There’s nothing better than the aroma of freshly-picked basil! It’s a must-have in my garden and kitchen throughout the summer months. The sweet fragrance and vibrant flowers are also irresistible to native bees. This article shares what you need to know about how to grow basil. It includes how to grow basil from seed, plus tips for pruning, harvesting, and using basil. I’ve also included tips for growing basil in containers, growing basil indoors, and how to grow basil in Arizona.
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10 Tips For Growing Basil
1. Understand that basil is a warm-season herb
One of the most popular herbs to grow, basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a warm-weather fragrant herb in the mint family whose flowers attract native bees. It is also a favorite culinary herb, treasured for its color and flavor. In all but the warmest regions (zone 10 and higher), basil is grown as an annual and will grow until the first frost.
Basil grows best in warm (even hot) conditions. The best time to plant basil is when nighttime temperatures are above 70℉. Don’t rush putting transplants outside; basil prefers warm air and soil.
- Start seeds indoors 2-4 weeks before planting basil outside.
- Plant seeds outside about ¼ inch deep and 10-12 inches apart when nighttime temperatures are above 70℉.
- Plant transplants at the depth of the container about 12-18 inches apart, depending on the variety of basil.
- Plant basil in an area that gets full sun.
2. Care for basil as it grows
Basil likes well-draining soil. It’s important to water basil regularly so it doesn’t dry out and become bitter. Mulching plants also helps to preserve moisture. During hot weather and dry periods, water basil deeply and regularly.
3. Learn how to prune basil for larger yields
- When basil is about 6” tall, cut the middle stem down to just above the second set of leaves. 2 new stems will grow back in the middle stem’s place.
- Cutting back at this early stage of development encourages the plant to branch and produce additional leaves.
- As the plant grows, continue the practice of cutting back the branches to the second set of leaves.
- Remove the center shoot of basil to discourage blooming.
- To encourage new growth, cut back flowers as they appear.
4. Plant extra basil for the pollinators and allow it to flower
Planting extra basil for pollinators is a great way to attract and support beneficial insects, add beauty, and help support your garden’s ecosystem. Some of the pollinators that are attracted to basil include several types of bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Once the basil plant has reached a good size, simply allow the plant to continue growing without harvesting any leaves or pruning the plant. Eventually, the plant will begin to produce small, white, or pink flowers on long, thin stems. These flowers attract pollinators to your garden, which can help improve the yield of other plants in your garden that require pollination.
Try planting different types of basil, such as lemon basil or cinnamon basil, to attract a wider variety of pollinators.
5. Grow tomatoes and basil together – a perfect match in the garden and on the plate
Tomatoes are excellent companion plants for basil; introduce them to each other while growing and in the kitchen.
Basil and tomatoes are commonly grown together as companion plants because they have a mutually-beneficial relationship. Basil repels insects that are harmful to tomato plants, such as tomato hornworms and whiteflies. The strong scent of basil may mask the scent of the tomato plant, making it harder for pests to find them. In addition, basil attracts beneficial insects like bees and butterflies that help pollinate tomato flowers.
On the other hand, tomatoes release chemicals into the soil that can help improve the growth and flavor of basil. This is because tomatoes are heavy feeders, meaning they take up a lot of nutrients from the soil, and, in turn, they can leave behind nutrients that other plants can use. Basil is also thought to enhance the flavor of tomatoes when they are grown together.
Overall, growing basil and tomatoes together is a great way to protect your tomato plants from pests and promote healthy growth and flavor.
Get the recipe for Garden Fresh Tomato and Basil Pasta here.
6. Harvest basil early and often
Harvest basil regularly, only removing 1/3 of the plant at a time (even if you are not using it) to encourage branching and production. Here are some tips to help you harvest your basil:
- Wait for the right time: Basil is best harvested when the leaves are large enough to use but before the plant starts to flower. Begin harvesting basil when plants are 6-8″ tall.
- Choose the right time of day: Harvest basil in the morning, after the dew has dried, and before the sun gets too hot. This is when the essential oils in the leaves are most concentrated, making the basil more flavorful.
- Use clean, sharp scissors or pruning shears: This will help prevent damage to the plant and reduce the risk of disease.
- Cut the stems just above a set of leaves: This will encourage the plant to grow new branches and leaves, leading to a fuller, bushier plant. Leave at least 2 sets of leaves on each stem so the plant can continue to photosynthesize and produce energy.
7. Enjoy the fresh flavor of basil in many ways
Wash freshly harvested basil in a large bowl.
After rinsing basil, I let it air dry on a dish towel.
Freeze individual leaves together in a freezer bag, and pull out individual leaves as needed.
These herb scissors are my favorite way to cut up fresh basil. So easy!
Use a large harvest of basil to make pesto.
Add basil at the end of cooking time to help retain fresh color and flavor.
Purée washed basil in the blender and add just enough olive oil or water to make it pourable. Then pour into ice cube trays and freeze. It’s convenient to pop one or two cubes into soups and pasta.
Dehydrate basil to preserve the harvest.
Freeze-drying basil preserves much of the flavor and texture of fresh basil. It’s my favorite way to preserve basil.
Don’t let your herbs go to waste. Instead, freeze-dry herbs to preserve the flavor and quality. Learn how to freeze-dry herbs with these tips.
8. How to grow basil in Arizona
- Start seeds indoors: January 15 – April
- Plant seeds outside: February 15 – May
- Plant transplants outside: March – May
- In the hot summers of Arizona, basil does best with some afternoon shade.
- Mrs. Burns lemon basil, Siam Queen, and African Blue thrive in Arizona’s heat.
- Mulching plants helps retain moisture and keeps weeds down.
When growing basil in Arizona, the warm and dry climate can actually help the plant survive the winter. In order to encourage new growth in the spring, it’s important to cut back the basil plants after new growth starts to appear. This will help stimulate the plant to produce new leaves and branches.
To cut back your basil plants, trim them down to about 6-8 inches above the soil line. Make sure to use sharp and clean pruning shears to prevent any damage to the plant. After cutting back your basil plants, you can also fertilize them with an organic fertilizer to help promote healthy growth.
However, after a season or two, basil plants can become woody and less productive. At this point, it is best to replant and start with a new plant. You can either start new plants from seed or purchase young basil plants from a nursery.
9. How to grow basil in containers
Basil is an excellent choice for growing in containers. Here are a few things to keep in mind when growing basil in containers:
- Basil needs well-draining soil. Always use good potting soil in the containers, not garden soil.
- Don’t overcrowd plants. Adequate airflow around basil plants is important to prevent fungus. Allow 6-8” between plants; 12” is even better.
- Don’t let containers dry out. Regular watering is key for the best-tasting basil. To see if the container needs water, use a moisture meter or stick a finger in the soil. If the top inch or two of the soil is dry, water the container.
- Feed basil in containers regularly. Nutrients are leeched out of the drain hole in containers, and basil grown in containers will benefit from monthly or bi-weekly feedings from compost or organic fertilizer.
10. How to grow basil indoors
To grow basil indoors, provide the light and warmth it would receive if growing outside. A sunny south-facing window may be all you need, but in most cases, additional light and warmth will be required to grow basil indoors successfully.
- Avoid drafty locations – 80℉ is the minimum temperature basil needs to thrive.
- If you are growing basil near a window, rotate the plant each time you water it to keep the growth even on all sides.
- When using a grow light, set a timer to run the light for 12 hours with the lights about 2-4″ away from the plant.
- If seedlings are leggy, they need more light (change location or put grow lights closer to leaves). Bleached-out spots on the leaves indicate the lights are too close to the seedlings.
- Thin basil to at least 6” apart to provide adequate airflow and discourage fungus.
- Begin harvesting leaves as soon as the plant is over 4” tall.