Starting and Growing Basil
There’s a reason basil is so popular. It’s delicious! There are many known species of basil, but Ocimum basilicum, also known as Sweet Basil or Genovese Basil, is the most commonly grown. Basils are enjoyed for their rich, spicy flavor which contains a trace of mint, clove, and even licorice, depending on the cultivar. Basil is also thought to have many health-promoting properties and is full of essential vitamins, such as K and A, minerals, and other nutrients.
The botanical name of basil, Ocimum basilicum, comes from the Greek words for “smell” and “kingly”, which may allude to its fragrance and the purple (the color of royalty) flowers of many basil varieties. Along with basil’s wonderful fragrances and flavors, basil flowers and foliage are also quite beautiful. Some varieties, such as Purple Petra, are used as attractive ornamentals in the summer landscape, and to add interest to cut flower arrangements. If you choose to allow your basil to flower, the bees will flock to it! Basil has few pests and repels quite a few. Japanese Beetles may find it tasty, but basil is said to deter flies, thrips, mosquitos, and ants.
Basil has been used for so long it is difficult to pinpoint its native range. Most believe it to be Africa, but basil has a legendary reputation worldwide. Ancient Egyptians used basil as a medicine for snakebites and scorpion stings. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, recommended basil tea as a remedy for nerves, headaches, and fainting spells. Tradition has it that when a man gives a sprig of basil to a woman, she will fall in love with him and never leave him. Cooking her a delicious pesto dinner with basil would probably work even better!
When to sow outside: 1 to 2 weeks after average last frost, and when soil temperature is at least 60°F, ideally 65°-85°F. Basil is very sensitive to frost. Must have warm temperatures to germinate.
Successive Sowings: Recommend 3 or 4 successive sowings every 3 weeks after initial sowing.
When to start inside: 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting outside.
Use a lightweight seed starting mix/media (sterile, and lighter than potting mix), and sow seeds 1/4″ deep. Sow 2 seeds per pot, thinning to the strongest plant once leaves appear (clip extra plants at the soil level using scissors). The strongest plant may not be the tallest. Look for thick, strong stems and deep color. By thinning early, you minimize the negative impact of crowding, like stretching for light. Read about more indoor sowing tips here.
You can use almost any container with drainage to sow basil. Basil seedlings are fairly resilient and if you wish, you may sow many seeds in a shallow container and gently separate them into larger pots once they are about an inch tall and have two sets of leaves. If you start basil in cell packs, you will want to “up-pot” them into at least a 3″ pot prior to transplanting as their roots fill in pots quite quickly, which causes cells to dry out and restricts growth.
Basil is very frost and even cold sensitive. Wait to transplant until nighttime temperatures are above 50°F. Transplant basil seedlings 12″ apart.
Basil grows best in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Direct sow 2 seeds every 12″, thinning to one when seedlings are 2″ tall. If you are growing basil in a container, use a fairly large one to accommodate their fast growing roots. For example, a one-gallon pot can host 1-3 plants.
Once basil has 3-4 sets of leaves, pinch the top to encourage branching. Clip or pinch off flower buds as they form to maintain the best basil flavor. Basil can also be grown inside in a bright, sunny window or under grow lights. Basil microgreens are quite tasty, too!
Basil is typically harvested before the plant flowers. Flavor is best when harvested in the morning. The young, top leaves taste the best and should be used fresh; the older leaves may be used for vinegar and pesto. Cut a few stems at a time, but never harvest more than 1/3 of the plant if you want it to keep producing.
Fresh: Do not store basil in the refrigerator, as cold temperatures will cause the leaves to turn brown. Cut basil stems will keep in a jar or vase with water on the kitchen counter for up to one week.
Dried: In a cool, well-ventilated area (below 86°F), hang stems upside down or pinch off leaves and place them loosely in a brown paper bag for 3 to 4 days or until dried. Frozen: Purée batches of fresh basil leaves with a little olive oil. Freeze in ice cube trays. When frozen, put cubes in a freezer-safe container.