Kitchen Gardening

How to Grow Basil

When I first fell in love with gardening, my biggest seducer was herbs.

  • Photo is by foam under the Creative Common Attribution License 2.0.
  • Photo by amandabhslater under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0
    Photo/Illustration: Amandabhslater

When I first fell in love with gardening, my biggest seducer was herbs. I found herbs to be not only one of the easiest types of plants to grow, but they were also the most fun to create a garden with – not to mention the most versatile group of plants out there.

Among the tremendous species of herbs from which I could choose, basil (Ocimum basilicum) was one of my favorites to experiment with. I found that not only was basil easy to grow and handy for the kitchen, but storing and propagating basil was a snap.

Basil is a bushy, tender annual with glossy-surfaced leaves that reaches about 18” in height when mature. She’s fast grower, has a prolific leaf-harvest, and blooms tiny white or purple flowers on spikes. Of course, the idea is not to end up seeing these flower spikes which is a signal to the plant that it’s time to stop producing leaves – which is your harvest.

Various cultivars have been bred for different subtleties in flavor, appearance and size. Basil plants may have the common green leaf color but also come in gorgeous purples. There are fine-leafed, broad-leafed, and lettuce-leaved basils, as well as lemon, cinnamon and anise flavored varieties.

Basils are used in tomato, pesto, pepper, eggplant, soup, fish, and meat dishes. Another popular way to use basil is as an oil or vinegar flavoring.

Home garden grown basil (like all other fresh food) has the purest flavor. If you enjoy cooking, you won’t be able to live without fresh basil in the kitchen garden. If you enjoy Italian food (and by “Italian”, I mean “tomatoes”), you’re going to be hooked on home-grown basil for life. You can bet Giada De Laurentiis has fresh planted basil by her kitchen door.

Basil in The Garden

Most gardeners plant basil seeds directly into the garden bed (or in garden jargon, “in situ”) after the last frost date in their region has passed. As a native Mediterranean herb, basil likes to be planted in full sun (that’s 8 hours – or as close as you can get to it), and well-drained soil with some composted manure or other organic materials. Avoid over-watering the seedlings as basil is prone to “damping off” disease.

The basil seeds can be started indoors in individual little pots a few weeks before the last frost date, as well. Your success rate will be greater if they are placed on a plant growing heating pad or coils as basil craves heat and despises cold temperatures. It’s also a perfect candidate for container gardening if you’d like to grow some by the back door like Giada.

Once the plants are growing by several inches, you can mulch basil (as well as any other herb) with coarse mason sand. Don’t buy regualr playground sand – it’s too fine. Mason sand is a great weed barrier and helps regulate temperature fluctuations in the bed. The most useful part of using the sand as mulch in an herb bed is that it reflects the sun and douses the sun-worshipers with heat. While the basil is actively growing, pinch off the plant’s outer leaves to encourage a bushy growth habit.

You may begin harvesting basil as soon as the plant leaves are plentiful. Cut several inches of stems and leaves off of the plant especially at the first signs of forming flower spike clusters. You want to beat the signal for the plant to shut down production of your leaf harvest.

As a companion plant in your flower or vegetable garden, basil plays a intricate role as a repellent against mosquitoes, mites, and aphids. Basil also acts as a fungicide as it slows down the growth of milkweed bugs.

Start Basil From Cuttings

Basil is one of the simplest plants in the world to start from cuttings which is awesome. Not only because I am much better with cuttings than I am seeds, but because when you start this plant from cuttings it grows much faster, which means more basil and an earlier harvest.

Just get a long-necked bottle and fill it with room-temperature water. If you have a regular-sized basil plant, take a 6” cutting off of it; if it’s dwarf basil, take a 4” cutting. Now remove the lower leaves from the stem, leaving about three sets of leaves at the top.

Place the lower half of the stem into the water letting the leaves at the top hold it in place. The water level needs to be kept high and fresh and in a couple of weeks you’ll have roots on your cutting.

When you have some really nicely established roots going, take the cutting out of the bottle of water and put in into a 4” pot with peat-based potting mix. After a couple of weeks, plant the new basil plant outdoors into the garden bed or keep it as an indoor plant. If you take a cutting or two at the end of the growing season this could be a great way to bring a basil plant indoors for winter use.

Drying Basil For Storage

There are a few different ways to store herbs, but this is one of the easiest ways that I have found to hang onto home grown basil; and you know how I love easy. Herbs dry fairly well when tied upside down and hanging around your kitchen or what-have-you. However, when herbs are dried this way they tend to lose their lovely color, not to mention it takes quite a while for them to be dry enough to place into jars for later culinary use.

Refrigerators have a dehumidifying action that makes them the perfect place to dry herbs quickly while maintaining their rich color. Gather a bunch of basil or any other herb stalks and place them loosely into a paper lunch bag. Close the top of the lunch bag with a chip clip or other such handy item so you can peek at them every so often. Don’t forget to label them.

The herbs will be completely dry within a couple of days. At that point you can either keep them right where they are (just tape them to the inside of the fridge to save space) or break the herbs apart to fit into air-tight containers for storage in a cool and dark place.

I’m always finding reasons to use aromatic basil in my recipes because of its incredible flavor. Well, that and there’s nothing like the scent of fresh basil on my hands.

More info on basil:

How to Grow Delectable Lemon Basil
Video: How to Harvest Annual Herbs
Video: Freezing Herbs for Winter
Additional Information on Growing Basil

Basil recipes:

Basic Pesto Recipe
Pacific Rim Pesto
• Wilted Spinach and Basil Salad 
• Crispy Okra with Basil Pesto and Bacon 
Lemon Basil Ice Cream 

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