Grow your own basil in the home garden

By A.J. Heinsz-Bailey

One of the most revered flavors of the summer herb garden is the annual herb basil (Ocimum basilicum). When one thinks of basil, the first thought that usually comes to mind is traditional Italian pesto. Basil has also been used in African, Asian, and other cuisines.

Basils are enjoyed for their rich, spicy flavors and over the past 20 years, this member of the mint family has expanded and now there are cultivars with many specialty flavors – mint, clove, licorice, even blueberry, camphor, and anise-scented varieties. Basils can also be quite different in size and appearance. Leaves can be flat or ruffled, green, purple, even variegated.

Basil is a warm-season annual that can be started early in pots on a windowsill. It germinates in five to 10 days.

Depending on the variety, basil plants can range in size from 8 inches to as much as 4 feet high. ‘Red Rubin’ is one of the many red leafed types of basil that can be used for ornamental value and in the kitchen. ‘Spicy Globe’ forms a compact plant about 6 inches high and 12 inches across. It can be used as a scented border or as a container plant.

Unusual basils to try include ‘Greek’ basil, a compact variety with small, fragrant leaves. It grows in an attractive globe shape. ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ is a non-flowering, columnar basil that features aromatic, lime green leaves with thin white margins. ‘Lemon’ basil has small, light green leaves and a lemony fragrance. It is often used in Indonesian cuisine or to season fish, and can be added to tea. Holy basil (O. tenuiflorum) also called sacred basil has highly aromatic, narrow oval leaves, and fragrant pink flowers. It grows about 18 inches high and there are red- and green-leafed varieties. 

To grow basil, first select a site that receives six to eight hours of sunshine daily. The soil should be rich in organic matter and drain readily. Basil likes moisture, but not wet feet. A pH between 6.0 and 6.5 is ideal. Basil can be started from seeds, cuttings, or transplants. 

Basil seeds can be sown directly in the ground after all danger of frost has passed in the spring. Sow seeds about ¼ inch deep. Germination occurs five to 10 days later, depending on soil temperatures. Basil is a warm-season annual that requires temperatures above 50 F. It does best when temperatures are in the 80s. The leaves of many varieties will turn black and drop off the plant when temperatures drop below 40 F.

Plant some extra basil for the pollinators. Leaves of basil left to flower are not usually harvested for culinary use.

Seeds can also be started in pots on an indoor windowsill. During the growing season basil cuttings will easily root when placed in a small cup of water on the windowsill. Select a 4-inch section of basil that has not yet flowered. Roots will form within a week. This is the perfect way to share your favorite basil with friends. If you don’t have the time to start your own, transplants are available at local nurseries once the temperatures have warmed up. Spacing of transplants depends on the variety. Basil also does well in mixed containers. 

Water basil when the soil is dry to the touch. Do your best to water the plant at its base and the foliage. Using soaker hoses will keep the leaves dry and the roots wet. Watering the leaves will result in unwanted foliar diseases. Ground up leaves and pine straw can be used to mulch the plants and prevent weeds.

Basil does not require a lot of fertilizer if you have nutrient-rich soil. Overfertilizing will reduce the flavor in the leaves. A balanced fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, can be applied midseason if needed. The leaves will become pale and growth will slow as the soil nutrients are depleted.

The most common insect pests of basil are flea beetles, aphids, Japanese beetles, and slugs. Heavy infestations can be controlled with proper applications of insecticidal soap. Apply in the evenings to prevent damage to the leaves. Check the lower leaf surfaces too. Japanese beetles can be handpicked. Disease prevention is the best control. Cultural practices that minimize leaf wetness and reduce humidity can be used to discourage fungal growth. Plant basil where it receives lots of sunlight and has good airflow. 

 One of the best features of basil is that it can be harvested as needed. New leaves will have the best flavor. Pinch the growing points out or select a few leaves for use in the kitchen. Pinching will keep the plant compact and extend the harvest season. Regular harvesting will encourage branching and the production of new leaves. As the weather warms, basil will bloom, which will slow growth. Prevent this by pinching off bloom stems.

Basil can be used dried or fresh in a variety of dishes. It is best used fresh and should be added to dishes in the last five minutes of cooking. ‘Lemon’ basil is often used fresh with vegetables, poultry, or fish. ‘Lime’ is great for marinades and sauces, as well as deserts like sorbet or shortbread cookies.

‘Cinnamon’ basil has flashy purple stems and lilac flowers and is perfectly happy growing in containers. Dianthus, ‘Redbor’ kale, and onions complete the mixed planting.

It does not freeze well but can be preserved by drying, bottling in oil, or steeping in vinegar. 

Saving seeds from basil is simple. At the end of summer let one or two flower stems “go to seed,” that is, leave them on the plant until it dies, allowing the seeds turn brown and nearly dry. The seeds are then easily harvested. Separate them from the seed capsules by hand. Store the tiny black seeds in a cool place in a well-sealed container.

Basil is also high in nutritional value. Basil is rich source of vitamins A, B6, C, and K and minerals such as iron, manganese, and magnesium. 

Keep a pot of basil outside your kitchen door for easy access. It scents the porch when you brush against or harvest it. Tantalizing aromas and mouthwatering flavors can be yours.



Mail-order basil seed sources

Eden Brothers,  
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,  
Territorial Seed Company,  
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange,  
Harris Seeds,  
Pinetree Garden Seeds,   
Johnny’s Selected Seeds,  
High Mowing Organic Seeds,   
Botanical Interests Seeds,  
Sow True Seed,  
Kitazawa Seed Company,    
Seed Savers Exchange,  
Seeds from Italy,
Trade Winds Fruit,

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