Everything You Need To Know About Growing and Using Basil

I'm constantly growing basil as it is my one essential herb for cooking.

I think I could give up just about any other herb (if we don't count salt and pepper) if I could keep basil. I grow it and use it in combination with my tomato plants (and cooking) and given how much I like tomatoes.

How To Start Basil Seeds

For early crops, sow the seeds any time after the beginning of April. Barely cover seed with soil.

  • Soil temperatures should be in the low 70's F. and it should only take 7 days before you see germination.

  • basil citriodora boxwood


  • Grow on in the seedling flat until the plants have 4 true leaves and then transplant into their own small container.

  • If You Buy Your Seedlings Crammed Into A Pot

  • You'll often see small pots of basil sold in stores with multiple plants all bunched together at the bottom. This is because the grower was too busy to separate the tender stems (they demand care) when transplanting and it is much easier to move a larger number hoping enough will survive to give you a potfull.

  • When you take these home, divide the pot into quarters and you'll have multiple stems in each quarter. Plant each one and pinch off those that are the weakest (use the leaves!)

  • You'll wind up with one or two good stems from each quarter-pot and then they'll grow strongly and well. But if you plant the entire pot, you risk losing them to some fungal infection.

  • Overcrowding of seedlings is one of the worst things you can do to basil. If you're not careful, you will lose the entire pot. Don't sown closer than 3/4 inch apart.

  • Lots of Species and Varieties

    There are indeed 35 species in this family of plants, ranging from annuals right through perennials and into shrubs. The one I'm interested in though is a tender annual here in zone 4 and is perhaps the most important culinary herb in my repertoire.

    I'm going to ignore for the moment the other members including O. tenuiflorum, the Hindu Sacred Basil. Sacred Basil is used quite extensively in India during funeral rites as an emblem of good luck and is also used in anti-malarial fumigation. Other species such as O. kilmandschaicum (Camphor Basil) are mostly used for medicinal purposes when treating stomach aches and colds.

    How We Grow Basil In Our Herb Garden

    Before we plunge into the problem solving part of growing basil, let me give you some easy growing tips.

  • The first is that the seed is extremely easy to germinate. Sow thinly in a warm spot (it doesn't grow well in cold soil). You can abuse this seed in other ways but do keep it warm if you want to see it grow.

  • Barely cover it with soil.

  • If you cover it too deeply, it will not germinate well. Keep moist - not swampy.

  • Water with warm water to really bring the seeds along.

  • Grow in as much sun as you can provide.

  • Sow indoors approximately four to six weeks before you want to plant them outside or alternately, sow outside after the soil has well warmed up.

  • Overcrowding Is Bad

    Overcrowding of seedlings will lead to stem rots, mildews and fungal infections. Forewarned is forearmed so do space them well in your own garden and your growing basil will not be plagued with those problems.

    Transplant in the garden so that every plant is 12 inches apart.

    Water regularly and fertilize with compost. Overfeeding nitrogen produces a poor tasting plant (but one that grows like heck).

    If you're like me and need to get even more plants, you can sow them outside after all danger of frost and the ground has warmed up. I usually sow in the first week of June. Sow the seeds one eighth inch deep and thin the resulting seedlings (about two to three weeks later) to one inch apart. Transplant the extra to other rows (trust me, you'll want extra rows once you taste fresh basil). As the plants start to grow, continue to thin out the extra until the final 12-inch spacing is reached.

    Damping Off

    Damping off is a potential problem if you sow too thickly, grow cool or overwater. This fungus attacks the seedling at the soil line and the seedlings topple over.

    Mix up a garlic tea (one clove of crushed garlic in an inch of water - simmer to release the oils - and cool) and flood the soil with the tea and garlic residue. This should slow down the problem.

    Thin out the survivors, put in a warm, sunny spot, increase the airflow around the pot and water only with warm water to put your plants back on the healthy growing track.

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    Harvest regularly before the plant flowers. When you see the plant trying to set flowers, pinch them off. Keep harvesting. Take a final harvest right before frost as there will be nothing left of this plant once Jack Frost hits it.

    You can dig up basil plants in the fall and pot them up for a sunny windowsill but it is far easier to start another crop for winter use (with less bugs or hitchhikers) around the end of August indoors. You will find growing basil will be slower indoors with the lower light levels of fall and winter.

    Basil freezes well if you only want the flavor and not the look of the plant. It's very easy to air dry and then crumble into a sunproof jar to be kept fresh.

    perennial flower garden

    Culpepper on Basil

    My Favorite Basil Varieties

    The hard part of choosing basil comes in picking the one you want to grow. Regular cooking basil comes in so many forms and flavours now that it is almost an indecency. How is a poor gardener to choose from lemon flavoured, sweet flavoured, genovese or spicy-flavoured? Do I pick a small leaf, a huge leaf, a purple leaf or just a plain old green leaf? Nobody said being a gardener was an easy job.

    My favourite form is 'Genovese'. This is a large leaved type plant from the Genoa area of Italy and is, in my humble opinion, the very best leaf to use for making pesto. It has a spicy quality that is lacking in all other varieties.

    I see this year that a new form of this plant, 'Special Select FT' has been imported to North America and the catalogues call it "grown for the best pesto in Italy." Who am I to argue with this? It will have to be in my garden this summer. There is also a compact form of 'Genovese' for those of you who think your garden is too small for a regular basil plant. Personally I can't imagine that situation.

    Another variety I've grown for a few years is 'Mammoth'. Now if I tell you that I've grown a leaf that is four to five times the size of a regular leaf, you may think I'm being excessive in my zeal for this plant. I confess. So what? This form give the biggest leaves which, when you think about it, simply makes using it all that much easier.

    basil citriodora boxwood

    Basil citriodora 'Boxwood' A dward lemon basil.

    Lemon Flavored Basils

    'Mrs. Burns', 'Sweet Dani' and the species form O. americanum. (no, it is not an American native - it is African - go figure) I've grown the O. americanum several times and it makes a delightful addition to summer salads.

    'Sweet Dani' was an AAS award winner from 1998 so you can hardly go wrong growing it. If you are feeling a trifle more adventurous, you might want to grow

    basil citriodora boxwood

    Red leafed Basil

    Purple Leafed Basils

    'Ararat', a purple leaved form with strong taste and tones of licorice. This is a bonus for summer time salads.

    You can even grow basil as an ornamental if you can refrain from eating it.

    'Osmin' has the deepest purple leaves of any of the purple-leaved group.

    'Purple Bush' is, what else, a purple dome, bush-shaped basil that is excellent for pot culture or low hedging.

    'Spicy Globe' is a dense, globe shaped tiny bush that makes a wonderful accent "period" mark in the garden.

    'Dark Opal' is another dark purple-bronze leaf form and one which makes an excellent vinegar because it turns the vinegar dark purple-red. This variety might throw green seedlings so rogue them out and grow them as regular basil in the herb garden. If you are concerned with possible green seedlings, try growing

    'Rubin' instead. Its purple leaves do the same thing to vinegar and its flavour is wonderful too. The last ornamental I'll suggest you grow is

    'Purple Ruffles'. This variety has ruffled leaves and is a vigorous grower. You'll have to rogue out the odd green leaved form from this seed mixture too.

    My Favorite Recipe With Basil As A Primary Ingredient

    Tomato and Basil Jam

    This is good stuff and I "encourage" Mayo to include this on her canning list every year. Well.. encourage might be too soft a word. How about "beg?" Yeah, that's more like it

    The following amounts "should" make 3.5 pints or 7 half pints

    We got 4 half pints in 8/13

    4 pounds any colour tomato
    3 cups granulated sugar
    1/2 cup lemon juice
    zest of two lemons, divided (1 lemon = about 1T of zest)
    1/4 cup roughly chopped basil

    Cut the tomatoes in half or smaller. You can really chop them finer if you want.

    Add the chopped tomatoes and sugar into a large, non-reactive pot and stir. Let the mix sit for at least an hour.

    After the hour, add lemon juice. Mix. Get the canning pot and jars sterilized and ready to go. Place jam pot over high heat and bring to a boil.

    Boil for 30-35 minutes, stirring regularly, until all the tomatoes are soft and the syrup is thick. Note: if you use an electric stove, find or make an element trivit to get the pot off the element itself and this will reduce burning.

    Once you’re satisfied with the thickness of the syrup, remove pot from heat and stir in half the lemon zest and all the chopped chopped basil. Taste the jam and add lemon zest to taste.

    Fill the jars. Process jars in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.

    After 10 minutes, take the jars out of the canning pot to cool When you can pick them up with your bare hands, test the tops for sealing. Hide any unsealed jars in the refrigerator so Doug can't eat it all right away. Any that have sealed can be stored cool and dark for a year. If they last that long, I'll be surprised.

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    Traditional Medicinal Uses of Basil

    According to "A Modern Herbal" from Mrs. M. Grieve, there are few uses for basil in the ancient literature.

    But the web is full of advice on how to use this herb, much of it contradictory.

    One resource suggested basil is used as a cure for stomach spasms, loss of appetite, intestinal gas, kidney conditions, fluid retention, head colds, warts, and worm infections.

    Another said you can also use it for treating snake and insect bites.

    Yet a third said it promotes blood circulation so women used it after childbirth to start the flow of milk.

    Doug's Summary

    What Doug knows is that it makes a mean addition to tomato recipes. Toasted tomato sandwiches with a sprig of basil are wonderful. Basil added to tomato sauces is like bacon and eggs - they simply go well together.

    It is, quite frankly, one of the few herbs I wouldn't do without.

    Sources for Basil Seed

    Click here for different varieties of basil seed and plants

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