The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Growing Basil

Hey y’all! I’m back with another gardening post about one of my favorite herbs – basil.

I know some of you are still learning your way around the herb garden, so let me fill you in on this aromatic beauty.

Basil is totally essential for any home cook. Its sweet, almost peppery flavor can jazz up so many dishes, from classic pesto to next-level eggs and avocado toast. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without my basil plant on the windowsill!

There are a bunch of different varieties too. Sweet basil is probably the one you’ll find most often at the grocery store, with its big green leaves and signature scent. But keep an eye out for fun kinds like lemon basil, cinnamon basil, or spicy Thai basil. They all have their own unique spin on that classic basil taste.

Here are just a few ways I like to use fresh basil from my garden:

  • Pesto – you just can’t beat the classic basil/pine nut/Parmesan combo. It’s perfect tossed with pasta or spread on sandwiches.
  • Caprese salad – alternate slices of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, then drizzle with olive oil and balsamic. Top with shredded basil. Perfection!
  • Infused oil – add some torn up leaves to a bottle of olive oil and let it infuse for a week or two. Drizzle on pretty much everything.
  • Eggs – stir chopped basil into scrambled eggs or top your avocado toast with a fried egg and basil garnish.
  • Cocktails – muddle some basil with lemon and simple syrup, then add to gin or vodka for a refreshing sipper.

The Storied History of Basil

Let’s take a little garden stroll through history and chat about how my fave herb – basil – became the culinary staple it is today.

Believe it or not, humans have been munching on basil for thousands of years! Basil first originated in India and Southeast Asia, where it played an important role in medicine and religious ceremonies. Ancient texts show basil popping up in China, Egypt, and Greece back in the BC days too.

Once basil made its way over to Europe

In the 16th century, things really kicked off. Italian cuisine, in particular, took a major basil crush to the next level. Pesto alla genovese became a beloved Italian staple, and the rest is mouth-watering history.

Basil in the United States

Basil took a little longer to catch on here in the United States. But once immigrants started bringing seeds in the 1700s and 1800s, it started gaining major ground as a culinary crop. Fast forward to today, and basil is one of the most widely used and beloved herbs across so many cuisines worldwide.

I think we can all agree that basil changed the flavor game forever. I know I couldn’t imagine cooking without my sweet basil plant on the windowsill! And it’s all thanks to centuries of cultivation and culinary innovation across continents. Pretty cool how a little green herb can bring so much history and flavor together in the kitchen.

Exploring the Diversity of Basil Varieties

Here’s a little overview of some different basil varieties for y’all:

  • Sweet Basil – This is the OG basil variety you’ll see most often. It has big green leaves with that signature sweet, peppery flavor perfect for pesto and tomato dishes. A classic for a reason!
  • Lemon Basil – As the name suggests, this type has a delicious lemony scent and flavor. It’s awesome paired with seafood or added to drinks. I love using it in lemonade!
  • Cinnamon Basil – This one surprises people with its spicy cinnamon kick. It’s amazing drizzled with honey or used in desserts. I like to add it to fruit salads.
  • Thai Basil – Ya’ll have to try Thai basil if you get the chance! It has a licorice-y, anise flavor that’s bold and spicy. It really shines in Thai curries and stir fries.
  • Greek Basil – This Mediterranean variety has smaller leaves and a more pungent, peppery taste. It’s perfect for making authentic Greek salads or marinades.
  • African Blue Basil – This basil has show-stopping purple leaves that look gorgeous in the garden! The taste has a sweet, clove-like flavor. It’s so fun to use in colorful dishes.

Unlocking the Ideal Basil Growing Climate

When it comes to basil, this herb loves it hot!

Warm weather really brings out that sweet, spicy basil flavor. I’ve found basil thrives best in temps between 70-85°F. Any cooler than that and it can get fussy.

Planting Time

That’s why late spring through early fall is prime basil planting time for me here in the north west. I like to get my starts going indoors in early spring, then transplant them outside once the danger of frost has passed. But basil will keep pumping out leaves all the way until the first cold snap hits in fall.

Cold Weather Woes

If the temperature drops below 50°F at night, it’s time to bring your basil plants indoors or harvest all the leaves to enjoy through winter. Cold weather makes basil bitterness and even turn black! No thank you.

Shade from Extreme Heat

Now, basil does like it hot, but not too hot. If temps climb into the 90s and 100s in midsummer, make sure to give your basil some shade in the hottest parts of the day. Prolonged heat waves can make it wilt.

So in summary – basil thrives in consistently warm weather with temps between 70-85°F. Get those plants in the ground in late spring, enjoy the harvest all summer long, then bid farewell before the cold hits in fall. Just be sure to give it a little shade in peak summer heat. Then you’ll be swimming in sweet basil all season long!

Let the Sun Shine! Basil’s Light Requirements

When it comes to light, basil craves the sun!

It needs at least 6 hours of full sunlight per day to really thrive. In fact, the more sun you can give it, the more big, leafy growth you’ll get. I like to put my basil in the sunniest part of my veggie garden or patio container garden.

If you notice your basil plants getting leggy or sparse, with small leaves, it’s a red flag they want more light. Give them a sunnier spot or thin out surrounding plants that may be blocking the sunshine.

That being said, basil can get scorched if it’s in direct sunlight during the hottest part of a summer day.

I recommend giving your basil a little afternoon shade to protect it during peak heat. You can do this by planting it near taller plants or vegetables that will shade it later in the day.

The morning and evening sunshine are perfect for basil though! Aim for that bright, unfiltered light first thing in the AM and leading up to sunset. Just shield your basil buddies in the intense midday sun.

So remember, basil thrives on at least 6 hours of sunshine per day. More is better! Just be sure to provide a little shade break during the hottest afternoon hours of summer. Then watch your basil flourish in the sun!

Getting the Dirt on Basil’s Soil Needs

Basil really thrives in rich, well-draining soil. I recommend using a quality potting mix if you’re planting in containers. For in-ground gardening, make sure to mix in some compost or organic material to get your soil nice and fertile.

The ideal pH range for basil is around 6.5-7.0. Test your soil to see where it falls on the pH scale. If it’s too acidic, add some garden lime to balance it out. Too alkaline? Mix in a little organic material like peat moss to lower the pH.

Proper drainage is key too! Basil hates soggy, waterlogged roots. Make sure your soil mix provides good drainage by adding materials like perlite or small rocks.

I’ve found basil does best in loose, loamy soil that holds some moisture but still allows excess water to drain away. Dense clay-like soil can make roots too wet. Super sandy soil may dry out too fast. Find that sweet spot in between for your basil!

Monitor your basil plants to see if they need any soil adjustments. Droopy leaves can mean it’s too wet. Wilting may indicate it’s too dry. Adjust your watering and soil as needed so those roots can thrive!

Quenching Basil’s Thirst – Proper Watering Techniques

Basil loves water, but it absolutely hates wet feet!

To keep your basil happy, make sure the soil stays consistently moist but not soggy.

I like to give my basil a thorough watering whenever the top inch or two of soil dries out.

Usually every 2-3 days depending on heat and container size. Stick your finger in the soil to test moisture levels and water whenever it’s no longer damp on top.

When watering, gently pour water until it trickles from the drainage holes at bottom.

This ensures moist soil without pooling water that can lead to root rot.

Basil may wilt slightly between waterings, but should perk up quickly after a nice drink. If leaves stay droopy, yellow, or curled under, it’s a red flag your plant is too wet. Let the soil dry out more before the next watering.

On the flip side, basil leaves that are small, dry and brittle need more frequent watering. Don’t let that top layer of soil get bone dry.

Adapt your watering routine as needed through the seasons too. Basil uses more water in hot summer months, less in cooler weather.

Listen to your basil, and aim for evenly moist soil that drains well.

That will keep your basil bounty growing strong!

Seeds or Seedlings – Which is Best?

Seeds are awesome if you want to grow a bunch of basil plants for dirt cheap.

But they do take some patience and extra care when starting off. You’ll need to plan about 6-8 weeks before transplant time to get them going indoors. Keep the seedlings warm, humid, and in bright light as they sprout.

Buying pre-started seedlings is instant gratification!

Just pop that baby in the ground and you’ll have homegrown basil in no time. It’s pricier than seeds, but so easy – especially if you got a late start to the growing season.

I like to do a combo approach.

I start some seeds indoors super early, then buy a few seedlings later on to fill out my herb garden.

If it’s your first time with basil, seedlings might be less stressful. But don’t be afraid to try seeds too! Just be prepared for some extra nurturing with seeds. The satisfaction of watching those tiny sprouts turn into robust basil plants is so rewarding.

Whichever way you go, you really can’t go wrong. Homegrown basil is the best basil!

Picking the Perfect Home for Your Basil

When choosing where to plant your basil, you’ll want to find a nice sunny location. Like, really sunny! Basil thrives with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. More is even better.

If you’re doing containers, be sure they’re in a super sunny area of your patio, balcony or windowsill. I like to place mine right in front of a bright, south-facing window.

For in-ground planting, scout for the sunniest sections of your veggie garden or flower beds. Basil loves basking in the light all day long.

Just watch out for intense afternoon sun in mid-summer. If temps climb into the 90s or 100s, your basil will appreciate a little shade during peak heat. You can cluster the pots together or plant near taller plants that provide some afternoon cover.

Morning sun and evening sun are prime real estate for basil!

Basil also does well planted among flowers and vegetables since it attracts pollinators. Just be mindful of leaving enough space for everything to thrive.

Preparing Soil for a Lush Basil Patch

Before planting your basil, you’ll want to make sure the soil is nice and fertile.

I like to mix in a few inches of compost or other organic material to really feed those plants!

You can also add in a granular fertilizer made for veggies and herbs.

Just follow the label instructions to mix it in thoroughly before planting.

If you’re doing containers, I recommend using a quality potting mix instead of garden soil.

The potting mix will be loose, well-draining and have nutrients mixed in.

Test your soil’s pH too.

Basil likes it around 6.5-7.0. Add some garden lime if it’s too acidic, or mix in peat moss if it’s too alkaline. Getting the pH right will help your basil thrive!

And make sure the soil drains well! Basil hates wet feet.

Add in materials like perlite if your soil is too dense and soggy.

Prepping your soil gives those basil roots the best start. Then be sure to keep it consistently moist once those plants are happily growing.

Following in Farmer Frank’s Footsteps – Planting from Seed

  1. Get your containers ready – Use small pots or trays with drainage holes and fresh potting mix.
  2. Plant the seeds – Fill your containers with potting mix, then sprinkle seeds on top about 1⁄4 inch apart. Gently cover with a thin layer of mix.
  3. Provide warmth – Basil seeds need warm soil to sprout, around 70-80°F. You can use a seedling heat mat or keep them somewhere warm.
  4. Maintain even moisture – Water the seeds gently to keep the soil moist. Not soggy, but never fully dry either.
  5. Give them light – Once sprouted, basil needs 8-10 hours under grow lights or bright sun.
  6. Watch them grow! – In 2-3 weeks, you’ll have baby seedlings. Wait until they have 3-4 true leaves before transplanting.
  7. Harden off & transplant – Slowly get the seedlings used to the outdoors over 7-10 days. Then transplant into bigger containers or the garden!

It takes some patience, but starting basil from seed is really rewarding.

Transplanting Store-Bought Basil Babies

  1. Select healthy seedlings – Look for ones with green leaves and sturdy stems. Avoid leggy or wilted plants.
  2. Prepare the soil – Make sure your garden bed or container has fertile, well-draining soil. Mix in compost or fertilizer.
  3. Dig holes for seedlings – Space holes 12-18 inches apart in full sun. Gently loosen the roots if root-bound.
  4. Plant ’em – Carefully place each basil seedling in a hole and fill soil around stem. Firm the soil gently but don’t pack too tight.
  5. Water thoroughly – Give a nourishing drink to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets.
  6. Consider transplant shock – Seedlings may droop a bit at first as they recover. Shelter from sun if needed.
  7. Maintain care – Water when the top inch of soil is dry. And harvest often once established!

Starting with transplants makes growing basil super easy. Just give them a sunny spot and consistent care.

Oops! Avoid These Common Basil Blunders

Letting soil get too dry – Basil needs consistent moisture. Don’t let that top layer of soil dry out completely.

Overwatering – Too much water can lead to root rot. Stick to watering only when the top of soil is dry.

Not enough sun – Skimpy sunlight will cause sparse, sad growth. Give it at least 6 hrs of sun per day.

Poor soil drainage – Soggy soil is basil’s enemy #1. Make sure it drains well.

Packed soil – Loose, loamy soil is best. Don’t press too firm around the roots.

Crowding – Give each basil plant 12-18 inches of space. They need room to grow bushy.

Waiting too long to harvest – Pinching back stimulates growth. Don’t be shy with the scissors!

Letting flowers develop – Nip off flowers to keep the focus on tasty leaf growth.

Transplanting too early – Wait until seedlings have 3-4 true leaves before moving them.

Exposed roots – Plant seedlings at same level they were growing to cover all the roots.

Avoid these missteps and your basil will be happy as can be!

Feeding Your Basil So It’s Fit as a Fiddle

Basil is hungry for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK).

Make sure the soil or potting mix you use is formulated specifically for veggies and herbs. That way it will have the right nutrient balance.

You can also mix in a little bit of balanced liquid fertilizer every 2-3 weeks during peak growing season.

I like fish emulsion or compost tea. Just don’t overdo it! Too much fertilizer can burn the roots.

Beyond NPK, basil benefits from calcium and magnesium.

Add some crushed eggshells or Epsom salts to your soil as an extra boost.

And don’t forget the micro-nutrients!

Things like iron, manganese, boron, copper, and zinc keep your basil leaves richly green and robust.

Test your soil to see which specific nutrients it may be lacking.

Then you can amend accordingly. But starting with a quality potting mix takes care of a lot of the guess work!

The most important thing is to not let your soil get depleted. Replenish nutrients by mixing in compost each season. And be sure to feed with an organic fertilizer during peak growing times.

Pinching and Pruning for Maximum Basil Production

Pinch early and often! – Lightly pinching off leaf tips when the plant is young encourages bushy growth.

Snip above leaf nodes – Make sure a set of leaves remains to keep growing. Don’t cut all the way back to the stem.

Remove flowers – Nip off flowering buds to direct energy towards leaf production. Tough, I know!

Prune leggy stems – Cut back any stretched out, weak stems to shape the plant.

Harvest big leaves – Taking the largest leaves helps stimulate new growth. But don’t strip it bare!

Frequent trims – Basil can be pruned every few weeks in peak season. More than other herbs.

Cut the entire plant – Removing all leaves at once before first frost triggers new growth. Then move it inside!

Sharp, clean shears – Pruning with a sharp tool avoids crushing stems and leaves.

Add pinched leaves – Throw pinched off tips and small leaves into recipes! They’re still usable.

Pruning may seem harsh, but basil lives for it! Just stick to frequent, gentle pinching and cutting. Your basil will thank you with endless leaves.

Battling Basil’s Nemeses – Pests and Diseases

Here’s the scoop on some pesky problems you may encounter with basil and how to handle them:

Pest/Disease Description Solution
Aphids These tiny sucking insects can swarm plants. Blast them off with water daily or use insecticidal soap.
Fungus gnats Prevent these bugs by letting soil dry out between waterings. Use sticky traps for adults.
Slugs & snails Go for the beer trap trick! Sink cups of beer into the soil to attract and drown them.
Whiteflies Check leaf undersides for these white bugs. Use a strong stream of water to dislodge them.
Downy mildew This fungal disease causes yellowing leaves. Improve air circulation and avoid wet leaves.
Root rot Soggy soil leads to rotting roots. Let soil dry out between waterings.
Powdery mildew Powdery mildew on leave or stems Dry out plants and remove affected leaves to manage this fungal disease.

Plant spacing, crop rotation, and good garden sanitation practices are the best preventative medicine! Be vigilant about checking for pests daily. At the first sign of trouble, take action with organic solutions. With quick attention, you can keep your basil beautiful and bountiful!

Making Basil Buds – Companion Plant Pairings

Here are some of my favorite companion plants to grow alongside basil:

  • Tomatoes – This classic combo boosts growth and flavor for both plants. Basil repels pests that bother tomatoes.
  • Peppers – Growing basil with peppers can improve their spice. Basil’s flowers also attract pollinators for the peppers.
  • Oregano – These Mediterranean herbs share the same needs for sun and soil. Plus they taste great together!
  • Petunias – The beautiful flowers look lovely next to basil. Petunias also deter aphids, which may munch basil.
  • Marigolds – The bright blooms repel nematodes and other pests. Basil provides marigolds with shade.
  • Bee balm – The minty flowers draw in bees to pollinate the basil. Both plants enjoy similar conditions.
  • Zinnias – These cheerful flowers grow well with basil and attract beneficial insects.
  • Chives – As fellow herbs, chives and basil flourish side-by-side. Chives may protect against aphids.

Go ahead, play matchmaker in your garden! Finding ideal companion plants allows your basil to thrive.

Reading Basil’s Signals – When to Harvest

Here are the signs to look for that your basil is ready for picking:

Size – Leaves should be a good 2-3 inches tall. Any larger and they can get tough.

Color – Deep green, vibrant leaves are peak perfection. Avoid yellowing or wilted ones.

Fragrance – Give those leaves a sniff! Sweet, aromatic basil is harvest ready.

Flower buds – Nip off any flower buds to encourage more leaf growth.

Large lower leaves – Go ahead and pick the biggest leaves at the base to stimulate new growth.

Enough foliage – Never strip the plant completely! Leave at least a third of leaves so it can keep growing.

Use it or lose it! – Basil is best enjoyed fresh. So harvest often once your plant gets going.

Morning is magic – Harvest in the early morning when leaves contain the most essential oils.

Follow these cues and you’ll be harvesting the best basil.

Harvesting with Care for the Best Basil

Here are my best tips for harvesting homegrown basil:

Use clean, sharp scissors or shears – Cutting instead of tearing avoids bruising. Make sure tools are super sharp for easy snipping.

Cut above leaf nodes – This ensures new leaves will keep growing after harvest. Don’t cut all the way back to the main stem.

Harvest in morning – The essential oils in basil are most concentrated early in the day. Bonus: leaves are dry from nighttime dew.

Handle gently – Avoid crushing leaves by lightly grasping stems when gathering. Delicate!

Rinse briefly – Give leaves a quick rinse under cool water. Don’t soak them or leaves can blacken. Gentle is key.

Use it fresh – For best flavor, use basil immediately after picking. The oils start deteriorating quickly.

Store properly – If saving some, place leaves or stems in water. Seal loosely in fridge for 5-7 days max.

Freeze for later – Blend leaves with olive oil in ice cube trays for easy frozen basil anytime!

Prune for productivity – Snip off flowers and large lower leaves often to keep growth coming.

Post-Harvest TLC for Your Basil Plants

Basil is a super productive plant, pumping out leaves all season, so it needs a little TLC to recover after being harvested.

Treating it right post-harvest ensures the plant will stay healthy and keep providing your kitchen with more fresh basil!

Pruning back flowers and larger leaves gives the plant energy to focus on new growth. Providing ample water and nutrients replenishes what was lost when you picked those yummy leaves.

Checking closely for pests allows you to take quick action if any creepy crawlies try to move in on tender new foliage. Maintaining optimal sunlight and soil conditions prevents stressful changes that could shock the plant.

Basil can be harvested repeatedly all season long. But the plant needs your help bouncing back each time you pick it.

With good aftercare, your basil will reward you with endless harvests!

The last thing you want is to accidentally damage the plant or stress it out to the point where it underperforms or gets diseased.

With that said here are my tips for caring for basil plants after harvesting:

  1. Don’t strip it bare – Leave at least a third of leaves on the plant so it can keep photosynthesizing and growing.
  2. Prune for regrowth – Snip off any flowers or large lower leaves to stimulate new growth.
  3. Water well – Give the plant a good drink after harvesting to hydrate and recover.
  4. Fertilize occasionally – Use an organic fertilizer every 2-3 weeks to replenish nutrients.
  5. Check for pests – Inspect closely and treat any aphids, mites, etc. that may appear on new growth.
  6. Maintain optimal conditions – Keep providing ample sunlight, warm temps, and moist well-draining soil.
  7. Monitor closely – Harvest again once new top leaves are a decent size. Don’t let them get too big and bloomy.
  8. Prevent shock – Transplant basil startings after harvesting to keep the plant active and growing.
  9. Harvest before frost – At the end of the season, harvest all leaves before the first fall frost hits.
  10. Bring it inside – You can pot up basil and bring it in to extend the harvest if desired!

Preserving the Basil Bounty – Drying and Freezing

Drying and storing basil properly is so important for preserving all that delicious flavor from your harvest!

Here are some of my tips:

The key reason is that the oils and aromas in fresh basil diminish quickly.

So drying or freezing is crucial for having basil to cook with out of season.

To dry basil

Wait until after the morning dew has evaporated and then rinse and gently pat leaves completely dry. You don’t want any moisture when drying. Carefully remove leaves from stems. Place leaves in a single layer on a drying rack or baking sheet.

Set your oven to the absolute lowest temperature, around 95°F to 115°F, with the door propped open slightly. Slowly dry the basil leaves for 2-4 hours. You can also use a food dehydrator on the lowest setting.

Once fully dried, the leaves will be crispy and crumble easily. Remove leaves and store them in an airtight jar out of direct sunlight. Dried basil keeps for months!

For freezing

Blend chopped basil with a bit of olive oil in ice cube trays. Pop out the cubes and store in freezer bags. Frozen cubes can be tossed right into cooking!

Proper drying and freezing means you can enjoy garden-fresh basil flavor all year round.

When Basil Goes Bad – Troubleshooting Common Issues

Here are some common issues that can pop up when growing basil and how to solve them:

Wilting leaves – This is usually from inconsistent watering. Basil needs steadily moist soil. Make sure to water when the top inch is dry.

Yellowing leaves – Can indicate too much or too little water, nutrient deficiency, or diseases. Check soil moisture and drainage, and fertilize if needed.

Leggy growth – When basil gets lanky and weak, it needs more sun. Give it at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.

Flowering – Nip off any flowering buds to encourage leaf growth instead. Fertilizing can also cause blooms.

Pests – Aphids, fungus gnats, and whiteflies may appear. Use organic sprays like insecticidal soap or neem oil.

Diseases – Fungal issues like mildew are common. Improve airflow and avoid wet leaves.

Slow growth – This can happen if soil is too compact, temps are too cold, or nutrients are lacking.

Leaf curling – Signifies underwatering typically. Give plants a deep drink and check soil drainage.

Bringing Home the Basil – Parting Words of Wisdom

I hope these tips have inspired you to add some homegrown basil to your garden or containers this year! There’s nothing quite like having this fresh, aromatic herb right at your fingertips in the kitchen.

Growing your own basil is so rewarding. And it’s really not difficult at all once you learn the basics. All it needs is bright sun, rich soil, consistent moisture, and frequent harvesting. Be diligent with pest prevention and troubleshoot issues promptly.

The flavor of freshly picked basil just can’t compare to store-bought. Your homemade pesto, sauces, and Caprese salads will be elevated to new heights! Why not give it a try?

Start with a small pot on the patio or tuck a few plants into your vegetable garden. Harvesting those big, gorgeous leaves all summer gives me such joy. I bet you’ll quickly get hooked like me!

Let me know if you have any other questions as you get your basil growing. I’m happy to help! Wishing you a bountiful harvest!