A Complete Guide to Growing Basil Successfully

Basil, hands down, is the perfect herb. Whether it’s for homemade pesto, Caprese salad, Thai soups, or pizza, a handful of these green ovate leaves adds a fresh, spicy, and clove-scented flavor to any home-cooked meals.

But buying a pack of basil from the grocery store—even if you only need a few leaves—seems wasteful and can add up over time. The perfect solution? Grow your own basil at home! If grown and pruned well, you can harvest a half cup of basil from just one plant. It’s easier on the pocket, grows abundantly indoors or outdoors, fresher, and tastier!

So say goodbye to store-bought basil because here’s everything you need to know about planting, growing, harvesting, and storing this all-around herb.

What is Basil?

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual herb of the mint family that’s grown for its aromatic leaves. It’s native to the South Pacific islands and southern Asia but is commonly grown worldwide as a kitchen herb. Its leaves (fresh or dried) is used for various cuisines, stimulant tea, or essential oils.

Basil leaves grow opposite along its square stems and its flowers bloom in terminal clusters that emerge from the central stem atop the plant. It’s a perfect starter plant because it only takes three to four weeks for it to grow from seed to harvest.

Types of Basil

Besides the usual sweet basil, there’s a slew of exciting basil varieties that you can try when you grow your own. Here are some types of basil to add variety to your garden.

  • Sweet Basil

When you’re looking for basil at the grocery store, chances are you’re going to get sweet basil. It’s one of the most common basil varieties and is used for salads and pesto. It’s also known to repel mosquitoes.

  • Genovese Basil

Unlike sweet basil, Genovese basil has a more aromatic flavor and has large dark green pointy leaves. It’s also great for pesto and other Italian dishes.

  • Purple Basil

Purple basil is a unique addition to any garden for its burgundy leaves (some are variegated with a mixture of purple and green leaves). It’s slightly spicy and has a strong clove flavor, which is perfect for preserving in oils and vinegar.

  • Thai Basil

Thai basil is the spicier, sexier cousin of the sweet basil. Its dark, small, and blade-shaped leaves are packed with peppery and warm spicy flavors that go well in soups, stir-fries, curries, and other Asian dishes.

  • Lemon Basil

Lemon basil carries a distinct citrusy anise flavor that can be used raw or cooked. Because of its aromatic qualities, it’s perfect for marinades, poultry or fish, vegetables, soups, cookies, and even infusing in liquors.

  • Cinnamon Basil

Also known as Mexican basil, cinnamon basil is a real stunner with its reddish-purple stems and pink flowers. Its leaves carry a spicy, fragrant flavor with a slight hint of cinnamon, perfect for marinades, noodle salads, or grilled vegetables.

  • Green Ruffles

This type of basil has deep green serrated leaves and has a more complex flavor than most varieties with tones of cinnamon, citrus, and anise. It’s great for pasta dishes and looks aesthetically pleasing for salads because of its ruffled edges.

How to Plant Basil

When sowing basil from seeds, plant seeds about six weeks before the last frost because it’s sensitive to cold.

Basil likes moisture. If you’re in a hot area, add mulch around it to help hold in moisture. Use well-drained soil and make sure that the plant is in a spot where it gets six to eight hours of sun every day.

The key to growing bushy basil is regular pruning. After the seedlings have grown six leaves, cut above the new growth to encourage branching and get more leaves. Pinch out the center shoot to avoid early flowering; if flowers bloom, just cut them off.

Besides sowing from seeds, you can also grow basil through root propagation. Place a four-inch basil cutting in water to form roots. Make sure that the branch you choose has not yet flowered. Replant it once a healthy root system is visible.

If replanting in a container, use a very large pot to ensure that the roots do not dry out, especially during summer. If you’re planting directly in a garden bed, space your plants at about 12 to 18 inches apart to give them ample space to grow. 

How to Take Care of Basil

Now that you’ve planted your basil, water them every 3 to 4 days—preferably early in the morning—to keep roots growing and ensure that the soil is moist. Basil is a quick-growing plant that requires little to none fertilization. Frequent fertilization may kill the basil’s flavor so if you want to apply fertilizer, you may do so twice every season.

To ensure that your basil grows vigorously, regularly trim and prune. Gardeners also encourage companion planting for basil. This means that if you plant basil beside your tomatoes, oregano, lettuce, or peppers, both your basil and its companion plant will grow and taste better.

Lastly, regularly check your plant—especially during the summer—where they are prone to producing flowers that result in bitter leaves. A quick tip to avoid this is to keep the soil moist and provide shade for the plant during the hottest hours of the day.

How to Harvest and Store Basil

Unlike other plants, you can harvest basil year-round. Every month, make sure to remove a third of the plant’s leaves to give way to new growth and to avoid having a leggy plant. Just snip above a point where two sets of true leaves meet and you’re good to go!

If you’ve harvested a lot of basil leaves, an effective way of storing them is by mixing chopped basil with olive oil, pouring the mixture in an ice cube tray, and freezing them for future use. You can also air dry them by hanging a bunch of basil upside down. Once the leaves turn brown, crush and put them in a spice jar.

Besides its leaves, basil flowers are also edible. They have a milder flavor that’s commonly used for salads, pasta, oil infusion, and tea.

Whether you have a small or large space at home, basil is a great choice for beginner gardeners. Planting, growing, and harvesting them can also be a great family activity where you can teach your kids about the wonders of this herb while creating special moments together.

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