Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Basil
Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Basil
Basil is a warm-weather, fragrant herb that tastes great in Italian dishes—and let’s not forget homemade pesto! Plant seeds or transplants after all danger of frost has passed and soil is warm, and it will yield an abundant harvest within weeks. Keep harvesting the leaves to keep the plant going strong.
The most common type of basil is sweet basil; other types include purple basil (less sweet than common basil), lemon basil (lemon flavor), and Thai basil (licorice flavor).
Basil is easy to grow but it only grows outdoors in the summer—and only once the soil has warmed up nicely—so plan accordingly.
If you’re planning on making pesto, grow several plants. Otherwise one or two basil plants yields plenty.
- To get a head start, start the seeds indoors 6 weeks before the last spring frost. (See local frost dates.)
- To plant outside, wait until the soil is at least 50 degrees—preferably around 70ºF for best growth. Don’t rush basil. Without heat, the plant won’t grow.
- Basil needs to be in a location that gets 6 to 8 hours of full Sun daily; soil should be moist and well-drained.
- Plant seeds/seedlings about ¼-inch deep and 10 to 12 inches apart. They should grow to about 12 to 24 inches in height. For smaller plants, plant farther apart (about 16 to 24 inches).
- During the dry periods in summer, water the plants freely.
- Remember to pinch out the flower heads as soon as they appear to make sure that the leaves will continue growing.
- If you’re planning on cooking with these plants, plant in clean soil (don’t use fertilizers that leave harmful residues) and grow them away from driveways and busy streets so that exhaust won’t settle on the plants.
- Tomatoes make great neighbors for basil plants in the garden.
- Make sure that the soil is moist. Basil plants like moisture. If you live in a hot area, use mulch around the basil plants (the mulch will help keep the soil moist).
- After the seedlings have their first six leaves, prune to above the second set.
- Every time a branch has six to eight leaves, repeat pruning the branches back to their first set of leaves.
- After 6 weeks, pinch off the center shoot to prevent early flowering. If flowers do grow, just cut them off.
- If the weather is going to be cold, be sure to harvest your basil beforehand, as the cold weather will destroy your plants.
- Start picking the leaves of basil as soon as they are 6 to 8 inches tall.
- Once temperatures hit 80 degrees, basil will really start leafing out.
- Make sure to pick the leaves regularly to encourage growth throughout the summer.
- Even if you don’t need to leaves, pick them to keep the plant going. Freeze the leaves.
- If you pick regularly, twelve basil plants will produce 4 to 6 cups of leaves per week.
- The best method for storing basil is freezing. Freezing will prevent the plant from losing any of its flavor. To quick-freeze basil, dry whole sprigs of basil and package them in airtight, resealable plastic bags, then place in the freezer.
- Another storage method is drying the basil (although some of the flavor will be lost). Pinch off the leaves at the stem and place them in a well-ventilated and shady area. After 3 to 4 days, if the plants are not completely dry, place them in the oven on the lowest heat setting with the door slightly open. Remember to turn the leaves (for equal drying) and check them frequently. See more about drying basil, tomatoes, and paprika.
- Cinnamon basil, to add a hint of cinnamon to a dish
- Purple basil, to add some nice color to your garden (when steeped in white vinegar, it creates a beautiful color)
- Thai basil, to add a sweet licorice flavor to a dish.
Wit & Wisdom
Where salt is good, so is basil. –Italian saying
Basil has a lovely fragrance. Pick from the stems and put in water for a few days as you would cut flowers!
For other greens to use in your cuisine, see the Leafy Greens: Health Benefits page.