Of all the herbs, basil is probably the most popular for the home kitchen and garden – you might be surprised to find how easy basil plant care actually is. Whether you are growing basil indoors or out (or both) you will find that this annual herb is easy to plant, maintain, harvest and store making it a perfect herb for kitchens everywhere.
There are a few different types of basil – sweet basil is the most common and the one you see in many Italian dishes. There is also a purple basil that can add delightful color to your garden and has more licorice flavor than sweet basil. Lemon basil has a hint of lemon which can add variety to your dishes. Thai basil has much more of the licorice taste and his common in Asian food. All species of basil are great for cooking and also have a host of health benefits. Basil plant care is similar for each of the species.
How To Grow Basil
If you want to plant basil from seed, you can either start them indoors about 6 weeks before the last frost or sow them directly in the garden after the last frost has passed. Push them down about 1/4” deep. I suggest planting lots of seeds and the thinning the seedlings once they sprout.
If you don’t feel like fiddling around with sprouting seeds, you can get starter plants from your local garden store.
To plant the seedlings, place them at least a foot apart, preferably more. Giving them more room will encourage bushier plants. If you live in a very hot climate, use mulch around the base of the plants to keep them cool.
Basil Plant Care
Like most herbs, basil needs 6 or more hours of sunlight. It prefers well drained soil with a PH between 6.0 and 7.5. Check the pH about once a month – you can buy an inexpensive pH tester – it’s a good idea to check your soil PH regularly for the health of all your garden plants.
You’ll want to check the soil around your plant every 3 or 4 days (every day or at least every other day if you are growing basil in pots) to be sure it isn’t too dry. You want the soil to be just moist – not too wet and not dry either. Water accordingly. Basil plants in pots and containers will need to be watered more frequently than those planted directly in the garden.
Basil is an annual plant which means it only grows during the warmer months. Once the temperature threatens to dip down to 40 degrees, you should consider harvesting basil or transplanting the plant into a container and moving it inside. I live in New Hampshire so I grow my basil plants in pots outdoors in the summer and then just move them indoors when it gets cold.
One of the basics of basil plant care is fertilization. If your plants are growing outdoors in the garden, you might use compost or organic fertilizer. If your basil plants have yellow leaves, that could mean that they aren’t getting the necessary nutrients and you might want to fertilize them. All fertilizers are made up of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium but they are sold in different ratios. For basil, the best ratio is 10-10-10. Outdoor plants should be fertilized a couple of times during growing season but indoor plants can be fertilized about once a month. Be sure never to put the fertilizer directly on the leaf stems as this can burn the plant.
Growing Basil Indoors
While general basil plant care is the same whether you are growing basil indoors or out, there are some special indoor basil plant care considerations.
Indoor basil plant care isn’t as hard as you may think. I always like to have a plant or two growing on my windowsill so I can have fresh basil all year round. The two most important things when growing indoors make sure your plant gets enough sunlight and that has the right soil.
You want to use a good synthetic fertilizer. Since your soil won’t have microbes and insects crawling through it, synthetic is preferred over organic for indoor plants.
Another key element to successfully growing basil indoors is to make sure that the plant is properly watered. I suggest checking your plants every day or every other day. Just stick your finger into the soil it should be moist. If it is dry then water it but not so much that the soil was drenched. Basil won’t do well if it is always standing in water so you just want the soil to be moist not to dry and not too wet.
Getting enough sunlight is critical. I live in the northern hemisphere and I’ve had good luck just putting my basil plants in the southerly facing window where they get at least 6 hours of light per day. I haven’t had to resort to artificial lighting, although the growth may be weaker in the middle of winter. If you do want to use artificial lighting you’re going to need at least 10 hours and preferably 12 per day. You can also use a combination of window and artificial lighting.
Another thing to consider if you want to grow basil indoors is to buy an Aerogarden which is a hydroponic growing system that has its own built-in lighting and pumps to move the water properly. I’ve used these units to grow lettuce and they work really good.
Harvesting Basil Leaves
Harvesting your basil plant is easy! Just pinch off the leaves as you want to use them – you can use the leaves directly in your cooking and they taste wonderful (fresh basil is so much better than dried). Don’t be afraid of hurting the plant, pinching off leaves actually encourages growth. In fact, I like to pinch off the tiny leaf buds at the top of the stems every so often because it encourages bushier growth.
For new plants, you want to pinch off the center shoot after about 6 weeks to encourage side growth. This will also prevent early flowering. The basil leaves will be must flavorful and have the best health benefits right before the plant flowers, so if you are planning on harvesting the entire basil plant, do that as soon as you see buds but before any flowers appear.
If you plan to keep growing the plant, you will want to remove the flower stem before it flowers. After the plant flowers, the growth will slow down and the taste will become bitter, but if you cut off the stem the flowers are on, you can keep the plant going and producing nice flavorful leaves for quite some time.
If you cut the whole plant down to about 6 inches above the ground and leave one node with 2 shoots you will find that the plant will give you a 2nd harvest a few weeks later.
If the temperature is going to dip below 40°, you want to either harvestable plant but dig it up for planting indoors
Storing Fresh Basil
Once you have harvested your basil leaves, you’ll need to store it. The leaves will keep in the fridge for about 4 or 5 days (make sure they are not stored wet) but if you have a big harvest you might consider freezing them.
Dried basil loses its flavor so, if you want to store your basil after harvesting freezing is the preferred method. You can freeze dried leaves in the freezer or fill a ice cube tray with olive oil and stick believes in the oil. This makes it pretty convenient for cooking as you can just pop out the frozen cube and add olive oil plus basil to your dish.
If you want to find out more about growing basil and other herbs inside, check out my book Growing Herbs Indoors and then if you want to get some great basil recipes and learn more about the health benefits of basil and other herbs check out my book on Healing Herbs and Spices