The Ultimate Guide to Growing, Caring for & Harvesting Basil Plants

by Chris Lambton

A popular herb in both the kitchen and the garden, basil is one of the most well-known herbs grown in America. Technically known as Ocimum basilicum, basil can be found growing indoors and outdoors for use in a wide variety of dishes. One of the first herbs I plant in the spring, basil is easy to grow and perfect for tucking into herb, vegetable and container gardens.

The Ultimate Guide to Growing, Caring for & Harvesting Basil Plants
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Basil plants are a popular herb native to southern Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. This member of the mint family can be grown with little fuss. Considered a tender annual, the basil herb plant produces aromatic leaves that are commonly used in Italian and Mediterranean dishes. Basil seeds are also a popular Thai ingredient.

Because basil is an annual, it grows extremely quickly. In fact, it can go from seed to harvest in as little as 3 to 4 weeks. This quick and easy-growing herb is an excellent choice for beginner gardeners.

Growing Basil from Seed

Most gardeners get a jump on the growing season and start growing basil in pots indoors from seed. You can grow basil from seeds sown indoors four to eight weeks before the last frost date. Basil is versatile and grows well in a wide variety of conditions. You can count on a decorative pot growing inside to do just as well as when you're growing basil outdoors, as long as your growing conditions are the same.

Planting Basil from Seed

Although the easiest way to start basil from seed is to direct sow it in your garden once the spring frost threat is over, I still like to start my basil indoors. It's a simple process that lets me get my hands in the dirt when I'm itching for spring but it's not quite yet warm enough to dig outdoors.

Materials Needed:

  • Basil seeds
  • Starter pots
  • Starting container with plastic dome
  • Seed starting mix
  • Spray mister

 

1. Prepare your starter pots by adding slightly moistened seed starter mix to about ½ to 1 inch below the top of your container. I usually do this by hand, as the pots are quite small.

2. Add basil seeds to each pot. If you place a few seeds in the center of your pot, you can select the strongest plants after germination. Some seeds are duds and won't germinate. Adding a few extras to each pot will increase your odds of success.

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3. Cover the seeds with ¼ inch of dry seed starter mix.

4. Gently mist your basil seeds with water. A spray bottle with a fine spray, a specialized garden mister or even a light spray from your faucet will dampen the starter mix and give the seed good contact with the soil.

5. Keep humidity in by placing your basil in a specialized plastic starting container with a plastic dome. Or, you could also use a shallow pan and a bit of plastic wrap for a quick and inexpensive seed starting solution.

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6. Place in a warm location where the temperature is approximately 70 degrees. You won't need to water the basil seeds again until after they emerge.

7. Basil seedlings emerge in 7 to 10 days. At that point, remove the plastic dome or plastic wrap, and place the pot in a sunny windowsill. Keep soil moist with frequent misting. Once true leaves appear, select the strongest seedling in each pot as your main basil seedling. You can simply pinch the other seedlings off to remove them without disturbing the roots.

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8. Transplant basil seedlings to 3- to 4-inch pots if the plants have 3 pairs of leaves and aren't ready to go outside. You can add a weak fertilizer solution for an added boost of nutrition.

9. Move basil seedlings outdoors gradually to harden them off. This allows the basil to adjust to the harsher outdoor conditions. Once the outdoor temps are in the 70s, move the seedlings to a sheltered location outside for a week.

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Transplanting Basil into Your Garden

Whether you purchased basil seedlings at your local garden center or started them indoors, once the weather consistently reaches 70 degrees, it's time to move your plants into your herb, vegetable or flower gardens.

1. Choose a location with plenty of sunlight. Basil thrives in warm temperatures and full morning sun. If you live in an area with scorching midday sun, try to give your basil light shade during the hottest time of day.

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2. Amend the garden soil with plenty of organic matter to create a rich, well-draining foundation for your basil. The bed or garden container should be at least 8 inches deep for strong root growth.

3. Space your basil plants 12 to 16 inches apart to allow plenty of sunlight and airflow.

4. Dig a hole using the Fiskars® Big Grip Transplanter. The graduated marks make it easy to judge the correct depth for your basil transplant.

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5. Place the basil seedling so that the root ball is level with the soil. Use the transplanter to fill in any gaps. Then, use your hands to press the soil firmly around your transplanted basil.

6. Water your basil and apply 1 to 2 inches of mulch to help conserve moisture and prevent competition from weeds.

Basil Plant Care Tips

Growing basil isn't a difficult task. With just a bit of care, you may even find you have extra basil to dry, freeze or gift to friends. Some of my favorite basil care tips for a bountiful harvest include:

  • Water regularly – basil likes to stay moist and requires approximately 1 inch of water every week. Water deeply at least once a week to keep roots growing deep and the soil moist. Basil growing in containers will need more frequent watering. Your goal when growing basil in a container is to keep the soil from drying out. The best time of day to water basil is early in the morning.
  • Fertilize lightly –basil is a vigorous grower requiring very little to no fertilization. In fact, too much fertilization will kill the basil's flavor. If you choose to add fertilizer, a light application of a liquid fertilizer twice a season is all you really need for basil growing outdoors. If you're planning to grow basil in a pot and want to add fertilizer, your plants will require only a very weak liquid solution every 3 to 4 weeks to compensate for nutrients washed away by frequent watering.
  • Pinch back leaves – pinch leaves from the tips of your basil as soon as the plant has two sets of true leaves. This encourages your basil to grow full and bushy.
  • Companion planting – using this technique gives basil an excellent advantage. It may be an old gardener's tale, but many say, and I wholeheartedly believe, that planting basil with your tomatoes makes both taste better. Some of my favorite companion plants for basil include oregano, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers.
  • Avoid bolting – also known as "going to seed," you can avoid bolting by keeping a close eye on your plant. Basil tends to bolt once summer days are consistently hot. You can prevent this by keeping the soil moist and providing light shade in the hottest hours of the day. You can also pinch off flowering stems 1 inch below the flower to keep the plant from producing seeds and becoming bitter.

How to Harvest Basil

Basil isn't harvested at a specific time – you generally just grab a few leaves as you need them. However, harvesting regularly will keep your basil rounded and less leggy. It will also help keep your plant from going to seed.

1. Harvest basil regularly – even if you don't need it, keep harvesting consistently throughout the growing season. Aim for removing 1/3 of the leaves each month to encourage new growth. I add basil to many dishes during the summer, but I also find it freezes well in olive oil for use during the winter.

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2. Snip the stem just above the point where two large leaves meet. I keep a pair of Fiskars® Herb Snipstucked in my garden apron to create clean and tidy cuts whenever I'm harvesting basil. Make sure to enjoy your harvest with a fresh recipe of your choice!

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Varieties of Basil

There are so many varieties of basil available, it would be easy to fill your entire herb garden with just basil. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Sweet basil planting is simple – it's a favorite variety, and is the traditional basil sold in most grocery stores. This variety features medium green leaves with a slightly rounded shape.
  • Thai sweet basil features smaller, pointed leaves. Growing Thai basil is the same as growing any other variety, but you end up with a bit spicier leaf that keeps its flavor well for use in stir fry. The purple flowers are beautiful and edible.
  • Purple basil doesn't have a strong flavor, but it gives a gorgeous burgundy color to both your garden and dishes.
  • Lemon basil and lime basil both have a bright citrus flavor. You can use this variety in marinades, sauces, desserts and teas.
  • Green ruffles basil looks nothing like traditional basil. The beautifully-ruffled leaves are mild and go well in salads.
  • Spicy globe basil is a small, mounding basil. Although the leaves are smaller than other basil varieties, they are full of basil flavor. This is the perfect variety for small spaces and containers.

Common Questions About Basil

How long does it take for basil to grow from seed?

Basil germinates in 7 to 10 days after planting. It's usually ready for harvest within three to four weeks.

Why is my basil plant wilting?

There could be a few reasons why you're seeing your basil plant wilting. Start by checking the soil. Basil prefers moist soil – not too wet and not too dry. You want the soil to be damp, not drenched. Although basil loves warm weather, a hot midday sun can be rather harsh. If you see wilting only during the peak hours for summer temperatures, you may need to add light shade over your basil plant.

How much sun does basil need to grow?

Basil grows best with at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day. Part of knowing how to care for basil is watching the sun patterns in the location you are growing this aromatic herb. With proper sunlight, your plant will be big and beautiful for several months out of the year.

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Is it better to plant basil indoors or outdoors?

Basil is a hardy herb that grows extremely well both indoors and outdoors. As long as the plant receives the proper moisture and sunlight, it will thrive in any location. I grow basil in containers both inside and outside, and I also love to tuck it into my vegetable garden boxes. Once you know how to grow basil in a pot, the possibilities for where and how you grow it are endless.

I have more basil than I can use – how do I save it?

You can air dry basil by bundling it and hanging it upside down. However, the leaves will turn brown. I prefer to freeze my basil by chopping it, placing it in an ice cube tray, covering it with olive oil. Once my basil cubes are frozen, I store them in an airtight container in my freezer. When I need a bit of basil in a dish, I simply add a cube or two.

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