Growing Basil: Planting, Cultivating, Harvesting and Storing

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When Simon and Garfunkel recorded the song “Scarborough Fair,” they sang about parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. The first thought that goes through my head when I hear this song on the radio is “but what about basil?” I love growing basil!

Maybe it took fifth place in Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrical choice, but it’s definitely number one in my book. One of the oldest known herbs, basil has an entertaining background and multiple uses in cuisine and wellness.

Not convinced that basil should be a part of your gardening life? Read on to learn what it is, why you should grow it, and everything you need to know to grow basil successfully.

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Basil: Quick Care Guide

Common Name Basil, royal herb, St. Joseph’s Wort, Thai basil, Genovese basil, Greek basil, Italian basil, Holy basil, and a wide range of variety names
Scientific Name Ocimum basilicum
Germination Time 8-14 days depending on variety
Days to Harvest Around 75 days depending on variety
Light Full sun, 6-8 hours per day.
Water Consistently moist soil preferred.
Temperature 60-80 degrees optimal. Does poorly below 50.
Humidity Can tolerate humidity but is prone to mildew.
Soil Nutrient-rich, well-draining soil
Fertilizer Compost, blood meal & cottonseed meal before planting
Pests Aprids, flea beetles, spider mites, whiteflies, Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, slugs, snails
Diseases Leaf spot disease, Cercospora leaf spot, Fusarium wilt, Powdery mildew, Downy mildew

What is Basil?

Licorice basil
Licorice basil. Source: Living in Monrovia

Basil is an aromatic herb from the mint family, sometimes referred to as the “royal herb”. Its name derives from the Greek word for king, “basileios”. Scientifically known as Ocimum basilicum, it’s also known as St. Joseph’s Wort.

Originating in Thailand and India, it is often used as part of ayurvedic medicine as well as for culinary uses. People in Rome believed that it caused madness in men. The ancient Greeks thought that basil was a plant linked to hatred, and that it must be planted while cursing and yelling at the seeds to force them to grow.

And yet not everyone viewed basil as an evil thing.

In the island nation of Haiti, store owners are known to steep basil in water and then sprinkle the water around their stores as a way to ward off evil spirits. In more rural areas of Mexico and in part of Italy, it became known as a love charm of sorts, with the power to attract a partner or keep one faithful. And amongst people the Christian faith, it’s believed that basil sprang from the ground at the site of the crucifixion.

Basil has been used medicinally in the treatment and relief of ailments such as acne, common cold, and flu. It’s wonderful to ease stress and boosts the immune system as well, particularly useful if you have a boring office job. Try chewing on basil leaves the next time you need some quick relief from a rotten cold!

Why Should You Grow Basil?

Cinnamon basil sprouts
Cinnamon basil sprouts. Source: John and Anni

Basil’s interesting history could be a good enough reason to include it in your gardening repertoire. After all, who doesn’t love a little love (or, for that matter, a little madness from time to time)?

In all seriousness, basil has many uses in cooking and benefits for your health. It would be quite handy to have a window box in the kitchen or a spot in the yard where you can clip what you need the moment you need it.

The most common use of basil is to flavor foods like pesto and other sauces, although it can be used for a wide variety of culinary purposes. Health fanatics shout praises for basil’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial properties. Nutritionally, it’s chock full of vitamin K, A, and flavonoids.

Best of all, it tastes great in salads, soups, sandwiches, many ethnic cuisines, and on its own. And it’s rather easy to grow, too!

Recommended Basil Varieties

It’s believed that there’s over a hundred varieties of basil. Some say there may be as many as 150! That’s a whole lot of basil, and there’s no way we can cover them all in one piece.

So, with that in mind, here’s 25 of the most popular basil varieties separated out by category.

Greek Basils

Basil with and without flower stalks
Basil, with and without flower stalks. Source: John and Anni
Variety Description Where To Buy
Piccolino Densely-packed dwarf Greek basil variety that forms a mounded or domed plant mass. Buy Seeds
Corsican Mediterranean basil variety with mottled purple and green leaves. Sweet, mild flavor. Buy Seeds

Genovese Basils

Genovese basil
Genovese basil. Source: F. D. Richards
Variety Description Where To Buy
Genovese A perfect pesto basil, this garden standard produces large leaves and can grow up to 2 feet tall. Buy Seeds
Eleonora A Genovese-type basil which was bred specifically to be resistant to downy mildew. Rapid growing. Buy Seeds
Amethyst The only true purple-hued Genovese-type basil, featuring large 2-3″ wide leaves. So dark it’s almost black. Buy Seeds

Italian Basils

Red Rubin basil
Red Rubin basil. Source: Rosa Say
Variety Description Where To Buy
Sweet Basil Sometimes referred to as common basil, this is one of the most popular basil varieties for cooking. Buy Seeds
Mammoth Sweet Basil A popular Italian, large-leaved version of the common basil. Yellow-green leaves. Buy Seeds
Red Rubin An Italian large-leaf type of basil, this variety has distinctively dark purple, flat leaves tinged with copper. Buy Seeds
Mammolo Practically perfect for container growth with a large leaf-to-stem ratio. True Italian basil flavor. Buy Seeds

Thai Basils

Thai basil
Thai basil. Source: ekpatterson
Variety Description Where To Buy
Thai A true Thai basil with a sweet, anise-and-clove flavor. Green leaves, purple stems with purple flowers. Buy Seeds
Red Leaf Holy Basil Thai style of basil with pointed green leaves with purplish tinges. Flavor is described as musky and clove-like. Buy Seeds
Purple Ruffles Distinctively frilly leaves with a flavor stronger than sweet basil, but milder than most Thai varieties. Buy Seeds
Green Leaf Holy Basil Used in Ayurvedic medicine, and also known as tulsi. Strong clove-like, musky scent. Buy Seeds
Siam Queen A very popular Thai sweet variety with an intense licorice and basil aroma and taste. Buy Seeds

Flavored Basils

Cinnamon basil
Cinnamon basil. Source: Hamburger Helper
Variety Description Where To Buy
Cinnamon Small to medium dark green leaves, reddish stems, purple flowers. Has a scent and taste reminiscent of cinnamon. Buy Seeds
Blue Spice Slightly vanilla-tinged with a strong basil aroma. Often used in teas. Light purple flowers, uniform growth. Buy Seeds
Licorice Green leaved with purple accents. Distinctively licorice-like flavor that is strong, but tasty. Buy Seeds
Lemon Intensely basil flavor with a hint of lemon. Perfect for many culinary purposes. Buy Seeds
Lime This can be used as a lemongrass substitute! Rich lime and basil flavor which works well in Asian cooking. Buy Seeds
Christmas Aroma and taste of mulled wine with a hint of pine, overlaid on a classic Thai basil spiciness. Buy Seeds

Other Basils

Dark Opal Purple basil flower
Dark Opal Purple basil flowers. Source: anneheathen
Variety Description Where To Buy
Pesto Perpetuo Green leaves with white edges. Has a strong basil character with just the slightest hint of lemon. Buy Seeds
Eritrean Strong-scented basil from Africa, slightly spicy. Produces flowers that range from cream to pink. Buy Seeds
Dark Opal Purple An heirloom basil with very fragrant dark purple leaves. Good for small container gardens. Buy Seeds
Lettuce Leaf A Japanese basil that grows extremely large 3-5″ leaves. Mild, but true basil flavor. Buy Seeds
Red Velvet Leaf Deeply-red colored leaves, strongly aromatic. Continuous leaf production throughout the season. Buy Seeds

Planting Basil

Sweet basil seeds sprouting
Sweet basil seeds sprouting. Source: vigilant20

Once it sprouts, basil likes to just grow and grow. Here’s some guidelines for getting your basil started off right!

When to Plant Basil

Basil is a warm weather-loving plant, so make sure you wait until after the last frost before setting out. Two weeks after should be long enough. If you want to jump start, aim for planting basil seeds indoors six weeks before last frost. They will germinate quicker if the soil is warm.

Where to Plant Basil

Basil worships the sun, so choose a place where it will get six to eight hours a day, with a little afternoon shade. If container-growing indoors, a sunny window is a wonderful spot.

How to Plant Basil

Allow at least 10 to 12 inches of space between each plant and set about one quarter-inch deep in warm soil. You will get the best results if the soil is approximately 70 degrees and moist.

How To Care For Basil

Purple Ruffle basil sprouts
Purple Ruffle basil sprouts. Source: John and Anni

Basil is not a complicated herb. There are only a few basic requirements to help it thrive, making it a good choice for beginning gardeners.

Light

Six to eight hours of full sun per day is optimal for basil growth. In warmer climates like the south or southwestern parts of the United States, some afternoon shade is welcome. Keep in mind that the hotter the weather, the more likely it is your plants are going to suffer from sunburn or wilt problems. In the peak of the summer, they might appreciate a shade cloth during the hottest time of day!

Temperature

Basil is not a cold-loving plant. The lowest temperature it will tolerate is around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It much prefers weather between 60-80 degrees, and will thrive in that range.

Below 50 degrees, the leaves of most basil varieties will begin to blacken, and the plant will droop. If you’re heading into the cooler fall months or the wintertime, it might be time to bring your basil indoors.

Watering

Crimson King basil
Crimson King basil. Notice the mulch beneath to keep in moisture! Source: John and Anni

Don’t be afraid to water this thirsty herb during the hotter summer days. Moist soil is best for basil, so adding a layer of mulch will help keep water from evaporating too quickly.

This is especially helpful in container gardening, where the heat can dry things up much faster in a smaller amount of soil. Consider a larger pot or a self-watering pot if the weather gets really warm.

Though basil may like moisture, well-draining soil is still a must.

Soil

Your basil will like the soil to be rich and nutrient-dense, but well-draining. Before planting, it’s a good idea to blend some compost thoroughly into your soil, along with a bit of blood meal or cottonseed meal.

However, it’s essential that while your soil should be able to hold moisture well, it also needs to be well-draining. Basil likes moist soil, but not soggy soil. No mud puddles for this herb!

The pH of your soil should be between 6 and 7.

Fertilizing Basil

If your soil is prepared properly, you shouldn’t need to add additional fertilizer during the growing season. By adding blood meal or cottonseed meal to your soil before planting, you’re offering the plant plenty of slow-release nitrogen to produce leafy growth.

Be careful not to accidentally over-fertilize your plant, as this can make the taste and aroma of your basil diminish significantly. Since this is usually grown as an annual, that pre-preparation of your soil should be plenty!

Propagation

Dried basil pod
A dried basil seed pod. Source: pamramsey

Basil can be propagated either from seed or from cuttings.

When propagating from cuttings, cut a 4-6″ long segment of basil that has not yet flowered. Place it into a glass of water or your preferred cutting medium (perlite or damp potting soil are great choices). It should produce roots within a week, and can then be transplanted into the garden.

Harvesting seed is a bit trickier. You see, basil has the tendency to cross-pollinate easily. If you plan on harvesting your own seeds, keep different varieties separated by at least 150 feet. Otherwise, you may have unexpected results!

When your basil goes to seed, it will put up a tall stalk with flowers on it. Leave it alone until it has developed pods and the pods have begun to dry out and are turning brown. At that point, remove the stalk, separate the pods, and leave them to dry out thoroughly in a warm and dry location for at least a week. You will want them to look like the dried pod shown above.

As the seed pods can naturally spring open, it’s a good idea to dry them on a cookie sheet with sides and with a sheet of parchment paper underneath. This will help catch any of the tiny seeds that might fall out while the pods are drying.

Once they are fully dry, carefully pick up the parchment paper and place the pods and any escaped seeds into a paper bag. Close it to prevent seeds from escaping and shake the bag vigorously. This will knock out most of the seeds. Then, take a rolling pin and crush the remaining pods through the paper bag.

Carefully pour the crushed pods and seeds back onto the tray and very gently blow off the pod chaff. This should separate most of the larger pod fragments from your seeds. Store your seeds in a dry container with a moisture-absorbing packet, or alternately place them into a paper envelope and then into some dry location.

Basil seeds with pod fragments
Basil seeds with leaves, pod chaff, and flower remnants. Source: kikuyumoja

If you’re going to be harvesting a large quantity of basil seeds from a given variety, you can simply add any newly-brown pods to the ones you already have drying out and then crush the pods all at once once they’ve all reached full dryness. However, try to pick out any green, leafy material from among the dried-out pods. You can use that for cooking, but it just gets in the way of crushing the pods later.

In the picture above, the tiny black specks are basil seeds. Hard to see, I know, but there’s a lot of pods and leaves in the way!

Pruning Basil

Even if you don’t need basil right then, you need to regularly prune your basil. Regular pinching off of growth will encourage the plant to keep putting out new leaves.

Ideally, you should be pruning from the newest growth, leaving the older stem material in place. Pinch off or snip above a larger set of leaves. This encourages the plant to bush out more above that point.

Never remove more than 2/3rds of a specific plant at a time. I personally prefer to leave at least half of the plant in place to regrow.

Here’s a great video which will show you exactly how to prune your basil for the best results!

Companion Plants

Try pairing your basil plants with others that have similar care requirements. They are particularly friendly with tomatoes, and it’s actually suggested that the two make each other taste better!

Also try grouping your other salad ingredients nearby, like lettuce and peppers. Oregano, parsley, marigolds, and chamomile make nice neighbors too.

Other plants you might not consider as good companion plants, but which respond well to basil, include asparagus, beets, eggplant, cabbage, beans, potatoes, and oregano.

Do not plant your basil near sage or common rue. These two plants are poor companions for basil, and may actually reduce your basil’s growth.

Harvesting and Storing Basil

Basil plant going to seed
Basil plant going to seed. Be sure to harvest before this can happen! Source: Dominic

And now the time you’ve been waiting for: harvest time! When all your hard work and tender loving care pays off in delicious dividends. Hold off on those clippers, though, until you digest the following information.

Harvesting Basil

Harvesting basil can begin when the plant has produced at least six leaves to prevent legginess. When the plant is at least six to eight inches tall, you can start harvesting.

For the best flavor, only take what you need when you need it, or when your scheduled regular pruning is supposed to occur. Just before the plant flowers is the most flavorful time, but flowering will stop the growing process. If flower buds begin to form early, pinch them off.

Storing Basil

Lemon basil
Lemon basil is a great basil to store if you cook Asian dishes. Source: henna lion

There’s a few different ways to store your basil for later use. Depending on what you plan on doing with it, you can preserve it frozen, dried, or canned.

Frozen basil is the best way to maintain the fresh-from-the-garden flavor. You can either freeze your basil leaves whole inside a sealed plastic bag, or chop them up. If you opt to chop them up, pack the leaves into an ice cube tray with just a tiny bit of water to help them hold together, and freeze them solid. Then, simply remove your basil cubes from the ice tray and place them into a sealed plastic freezer bag until you need them.

Dried basil is only about a third as pungent as fresh basil is, but it can still be extremely useful. To dry basil, there’s multiple methods you can use.

Many people like to hang-dry herbs by tying the stems tightly together in bunches and then placing them in a cool, dark area until they easily crumble to the touch. You can also make a drying frame out of some superfine window screen and scrap wood, and lay your basil on that to dry in a dark place.

The goal when drying your basil is to ensure that it has plenty of airflow around it while it dries. If there’s a lack of airflow, or the area is humid, you may end up with mold, and that will destroy your basil.

Some people have reported good success with dehydrating or freeze-drying basil leaves as well. If you have access to a freeze-dryer or dehydrator, you might want to experiment with those options.

Finally, there’s always the option of canning your basil. However, you’ll need to make your basil into something first, as it’s a low-acid food and can be difficult to can safely. I find that for me personally, canning some basil in with tomatoes is a safe option and it makes for phenomenal tomato-basil soup later. You may also be able to make some forms of pesto, but you may need to use a pressure canner to ensure that they are safe for use later.

If in doubt, you can always take that abundance of basil you have left, make up a fresh batch of pesto, and freeze that. You’ll then have a garden-fresh pasta sauce ready to use whenever you want it!

Troubleshooting

Most of the time, basil is easy to care for. But what happens if pests invade, or a disease takes hold? Let’s go over your options.

Growing Problems

If there’s no signs of pest or disease damage, but your plant’s leaves are beginning to yellow and it’s showing poor growth, it may be a sign of nitrogen deficiency. At that point, use a balanced or slightly-high nitrogen organic liquid fertilizer to try to spur some growth. If it perks up within a couple days, you’ll know that you did the right thing.

Pests

Beetle on basil
A Japanese beetle on basil. Source: edudflog

Aphids are one of the most common basil pests, but they’re not alone Flea beetles also find basil quite tasty. I recommend using neem oil to combat these little sap-suckers. Spray all plant surfaces thoroughly: tops and bottoms of the leaves, the stems, even the flowers. You can also use diatomaceous earth as a preventative before these two pests can strike.

Spider mites and whiteflies may also try to attack your basil for its juicy plant sap. Like aphids and flea beetles, give your basil a thorough coating of neem oil to deter these pests or kill off those that are already present.

Grasshopper on basil
A grasshopper on basil. Source: Gardening Solutions

Japanese beetles can rapidly skeletonize the leaves of your basil plant. Grasshoppers will eat holes in your leaves too! The best prevention against these hungry pests is to deny them access to your plants at all. Use floating row covers to keep them at bay. If they still make it to your plants, a bit of neem oil will disrupt insect growth. Hand-pick them off and dispose of them.

Both slugs and snails will happily feast on your basil bounty, and while they’re at it, they’ll leave nasty slime trails over everything. Garden Safe Snail & Slug Bait will help keep these creeping menaces at bay. A little dusting of diatomaceous earth over your plants will also discourage them from nibbling.

With a little effort, you can protect your basil so it doesn’t start showing signs of holes like these.

Basil with pest damage
Pest-damaged basil. Source: Hamburger Helper

Diseases

Leaf spot disease is a bacterial infection that displays as streaked stems and black or brown spots that appear water-soaked. Not much can be done about it other than removing and destroying affected leaves. Humidity and watering from overhead can exacerbate the problem, so leaving some room around each of your plants will circulate more air and keep leaves dry.

Cercospora leaf spot, on the other hand, is caused by a fungus. This causes brown and irregular spotting on the leaves. Use drip irrigation and mulch around the plants to keep the leaves dry. Remove any leaves damaged by this fungus. You can use a blend of baking soda and insecticidal soap to act as a fungicide for this disease.

Fusarium wilt is particularly dangerous to sweet basil, but can be a problem for all basil varieties. This annoying disease causes stunted growth, yellowing, brown streaks, and wilting. Unfortunately, once a plant contracts fusarium wilt, it needs to be destroyed. As this disease travels through infected soil, avoid planting at-risk plants in that soil for at least a few years.

Finally, both powdery mildew and downy mildew can strike. While there are varieties of basil that are resistant to mildews, not all types are. You can treat these with neem oil, but it may take time to repair the damage done to your plants. Leaves that have been severely hit with these mildews should be disposed of.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When harvesting, where is the best place to pick from on a basil plant?

A: Always start at the top. Cutting the younger parts of a plant will ensure new growth, while older areas may not grow back.

Q: Can I try growing basil in a pot indoors during the winter?

A: Absolutely! Your chances are good if you have a window space that’s sunny year-round. You can transplant one or two basil seedlings or small plants from your garden.

Q: The weather report says it may frost tonight. How do I protect my plants?

A: If it’s looking like frost is threatening (or even if it’s just dipping below 50 degrees), I recommend using a cold frame to protect them from the chill. If you don’t have a cold frame, you can quickly develop an emergency version by using an old tomato cage with some clear plastic wrapped around and over the top.

Q: My new basil plants wilt in the sun whenever I transplant them. What’s happening?

A: If a plant has been inside for a while, it needs to be “hardened off,” which means getting it used to outdoor temperatures and light levels. So give it gradually increasing exposure to sun and some shade to acclimate.

Q: Can I grow basil hydroponically?

A: Absolutely! Here’s a short video on how best to do it.


With such a rich and fascinating history, so many delicious varieties, and a score of health benefits, no wonder basil is one of the most popular herbs in the world! Growing basil is beginner-friendly, too, and having it near to hand means your consumption is likely to rise. So make sure you stock up on several varieties, trade with your friends, and see which ones you like the best.​

Tell me all about your experiences in the comments. And please share this article and spread the love of basil!​

Article updated on 1/24/2018.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

Clarisa Teodoro

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