s a problem in warm, humid environments. Toss out affected leaves in the garbage, and quickly use unaffected leaves before the mildew can spread further.
Slugs and snails may munch on basil leaves. A bait like Sluggo, which contains iron phosphate, is a safe, organic option for slug and snail control.
Flea beetles are small black or bronze jumping leaf beetles, just an eighth of an inch long. These chewing insects can be kept off basil with floating row cover. Another strategy is to plant a trap crop of radishes, which flea beetles prefer over almost anything else.
Aphids show up in great numbers and suck sap from plants. Fortunately, they are easy to manage. Just spray them off the plant with a sharp stream of water.
Whiteflies are similar to aphids in that they suck sap and cover plants in honeydew — and are vectors for diseases. Since you plan on eating the basil leaves, avoid treating with an insecticide, even an organic one. Like you would with aphids, spray off whiteflies with water.
Once basil is established outdoors, you can harvest anytime. Basil is ready whenever there are leaves on the plant. In fact, it’s very forgiving, and fast-growing. Just keep the tips pinched back at least weekly, especially if you notice flower heads forming. And by doing so, you’ll have a fuller plant with more branches.
The best way to harvest basil is to snip as many stems as needed. Follow the stems back to the point just above a lower pair of buds or stems and make your cut there. Just don’t cut too far down, where the stem becomes woody, since the plant may not resprout new growth from there.
When you cut basil properly, for every one cut, you get two new stems. That’s a great return on your investment, especially when you consider that if you were to buy snips of basil in the grocery store, a couple of those stems stuffed in a plastic clamshell will set you back at least a couple of dollars!
If you don’t plan to use basil fresh, you can blanch leaves in boiling water, cool them in an ice bath, dry them completely then freeze them between layers of parchment paper.
You can also oven dry fresh basil for long-term storage. Use a dehydrator, or bundle basil clippings and hang them upside down.
Basil is an annual, but a cutting can be taken and grown indoors before frost kills the plant.
What are your secrets to successfully growing basil? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
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