Basil is among the most popular of the culinary herbs, prized for its complex clove-like flavor that is both sweet and peppery. I grow many types of basil, in both garden beds and containers, but for ease of cultivation and flavor, it’s hard to beat sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). Growing great basil is easy when you give it plenty of sun and well-drained soil. And, there’s no better way to elevate your summer salads and pastas than with handfuls of fresh, chopped basil.
Buying fresh sprigs of basil at the grocery store is expensive and it makes sense for basil lovers to grow their own during the summer months. For an average family of four, two to three basil plants should be enough. But, if you also wish to make several batches of pesto for the freezer, and I know that I certainly need my winter supply of pesto, I’d suggest planting at least eight to ten plants. My favorite variety for pesto is Basil Dolce Fresca, an All-America Selections winner that forms compact plants with super dense growth (see my main picture above) – outstanding!
Many gardeners struggle to grow basil, and the question, “Why can’t I grow basil?” is one that I hear all the time. Basil is easy to grow IF you give it what it likes; sun, heat, regular moisture, and well-drained soil.
- Sun – For healthy growth, basil needs at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun. In Southern states, where the sun is intense and temperatures can soar, basil does appreciate some afternoon shade. In my Northern garden, however, I plant basil where it will receive direct light from sunrise to sunset.
- Heat – You may think that heat and sun go hand in hand, but in spring, that isn’t always the case and the biggest mistake gardeners make is putting out their basil plants too early. Basil is a warm season herb that is happiest when the temperature is in the 80 to 90 F zone (26 to 32 C). Plant it outdoors after the risk of spring frost has passed and temperatures are reliably above 60 F (15 C). Basil is very sensitive to both cold soil and air temperatures, with plant damage and blackened leaves occurring when temperatures dip below 50 F (10 C). If the spring weather takes a few steps back, cover your tender basil plants with a row cover, mini hoop tunnel, or cloche until the weather improves.
- Regular Moisture – Like most plants, basil appreciates consistent moisture, but this doesn’t mean constant moisture! Over-watering is one of the fastest ways to kill your precious basil. It likes a steady supply of moisture, but doesn’t want to sit in soaked soil. So, before you water, stick a finger in the soil to gauge its moisture level. If the soil feels moist, don’t water. Typically, I water my potted basil plants every day or two, unless the weather has been rainy or cool. Garden planted basil is watered weekly if there has been no rain.
- Well-Drained Soil – As mentioned above, basil plants need regular watering, but don’t want wet feet. Therefore, I’ve found they are happiest when planted in raised beds or containers. Raised beds offer excellent drainage, as well as early soil warm up in spring. If growing basil – or any other vegetables and herbs – in containers, be sure to use a high quality potting medium and pots with drainage holes.
3 Tips on Growing Great Basil:
Basil can be grown in garden beds or containers from seeds or transplants. In my northern garden, growing basil directly from seed sown outdoors is slow, so I start my basil seeds indoors about 8 weeks before the last expected spring frost or buy transplants from my local nursery.
- Feed – After you plant your basil seedlings, scratch a slow-release organic fertilizer into the soil to offer a steady feed all season long. A regular supply of nutrients will encourage high quality, dense growth for plenty of homegrown basil.
- Pinch – Pinching your basil plants – by frequently harvesting – is the best way to promote heavy growth. Most gardeners also pinch off flower buds as they develop to maintain peak basil flavor, but those flowers are very attractive to bees, pollinators, and beneficial insects. Because of this, I do allow a few of my basil plants to bloom. Happy bees, happy gardener!
- Succession Plant – Many gardeners practice succession planting for crops like salad greens or bush beans, but they don’t think to succession plant basil. Basil is a perfect candidate for succession planting because flavor quality does decline with flowering. Therefore, planting several crops per season will keep you in delicious basil from late spring to the first fall frost.
Don’t be shy about harvesting from your basil plants; the more you pick, the more the plants will grow. When harvesting, don’t just pluck off the leaves. Instead, pinch the stems back to a pair of leaves. Once the stem has been removed, that pair of leaves will quickly push out fresh growth.
Harvest basil when you are ready to use it. Clipped basil can be kept in a glass of water in the fridge for a few days, but the flavor and leaf texture will decline. I also like to make several batches of pesto in mid to late summer to provide that summer basil flavor to winter dishes. I freeze my homemade pesto in ice cube trays or herb trays.
Best Basils to Grow:
There is a wonderful range of basils that you’ll find at your local garden centers and nurseries. Here are a few of my favorite types.
Genovese Basil (O basilicum)- This is the classic pesto basil with large, deep green, puckered leaves. Most types of Genovese basil will grow 2 to 3 feet tall.
Lemon Basil (O x citriodorum) – This fragrant basil boasts a citrus kick that adds flavor to fruit salads, marinades, salads, and pasta. I also like to use fresh clipped lemon basil in my homemade herbal teas. Just pinch, steep, and drink. Yum!
Thai basil (O x var thyrsiflora) – Thai basil is very ornamental with dark green, purple-tinged foliage and deep purple flower spikes. The plants grow around 18-inches tall with leaves that have a delicious licorice-clove flavor, which pairs well in stir-fries, curry, and meat dishes.
Spicy Globe (O basilicum ‘Spicy Globe’) – I fell in love with this compact variety many years ago and still grow it in my garden beds every summer. The plants form attractive rounded mounds of tiny-leaves – no chopping required before they’re added to salads and pasta.
Pesto Perpetuo (O x citriodorum ‘Pesto Perpetuo’) – Pesto Perpetuo is a standout in the garden! It offers exceptional flavor, variegated leaves, and an unusual columnar form. It’s a natural genetic sport and only available as plants, not seeds, but if you can source the plants, it’s definitely worth growing in beds and containers. Each plant can grow three to four feet tall, but stays just a foot wide, and the stunning green and cream edged leaves are both visually stunning and richly flavored. Plus, the plants are sterile, which means they don’t flower and flavor quality remains high until the fall frost.
What’s your favorite basil?