If you’d like to learn how to grow basil, and many other herbs, in your garden or in a container, be sure to check out our e-book, Herbs in the Bathtub.
An Herb Question
Recently, a reader posted this:
“HOW do you get Basil to GROW?? I buy the little basil plants at Harmons… but I eat it SO FAST, my poor plant can’t/WON’T ever grow back!? So, I bought FOUR plants… but they all look all twiggy and pathetic! :0( (It COULD be they’re not getting QUITE enough sun, as they are in my kitchen window, which doesn’t get sun till after 3pm…) Does basil grow well outside? Is it susceptible to bugs? Tell me what you KNOW, so I can actually grow enough to eat AND make pesto someday!! ”
Brilliant questions, Natalie, and I’m glad you asked them. Any time someone asks me about an herb it’s like they’ve asked me the golden question of “What can you tell me about your church?” I can run on this subject for, literally, hours so I’m going to make a concerted effort to stick to your questions. To begin, here’s a little general information about one of the best herb plants: basil.
Herb Plants: Basil
Beautiful Basil – Ocimum Basilicum – Once used in Indian courts to solemnize an oath. Basil is my all time favorite herb and I plant it everywhere because I think it’s lovely! There are so many yummy varieties for the kitchen. Try Thai, Genovese, Sweet Dani, Lime, Lettuce leaf, Cinnamon.
- Site – Grows best in full sun in growing zones 8-10 – needs warm sun, protection from frost
- Great indoor plant
- Soil should be well drained and moist
- Propagation – Best method is direct sow after danger of frost has passed. If starting indoors, be cautious with moisture as seedlings are prone to damping off. Germinates best at 70 degrees.
- Can be used fresh, dried or frozen (brush with olive oil before freezing if drying leaf whole). Try it fresh in your next garden salad! As with most herbs, when using in the kitchen, tear up leaves – avoid cutting.
Yes, basil is one of my favorite all time herbs because, aside from a particular aversion to frost, it’s relatively easy to grow. It’s also beautiful anywhere in the garden – throw it into your flower beds and it will add dimension and color and fragrance. Raise your hand if you don’t like the smell of basil on a summer afternoon…yeah, I don’t really know people like that.
There are many varieties and they’re all tasty and gorgeous – for a few ideas, please click here. Try Genovese or Sweet Dani to begin with as they’re the flavors that will most likely be those you’re already familiar with; unless you have the great privilege to have been raised eating Thai food, in which case, go for the Thai basil.
How to Grow Basil
Basil can be grown indoors but like all indoor plants it must be watered and fed regularly. It’s best to set the pot in a bowl of water with some compost tea every now and then. Terra cotta pots allow water to soak up from the root zone of the plants at the bottom of the pot. I like terra cotta pots for that reason. Well, that and I think they’re pretty. I usually keep some solution of fish emulsion on hand to fertilize anything I have indoors in case I’m too lazy to make compost tea. My husband loves the smell. Kidding.
You want the soil to be damp but never soggy and let basil dry just a little between waterings once the plant has matured. Basil loves the sun so whether indoors or out, give it a full 6-8 hours of sunlight per day. Morning into afternoon sun is usually better than afternoon into evening.
Basil will be a reseeding annual in temperate zones (some place without harsh winters). It’s incredibly easy to save basil seed, though, if you’re not in an area where you can just expect it to pop back up in the spring.
Getting Basil Plants
Basil can be grown from seed for indoor use or outdoor transplanting. You can also buy it from the nursery and there’s no shame in that. (Your secret will be safe with me.) Honestly, the only reason to start your own seed is if you can’t get the variety you want at a local nursery or you can’t get the plants you want at the time you want them (if you’re doing year round gardening, for example).
Actually, there’s another reason to plant basil from seed and that’s the volume of plants you need. If you need a lot of one kind of plant, it can work out to be cheaper to start the seeds yourself. Basil grows readily from seed as long as you can keep the soil warm enough inside or the soil has warmed enough outside – about 70 degrees is ideal for basil seeds to germinate. Keep the seed bed moist throughout germination and maturation time.
To get you started with seed starting, here’s a quick overview by Attainable Sustainable – please click here.
Possible Basil Problems
Read lots of books on how to start seeds, watch Youtube videos, read Extension articles and by the time you’ve done that, you’ll know way more than I do. One last little note, basil can be prone to a fungal disease called damping off so to prevent that, make sure you have good air circulation and sprinkle some powdered cinnamon over your seed bed after you plant your seed – cinnamon is an anti-fungal and it works like a charm.
To answer your last question, bugs rarely bother herbs, particularly what we consider culinary herbs, because they have such a high concentration of volatile oils the bugs would just rather not mess with. Sometimes you see white flies or aphids but usually only if your natural bug systems are out of whack.
This is one of the reasons I like to encourage people to incorporate them into their landscaping, not just chuck them in with their veggies – they’re lovely and useful plants anywhere.
Besides, if you have lots of basil, you can make these herbed croutons from Common Sense Home – click here.
Or, learn how to incorporate basil into your soap making ventures. Need to learn how to make soap? Click below:
How to Choose Which Basil to Grow
Google images of basil to find varieties that look appealing. A picture won’t convey taste or smell, of course, but it can peak your interest.
You can also read seed catalog descriptions although I hesitate to encourage people to crack open those enticing little volumes – I have an addiction problem when it comes to reading seed catalogs! And I’m so vulnerable to certain adjectives like “healthful”, “flavorful” and the worst one, “robust”. Gullible seed girl, that’s me.
You can start seeds outside once all danger of frost has past, unless you’re already at 100 degree days, and you can start it in pots indoors pretty much any time you take the notion. Plant to put five to twenty plants in the ground in order to have some for pesto making to last you throughout the year.
Basil bunches make great gifts for neighbors and you can also add it to salsas, sauces, savory jams and your morning eggs. Oh, wait, here’s a strawberry shortcake with basil. Hmm…maybe thirty plants would be better.
Learning More About Herb Plants
If you’re interested in learning more about herbs in general and specifically herbs as medicine, be sure to visit The Herbal Academy. Their online courses can be taken at your own pace and include all kinds of materials. There are also several different levels of learning to suit your current needs.
To get a glimpse of a preview lesson, just click here: Preview Lesson from the Introductory Herbal Course
You can also click on the picture below. Let me know if you have questions!