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How to Grow: Basil
Learn about basil, including how to plant and grow them.
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A good Italian boy like me has to grow basil (Ocimum). I grew up eating tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese sandwiches. I freeze pesto cubes in summer so we can enjoy the flavor right through winter. If you can grow lettuce, you can grow basil. While I favor the Italian Genovese-type basil, there is a wide variety of other flavored basils to grow. Cinnamon, lemon, and anise-flavored basil all make for great additions to soups, stews, sautes. and pesto. Some, like the Thai basil, have beautiful purple stems and veins in the leaves making it a striking ornamental plant. Basil grows equally well in containers. My 87 year old mother still grows basil in a pot on her deck each year.
When to Plant
Basil loves the heat. Either sow seeds or plant seedlings in pots or the soil after all danger of frost has passed. That’s usually mid May or June.
Where to Plant
Basil grows best and produces the biggest, best tasting leaves if grow in full sun on well-drained soil. If you have clay soil, build 8-inch tall raised beds to grow basil. Basil grows well in a 12-inch or larger container. Since these are beautiful plants, consider tucking a few plants in amongst your annual flowers.
How to Plant
Amend the soil with compost prior to planting. In the garden, sow seeds 3-to 4-inches apart in rows 2 feet apart. Thin seedlings once the second set of leaves form so plants are about 1- to 2-feet apart. Start seedlings indoors 4 weeks before setting into the garden. Transplant home grown or store bought seedlings so they’re also spaced 1- to 2-feet apart.
Care and Maintenance
Cover young plants in spring with a floating row cover if night time temperatures are expected to dip below 50F. The leaves may get discolored from cold temperatures. When the plants are 6 inches tall, pinch off the top to promote side branching. This will create a bushier, leafier plant. Fertilize with fish emulsion when transplanting and again one month later to promote leaf growth.
Keep the soil well weeded and watered. Pinch off the flower stalks as they form to encourage more leaf production.
Aphids, Japanese beetles and fusarium wilt are common problems on basil. Grow wilt-resistant varieties, such as ‘Nufar’, to avoid this disease. Aphids can be sprayed with insecticidal soap. Japanese beetles can be handpicked, trapped or sprayed with Neem oil to thwart them.
Begin harvesting basil when at least 4 sets of leaves have formed and the plant is 1 foot tall. Snip the top just above the second set of leaves. As it bushes out over the summer, remove individual stems instead of just individual leaves. This will result in fewer, but larger leaves growing. Keep harvesting and removing the flower stalks, until fall. Before a frost, remove the whole plant and pick it clean. Pick leaves as needed since they don’t store well, or in batches to preserve as pesto or in olive oil.
‘Genovese’ is the classic Italian basil with large green leaves and a strong basil flavor. ‘Purple Ruffles’ has purple colored leaves. ‘Sweet Dani’ is a lemon flavored variety. There’s also a ‘Lime’ flavored basil. ‘Siam Queen’ is a good anise-flavored, Thai basil variety. ‘Spicy Bush’ is a small, container variety with an attractive rounded shape. ‘Holy’ basil has a mint and clove scent and is used for cooking and medicinally.
An easy way to make pesto is in ice cubes trays. Fill the trays with pesto and freeze. Pop the pesto cubes out of the trays when frozen and store in freezer bags.
Excerpted from Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
While basil is mostly associated with foods from Italy, it actually hales from India and has many uses beyond food. In India it’s held in such great esteem that people in courtrooms swear oaths upon it. In Greece and England it was used by kings for therapeutic baths. In fact, ‘holy’ basil is used medicinally in many countries. In Romania eating basil supposedly warded off the fire breathing basilisk dragon. Maybe Harry Potter should have grown basil for his adventures.
But mostly we grow basil to eat. While gardeners know and love sweet or Genovese basil for making pesto and cooking in sauces, there are more than 20 varieties of basil with different flavors, appearances, and uses in food. Thai basil features a licorice taste for Asian cooking. Cinnamon basil is great mixed with fruits. Lemon basil makes a great tea. African blue basil has a camphor scent. Lettuce leaf basil has large leaves used for salads.
Basil is also an attractive plant. ‘Purple Ruffles’ features burgundy colored leaves with a sweet basil taste. ‘Thai’ and ‘Cinnamon’ basil have purple flowers and stems making them striking as ornamentals.
When growing basil remember they like heat. Plant basil in containers or raised beds where they will get plenty of sunshine and be protected from cool winds. Wait until the soil has warmed to 60 degrees to transplant or sow seeds. Space or thin plants to 1 foot apart and fertilize with fish emulsion to encourage leaf growth. If you’ve had fusarium wilt disease problems in the past grow the resistant ‘Nufar’ basil variety.
Harvest basil often to encourage more growth and delay flowering. Pinch the tops of basil once three sets of leaves form to help stimulate branching. Harvest whole stems instead of individual leaves to encourage production of large leaves.
Now for this week’s tip, if you didn’t get enough lilacs this year, consider planting a reblooming variety such as ‘Josee’ or ‘Bloomerang’. These will flower again from midsummer until fall.
Read more about growing basil.