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How To Grow Basil – Complete Guide To Growing and Preserving Basil

I LOVE the aroma of fresh basil (Ocimum basilicum) in many of my dishes. For many years I’d buy small pots of fresh basil from the grocery store (isn’t it cool that they offer this?), but it got very expensive that way. So I decided to learn how to grow basil from seed, and I couldn’t be happier.

Basil plant growing in my garden

The intense aroma of basil comes from the oil sacs in the leaves. Rub it between your fingers and their perfume will fill the air.

Basil is a perennial herb (in zones 10 and above), but it is most often grown as an annual. Many people make no attempt to keep it from year to year. The plant, however, can survive even Northern Winters if you cut it back and keep it in the brightest spot in your house for the winter.

How To Grow Basil For Delicious Flavor

Growing basil from seed (indoors and outdoors)

If you want to grow basil from seeds, you need to start around mid-April or the beginning of May for transplanting them in the garden in June. Basil loves warm soil.

  1. fill a seed starter tray with compost (if you make your own) or seed starter mix and water it
  2. sprinkle seeds on top of the moist soil
  3. cover the seeds with another very thin (2 or 3 mm) layer of seed starting mix and press it down lightly
  4. place a plastic dome on top of the tray and place it in a warm spot. You shouldn’t need to water it until the seeds germinate, in 4 or 5 days
  5. check your trays daily, and as soon as you see the first seed germinate, remove the dome and place them in a sunny window (or under a grow light if you don’t have enough light). This way your plants won’t try looking for the light and growing too tall too soon. 
  6. once your seedlings are about 1/2″ to 1″ tall, you can transplant them in cow pots (much better than peat pots)
  7. continue to water them a couple of times a week until they are ready to transplant in the garden in early June, after the last frost. The best way to water them is from the bottom. Place a plastic tray under your post and add water tot he tray. This keeps your plants healthy.

If you’d rather not mess with seed trays and grow lights, skip it all and plant the seeds straight in the garden as soon as your last frost date passed.  In my zone (6b), planting basil in mid-June is perfect.

They grow slowly at first, but after a few months, they develop several leafy stems and grow vigorously. Pinch out the tops of the stems and they will push out.

All varieties of Basil are bushy plants and grow better when they are cut back frequently.

If you grow your basil indoors, the best place it by a sunny kitchen window or an east-facing window.

Basil makes a great companion plant for your vegetable garden. Make sure to plant some basil around your tomato plants to keep the bugs away (learn how to grow tomatoes).

How to growing basil from cuttings

This method is by far my favorite. Truth be told, many times I just buy a plant in the spring, so I don’t need to fuss with growing it from seed, and as I pinch my basil, I place some in a glass of water in my kitchen window. Make sure there are no flower buds, as that would take up the energy of the plant instead of using it to make roots.  Roots will appear in 3 to 7 days, depending on the conditions in your kitchen.

If you have a good sunny window, in a warm spot, you’ll see roots in as soon as 3 days.

I like to propagate basil from cuttings this way about mid-summer and plant them in pots that I can later move inside. Doing it around this time of the year (August) gives my new plants enough time to get stronger before I bring them in.

I keep a container of basil on my porch during the warm months and in my kitchen during the cold months. Makes it easy to have fresh leaves to flavor tomato sandwiches, soups, and other dishes.

Basil is not just a useful kitchen herb: its leaves are decorative too, and they have a delightful smell. The basil plant thickens out as you use the leaves.

If you have more fresh basil than you need, dry it for the winter, or make some basil flavored salt you can add to your tomato soups in the winter. 

Types of basil

There are several different varieties of basil. Here are the most popular ones:

  • green basil (also called maximum basil) grows to a height of about 50 inches and has large pale green leaves and white flowers.
  • purple dwarf basil (also called minimum basil) grows to a height of about 10 inches and has small leaves, purple flowers, and a delicious taste.
  • cinnamon basil (also known as Mexican spice basil) has purple leaves and flowers and grows up to 30 inches tall

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How To Harvest Basil

Harvesting basil needs to be done at least weekly to keep the plant from going to bloom. Once basil blooms, the flavor of the basil changes, and the plant is done.

To harvest basil, pick the top part of the plant just above a leaf joint. This encourages bushing out the plant, ensuring a nice basil harvest.

Basil Pests And Diseases

Basil seldom suffers from diseases or parasites but it is very sensitive to cold. It will wither at the first sign of frost.

It’s rare for basil to be attacked by pests and diseases, but not impossible. Some of the more popular problems with basil pests and diseases are:

  • slugs (since basil needs lots of moisture and slugs LOVE a moist environment too, this can happen). Just stay vigilant and get rid of them by either trapping them with beer or adding a sprinkle of eggshell powder or coffee grounds around the basil. Learn more about getting rid of slugs and snails here.
  • aphids (spray them off your plant if you see them). Learn more about how to get rid of aphids.
  • Japanese beetles can destroy your basil in no time. Here’s help with Japanese beetles.
  • leaf spot can be caused by splashing water on the leaves. Add some mulch and water from underneath (best to use a soaker hose)
  • if the leaves turn black, this might be a sign that the plant has been exposed to frost.

How To Dry Basil

To dry basil leaves, take cuttings before the plant flowers. Cut the stems and hang them to dry individually in a shady, warm, and airy place.

Or, you can dry them in a dehydrator, in the oven or in the microwave.

I prefer the dehydrator, because it does a good job, but it also makes the house smell AMAZING for about 8 hours while the basil is drying. This is my favorite dehydrator!

My favorite way to dry basil is to make basil salt. Here’s my easy recipe for basil salt.

How To Use Basil

Basil leaves are used in the orient mixed with juice or mineral water. It makes a cool, refreshing drink for hot summer days.

In the Middle Ages, people burned basil at the waning of the Moon. The ashes were used on wounds and to heal warts. It was also believed that basil relieved birthing pains, thus its nickname “midwives herb”.

Today basil is used as a food flavoring. Although not spicy like pepper or paprika, basil does have more of a bite than other herbs. Because of this, it is a good alternative for sensitive people who do not care for the “hotter” spices. Use the fresh young stems for the most “bite”.

My favorite ways to use basil:

  • in tomato and basil soup
  • add a few in my tomato salad
  • tomato basil sandwich
  • on pizza
  • homemade basil pesto
  • boost flavor in sauces, soups, and salads
  • make basil-infused water for hot summer days
  • basil-infused oil for my family and to give as garden gifts
  • add a few leaves to frozen deserts for a bit of spice
  • the perfect garnish for appetizers
  • make garlic and basil butter
  • sprinkle on pasta dishes
  • garnish smothies with basil flowers
  • and many more ways 😉

Cooking With Basil

Fresh basil and dried basil have distinct flavors; a recipe that calls for fresh basil may taste quite different if prepared with dried basil. To maximize flavor when cooking with fresh basil, tear the leaves rather than chop them. Also, the flavor of basil intensifies as it cooks. For a subtler basil flavor, add it raw or toward the end of cooking, and in small amounts to avoid overpowering other flavors.

Basil’s most obvious companion is the tomato, and is often used in salads, tomato sauces, and tomato-based soups. To whip up a simple Caprese salad, place basil on top of salted tomato slices and top with fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and season with salt and pepper to taste. To add dimension to this favorite summer recipe, place the entire tomato-basil combination atop of a slice of grilled eggplant.

Basil also complements onions and peppers and therefore is commonly added to salads, stir-fry, and other dishes that host these vegetables. Basil enhances the distinct flavors of eggs, poultry, and fish – sprinkle it over omelets or over chicken or fish before baking, roasting, or grilling. The herb also nicely counterbalances some fatty oils, such as those found in heavy cream sauces. The sweet tones of basil make it a refreshing ingredient in custards, syrups, and fruit desserts.

Now that you know how to grow basil from seed, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy this wonderful addition in your kitchen garden and in your cooking.

Frequently asked questions about basil

Should I soak basil seeds before planting?
It’s not necessary, but if you want to speed up germination, you can soak them overnight in lukewarm water.

Can basil survive in winter?

It can in zone 10 and above. Otherwise, treat basil as an annual plant.

Why are my basil leaves turning brown?

It could be either too much or too little water. Lack of sun can cause it too.

Are basil flowers edible?

Absolutely! Basil flowers are a great addition to salads, not only for their subtle flavor but to add to the visual appeal as well.

BUT, taste your flowers before you use them in cooking: if they are too mature, they might turn bitter, and you don’t want to find that out after you added then to your food.

Are basil stems edible?

Yes and no. It depends on the stems. The tougher stems will be tougher and even a bit bitter, but the tender stems at the top of the plant are perfectly fine to eat.

Can you freeze basil?

Yes, the easiest way to freeze it is to blend it with a small amount of water and freeze it in your ice cube tray. Remove when frozen and store them in a freezer bag.

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Adriana Copaceanu is a passionate nature lover living in the country on her dream property where she grows vegetables, lavender, and wildflowers that she shares with the wildlife they attract. When she's not in the garden, she loves spending time with her chickens and planning her next nature project. Check out her books below:

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