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Basil Herb Growing Guide

How to Grow Basil Herb from Seed

  • Scientific Name: Genus Ocimum
  • Hardiness Zone: Annual
  • Days to Harvest: 50-60 days (from date of transplanting)
  • Days to Maturity: 70 days
  • Days to Germination: 5-10
  • Seeding Depth: ½”
  • Plant Width: 9-12"
  • Plant Height: 12-24"
  • Growth Habit: Tender and leafy bush/shrub
  • Soil Preference: Consistently moist, fertile, well-drained
  • Temp Preference: Warmer, 70-80°F
  • Light Preference: Full sun
  • Pests/Diseases: Susceptible to rot and mildew in overly saturated, heavy, and poorly drained soil. Basil does not have too many pests or insects and is generally seeded in the garden to help minimize pests.
  • Availability: See All Basil Varieties
Basil Grow Guide Pic

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Growing Basil

More than sixty known varieties and flavors in the genus Ocimum, basil is one of the most widespread and diverse garden herbs with something for just about any culinary tradition. Basil is a fragrant and tender annual intended to germinate, mature, and flower to seed all within the warm season and capable of thriving in a wide range of gardens throughout the country. Basil plants are popularly grown indoors just as readily as they are planted outdoors in containers, planters, and the garden bed. Most varieties of basil are native to the reliably wet, humid tropics of southeast Asia and Africa and still require the same consistently moist conditions for a flavorful and booming harvest. Unlike some of the woodier perennial herbs, basil is nearly effortless to grow from seed and can just as easily be propagated from a cutting in only a matter of weeks. Whether Lemon, Thai, Spicy, or Purple Ruffles, basil thrives in tandem together or as part of a larger bed of aromatic summer annuals.

How to Grow Basil from Seed

  • Minimum 4-6 hours sunlight
  • Warm, moist, and sunny gardens
  • Can be sown direct or started indoors

Tender annual herbs such as basil are far easier to germinate and establish because their seeds are intended to rapidly mature for one brief season. Whereas more frost tolerant herbs with a lifespan of up to 10-20 years are known to have much slower germination times and rates, perhaps because the seed knows that it's got plenty of time to spare. Basil seeds also don’t require any period of cold stratification like the woody perennials because the basil genus Ocimum is native to the tropics and does not naturally benefit from any conditions below 50°F. Regardless of cultivar, basil needs a minimum of 4-6 hours sunlight per day but will gladly take much, much more.

Basil is a warm weather crop able to be grown both indoors and out for either culinary or ornamental use. For earliest and strongest starts, begin indoors 6-8 weeks prior to final spring frost and then transplant outdoors when temperatures have warmed to 50°F or better. Basil is also traditionally sown directly into the garden bed 1-2 weeks after the spring frost. Basil seeds are fairly small but not too difficult to handle, no more than mint or chamomile seeds, yet are surprisingly easy to thin out when so young. Plant 3-4 basil seeds ½” deep per cell or 3-4” apart in the garden in fertile, consistently moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Basil seeds are known to quickly germinate in about 5-10 days, sometimes up to 14, eventually thinning out the best and strongest seedlings for transplanting. Depending on size of the container, transplant 1-2 starts per pot or every 12-18” in the garden as true leaves establish.

Basil Soil

Basil requires the consistently moist, warm, and fertile soils of its native tropics without being too soggy or saturated. Although basil prefers moisture to drought, it still does not like stagnant water and should always be transplanted into containers, planters, and garden beds with reliable drainage. Because basil is a fragrant flowering annual, it thrives in composted, nutrient-rich soils and benefits from a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer 2-4 times throughout the season. Careful not to over fertilize plants which may cause some root burn. Unlike some perennial herbs, basil flavor is actually improved by the occasional fertilizer, whereas herbs such as sage are generally steered clear of many fertilizers. When transplanting indoor basil starts to a container or planter, amend potting soil with compost or worm castings as a more passive means of fertilizing than liquid chemicals. More times than not, this early composting will be enough for just about any basil plant to have a great season. Basil prefers mildly acidic soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5.

Watering Basil

  • As needed in heavy summer heat
  • Consistently moist but never soggy
  • Susceptible to dehydration in containers

As a tender annual, basil is one of the most popular “windowsill” herbs because its attentive watering needs are easily met from the convenience of a kitchen counter or windowsill. Basil is temperamental to consistent summer heat above 95°F and will quickly show signs of wilting if not consistently moist. Plants grown in pots and containers are far more susceptible to dehydration than in the garden bed because containers guarantee a quick and reliable drainage, perhaps a little too quick and reliable. Whether grown indoors or out, be sure to give potted basil the attention it deserves.

Is Basil A Perennial?

No, basil is not a perennial. Members of the basil genus Ocimum are tender annuals that, at best, will reseed in optimal conditions. And as a member of the perennial mint family Lamiaceae, basil does not share the same perennial features such as a thick rhizome root system or ability to go dormant. Although by the end of the summer basil will have developed a slightly woody base similar to sage and oregano, it is not nearly enough to protect the plant through a winter frost. Basil thrives when grown together with other tender annuals and short-lived biennials such as cilantro, parsley, and dill. However, established basil plants can be grown indoors through the fall and winter, provided their sunlight, temperature, and watering needs are still met. Drying garden fresh herbs is the most popular and convenient way to enjoy your herb garden in winter.

Basil in Winter

  • Not intended to overwinter
  • Native to Asian and African tropics
  • Not tolerant to conditions below 50°F

As mentioned, basil is not intended to overwinter and even gardeners in the warmest hardiness zones are going to be hard-pressed to keep their outdoor basil plant through winter. Mature basil started that spring may continue to grow indoors during the fall and winter for extended harvesting. If bringing potted basil indoors for the frost, be sure to provide a minimum of 5-6 hours of sunlight per day. Many growers are tempted to use grow lights while indoors but, although useful for seed germination, even the most powerful 6500K full spectrum grow lights can never substitute daily sunlight.

Growing Basil in Pots

Whether up on the windowsill, countertop, or a larger indoor herb garden, any variety of basil cultivated indoors must be done so in a convenient and moveable pot or container. Basil grown in pots can be easily moved either indoors or out to maximize daily sun, while able to be brought safely indoors during poor weather. Basil plants are one of the most widely popular herbs for maintaining in pots and containers despite not being ideally suited for either. Pots and planters are preferred for their ability to drain, helping to keep potting soil dry and free from waterlogging and saturation responsible for many types of mold, fungus, and rot. Be sure to check soil moisture daily and keep your basil watered when growing in pots, especially if grown outdoors and warm summer days. Most tender annual herbs such as basil, cilantro, or parsley are generally not advised to be grown in terra cotta or other clay-based pots because, although elegant and decorative, clay-based pots will dehydrate potting soil much quicker than any other means.

How to Care for Basil Plants in Pots

  • Keep soil consistently moist
  • Dehydration is the greatest threat
  • Avoid clay-based pots such as terra cotta

If intending to cultivate basil in pots or planters, be sure to read our sections above for Basil Soil and Watering Basil. Especially when growing in pots, be sure to check the soil everyday to watch for dehydration, keeping the soil consistently moist but not saturated. Since pots are convenient and moveable, be sure to always provide basil with maximum sunlight by moving it around the yard or indoors throughout the day, season, and year.

Growing Basil Indoors

Basil is widely considered to be the premier “windowsill” herb because it grows as readily indoors as it does outdoors. Most grocery stores, greenhouses, and nurseries will often market potted basil plants as being as much of an indoor ornamental as a harvestable herb. Whether growing a tender annual such as basil or cilantro, or a frost-hardy perennial like sage or lavender, herbs intended for exclusive culinary use are almost always recommended to be grown indoors to best preserve the most fragrant and delicious leaves possible. Basil grown indoors doesn’t necessarily need to be “grown indoors” and can be simply placed outdoors for the entire season to best track optimal sun, and safely brought back indoors during a chill or inclement weather. Basil plants kept indoors for most of their annual growth should still receive a minimum 6-8 hours of sunlight to ensure best flavor. Herbs and leafy greens grown solely under artificial indoor lights will never taste the same as those grown under full natural sun.

Pruning Basil

Because basil is a tender and short-lived annual, regular pruning and pinching is essential to the health, flavor, and productivity of any basil plant. Annual herbs such as basil and dill are intended to flower and go to seed all within a single growing season, and pinching off flowers is one of the most immediate ways in which you can preserve the tenderness and flavor of your basil plant. As a member of the mint family Lamiaceae, basil has a similar leafing habit to other species of mint including peppermint, catnip, and lemon balm and can be all pruned in nearly the same exact manner. A healthy basil plant is wide, bushy, green, and not too leggy as a result of overreaching and overcompetition. Since basil does not overwinter, it can be casually pruned as needed throughout the warm season rather than immediately after winter. While basil leaves can be harvested individually for day-to-day use, try to harvest and prune basil all at the same time for efficiency and the healthiest cuts.

When to Prune Basil

  • As soon as flowers emerge
  • Throughout season as needed
  • Prune and harvest simultaneously

Unlike woody and frost-hardy perennials such as rosemary and lavender, culinary basil does not overwinter and does not require the same regimented pruning schedule as does others. Woody perennial herbs able to withstand a winter frost must be pruned back in early spring to allow for tender new growth, whereas basil is a short-lived annual that only needs pruning to help shape the plant for a single season. Basil must be pinched or pruned immediately as flowers emerge, and throughout the season as needed.

How to Prune Basil

  • Flowers may be pinched off by hand
  • About 20% the total length of a stem
  • Do not prune down to the tough base

“Pinching” is a term used exclusively in annual vegetable gardening to remove flower buds by hand. Depending on what you’re cultivating, pinching off flowers will help the plant achieve different goals. For basil plants, pinching off flowers will keep the basil plant from reseeding which, as the final step in its annual lifecycle, will almost guarantee reduced flavor, aroma, and tenderness. To prune larger cuts from your plant, use a pair of scissors or gardening shears and clip about the top 20% of any tender stem, ideally clipping the stem right above new, young shoots.

Propagating Basil

Basil is one of the few herbs in which it is just as easy to propagate from seed as it is from a cutting. Perennial herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and thyme are traditionally cultivated (or cloned) from mature cuttings because the seedlings can take several months to just establish. Basil on the other hand is a tender short-lived annual and one of the easiest possible seeds to germinate and grow. Propagating basil from cuttings is the most efficient way to boost seasonal harvests, effectively using the plant’s own pruning cuts to quickly reroot each of them as another harvestable plant. The genus Ocimum is home to more than 60 varieties of basil, each able to be completely rerooted in a glass of water in only 3-4 weeks. Although most grocery stores and nurseries will only carry a single variety or two of potted basil, try growing from seed a more unique, exotic cultivar to easily clone and pot as a gift this summer.

How to Grow Basil from Cuttings

1. Depending on size and age of the plant, an ideal selection for basil propagation is to cut the top 5-7” of a fresh young stem with plenty of soft green and no signs of flowering.

2. Take the clipping and strip about half of it bare of its leaves. Most soft cuttings should be about 5-7” long, stripping exactly half of the sprig for rooting.

3. Simply place the bare end of the cutting into a glass of water, allowing the remaining leaves to collect light for establishing new root structure. Once roots are established in 3-4 weeks, the basil clone can be safely transplanted back to soil.

4. If propagating basil hydroponically in a glass of water, be sure to change out for fresh water and a new glass every 5-7 days to avoid mold.

Basil Companion Planting

Fragrant and robust culinary basil is an ideal companion herb when planted together with nearly any fruiting annual especially peppers, tomatoes, borage, and root vegetables. Since culinary basil grown in the garden is usually kept from flowering so as to not compromise flavor, basil flowers can be so rare to local bee populations that the blooms will quickly attract all sorts of beneficial insects and pollinators once word gets out. Regardless of which cultivar of Ocimum, basil plants are full sun aromatics grown for their sweet and savory leaves which have proven to help to minimize bothersome pests and insects. As a member of the always pungent mint family Lamiaceae, the strong garden fresh flavor and perfume that we’ve come to enjoy is actually toxic to many harmful insects, helping to create a fragrant, yet inhospitable environment for some of the garden’s peskiest insects. Like all other aromatic herbs, basil plants contain numerous chemicals and terpenes known to be commercially extracted for many uses including pesticides.

Basil Flowers

Basil flowers will generally be white, pink, or purple depending on cultivar and develop nearly identical to mint, balm, and catnip. As a member of the mint family Lamiaceae, basil will produce tall blooming stalks shooting upwards from the base and looking very similar to summertime larkspur. Like other culinary herbs not allowed to flower, basil is a first-rate companion plant when left out in the garden bed because of its rare blooms which are highly attractive to beneficial insects and pollinators. Keep basil plants near other tender annuals for a synchronized season of unique annual flowering. Basil flowers are not a fresh cut variety and have not found any significant use in the floral industry unlike rosemary, oregano, kale, and cabbage. If growing strictly for culinary use, pinch or prune flowers regularly to maximize flavor.

Harvesting Basil

Basil is arguably the easiest herb in the garden to harvest and often requires nothing more than your fingertips, a little sunshine, and a fresh caprese salad. Whether bought in a grocery store, nursery, or greenhouse, fresh basil is almost always sold still living in a container because it is so easy to harvest for any type of culinary use. As the preeminent “windowsill” herb, basil is popularly kept on the kitchen countertop for simple and daily harvesting. For larger or outdoor plants, harvest basil often throughout the season to maintain regular and flavorful growth. Essentially the same task, regular harvesting and pruning will keep the basil plant producing bushy and tender vegetative leaves rather than preparing its energy for flowering a seed production. Experienced gardeners will always make use of their pruning cuts by either drying them or preparing them immediately. Always select the newest and greenest leaves away from the base of the plant for most delicious harvesting.

When to Harvest Basil

  • Year-round as needed
  • Spring and summer in cool regions
  • Prune, propagate, and harvest together

How to Harvest Basil

  • Soft, tender leaves may be handpicked
  • Harvest the top ⅓ of non-flowering stems
  • Same as pruning, cut above the woody base

A member of the mint family Lamiaceae, garden fresh basil has a very similar leafing habit to peppermint, spearmint, balm, and catnip and is just as easily harvested the same. For casual use or meal preparation, basil can be simply harvested by hand and gently plucked from the stem. Much larger basil harvests such as for pesto or canning can be clipped off with a pair of gardening shears, much in the same way that woodier perennial herbs are harvested. Clip off about the top ⅓ of non-flowering stems for delicious harvesting while keeping the basil plant healthy, productive, and tender.

Drying Basil

Soft and tender annuals such as basil, cilantro, or parsley are always summertime favorites for drying so that you can add a pinch of the warm season to your meals even in the dead of winter. Basil leaves will dehydrate just as readily as any other garden favorite and lend wonderfully to any homemade spice rub, Mediterranean herb mix, or Herbes de Provence blend. And as a short-lived tender annual, culinary basil does not develop any type of woody stem or fibrous winter overgrowth which could compromise the drying process, causing leaves to easily bitter and discolor. Basil is always popularly hung dry in a dark and well-ventilated space alongside anything else brought in from the herb garden, yet dries even quicker in the oven or food dehydrator. Since the basil genus Ocimum is home to 60+ different cultivars each with their own flavor profile, be sure to experiment with any variety beforehand to best understand its taste when fresh as opposed to dried.

How to Dry Basil

Hang Dry: Cut about 5-8” of newest growth per stem and then bundle together. While larger plants will yield longer stems, still harvest just the tips for best flavor. Hang the basil bundle upside down in a dry, cool, and well-ventilated area for 7-21 days until soft leaves are brittle and no longer pliable.

Oven Dry: Basil can be easily placed on a baking sheet and dehydrated in a convection oven at 175° F for 20-30 minutes or until leaves and stems are brittle. Open the oven door every 5 minutes to vent some heat. After 20-30 minutes, turn off the oven and allow basil leaves to remain in the oven for another 30 minutes, leaving the oven door open to cool.

Food Dehydrator: Herbs, fruits, and flowers are ideal for countertop food dehydrators for reliable and thorough drying. Food dehydrators feature step-by-step instructions for herbs and is the preferred method for many cooks and home gardeners. Many herbs such as basil should only take about 2 hours in any household food dehydrator.

Types of Basil

The basil genus Ocimum is home to more than 60 different cultivars including Lemon, Thai, Cinnamon, and Sweet, nearly all of which are native to the perennially warm, sunny, and humid conditions of Africa and Southeast Asia. Even knowing how to properly cultivate and care for one type of basil plant is more than enough experience to attempt the several dozen others. Each unique variety of basil offers a different and exotic color, scent, or flavor profile to the home cook and ornamental gardener. While grocery stores, nurseries, and greenhouses will only ever feature a few varieties of basil, usually green cultivars, growing your own basil from seed is one of the most guaranteed ways to explore all of the wonderful diversity of flavor, color, and shape that basil has to offer. Grow your favorite exotic basil seeds and quickly propagate them from cuttings to give as gifts or to quadruple your own seasonal harvests.

Large Italian Leaf Basil: (Ocimum basilicum) - Sometimes just simply called “basil”, Large Leaf Italian is the standard basil leaf of the culinary world for its classic bright and savory notes. While other cultivars of basil boast of exotic taste and color, Large Leaf Italian basil guarantees the timeless Mediterranean flavor and look you’ve come to expect.

Genovese Basil: (Ocimum basilicum) - Genovese is a sweet basil heirloom native to the Italian provinces of Genoa, Savona, and Imperia; while locals are decided that “true” Genovese hails from the Genoa district of Prá. Sweet basil is preferred in Italian cuisine because it lacks the “minty” notes as found in more aggressive cultivars, allowing for more bold, savory notes to highlight the dish.

Lemon Basil: (Ocimum citriodorum) - Lemon basil offers a citric twist in place of the more familiar “minty” and “spicy” notes of basil. Used raw whereas other basils are best dried, lemon basil lends itself to more diverse dishes. Its bright, unmistakable citric flavor comes from a naturally-occurring oil, citral, found also in lemongrass, verbena, and citronella.

Purple Ruffles Basil: (Ocimum purpurascens) - Gorgeous cross between Dark Opal and Green Ruffles, Purple Ruffles basil is an award-winning cultivar with as much beauty as brawn. Despite being an herb, Purple Ruffles was named the 1987 All-America Selections Flower Winner for “striking beauty that is both a distinctive ornamental and a delectable herb.”

Benefits of Basil

With more than 60 varieties naturalized throughout much of the world, basil is one of the most widespread and diverse herbs available and has found a use and place in nearly every culture. Almost more than any other herb ever known, basil has been historically synonymous with the “divine” or “sacred” and has been a significant component to orthodox holy water as well as believed to usher in the next life according to ancient traditions. As far as Western medicine is concerned, basil leaf features numerous antioxidants, compounds, and chemical terpenes proven to help facilitate many aspects of life. Basil’s most potent and beneficial chemical is a terpene called eugenol which is found in other highly potent herbs such as clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Along with helping to rid the garden of smaller problematic pests, eugenol has also been proven to attract many beneficial bees and pollinators.

Basil Tea

Basil tea is just as popularly brewed dried from an herb sachet as it is from garden fresh leaves harvested that day. Unlike woody perennial herbs, basil leaves are soft and tender, easily releasing their fragrant chemicals and terpenes into a cup of boiling water. The joy about brewing basil tea is that there are so many varieties to choose from that pair well with any other natural herbs or spices. Regardless of cultivar, basil tea always mixes well with lemon, ginger, honey, and really any variety of mint. Try homegrown basil to cultivate the exotic varieties you’d never find in stores such as Cinnamon, Licorice, and Sweet Dani.

How to Make Basil Tea

1. Using any type of tea infuser, satchel, or tea bag, add about 4 tsp of fresh or dried basil to every 8 oz of boiled water.

2. Allow basil to steep for about ten minutes. Done!

Additional Information on Basil Herb

Explore More Basil Herb Seed Varieties:

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