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How to Grow Basil Plants

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Opal Purple Basil

Growing Fresh Basil

Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Overview:

Basil is a member of the mint family. It is closely identified with Italian cooking, although it is originally from India. The extremely aromatic leaves also have a delightful variety of flavors from the slightly lemony-mint of sweet basil to cinnamon, and licorice. Leaf colors span from rich green to deep purple, with smooth or crinkled leaves. The flowers are insignificant, but very popular with bees.

They all grow easily in warm, sunny weather as tender annuals. The leaves are commonly used in cooking, but the flower buds are also edible.

Latin Name:

Ocimum basilicum Common: Basil

Hardiness Zones:

Basil plants can be grown as perennials in USDA hardiness zones 10 and above, but for most of us, it is a tender annual that only lasts until the first frost.

Mature Size:

Varies with variety. "Sweet Basil" can reach 6 ft. tall, but grows to about 3' for most gardeners. Continually pinching and using your basil will coax it into becoming bushy. There are also short 6" dwarf varieties, which work especially well in pots.

Exposure:

Basil does best in full sun. You will have less disease problems and sturdier plants.

Bloom Period/Days to Harvest:

Basil is ready to start harvesting in about 60 - 90 days, from seed.

You'll want to prevent your basil from blooming for as long as possible, by harvesting or pinching off the top sets of leaves as soon as the plant reaches about 6 inches in height. If the plant sets flowers, it is on its way to going to seed and will not grow bushy and fill out with a lot tasty leaves. Once a basil plant goes to seed, the existing leaves lessen in flavor, so don't be afraid to cut and use it. The flowers are edible, too. So don't despair if a few plants get ahead of you.

Design Tips:

Basil is traditionally planted alongside tomato plants. It's said they help each other grow, but it may just be for convenience in harvesting. But basil does not need to remain in the vegetable or herb garden. Some of the shorter, purple varieties, like 'Spicy Globe', actually make nice edging plants in the ornamental garden, if you don't have problems with animals. And it can easily be grown in containers. Give it at least a 12" pot and a sunny site and it should do very well.

Suggested Varieties:

    'Genovese' - Larger leaves than 'Sweet Basil', with all the flavor.

  • 'Cinnamon' or 'Mexican Spice' - Green foliage, purple flowers, with a spicy, cinnamon scent.
  • 'Finissimo Verde a Palla' & 'Spicy Clove' - Quick growing compact plants that are great for containers and edges.
  • 'Lemon' - Gives a fresh lemony tang to pesto. Small leaves can be harder to harvest. The cultivar 'Sweet Lemon Dani' or 'Sweet Dani' has lemon flavor and larger leaves.
  • 'Red Rubin' - Keeps purple color throughout the season with great flavor. Wonderful in vinegars.

Growing Tips:

Basil is a heat lover. Don't bother planting it until the daytime temperatures remain in the 70s F. and night temperatures are above 50 degrees F. Seeds can be started indoors 3-4 weeks before last spring frost date. Unlike many Mediterranean herbs, basil likes a somewhat rich soil and doesn't like to be kept dry.

Space plants about 10" apart. They will bush out. Begin pinching the tops off once the plants reach about 6" in height. If you don't pinch or harvest, the plants will grow tall and gangly, with few leaves and will bolt to seed.

Basil is very sensitive to frost and will be one of the first plants to go in the fall. You can extend the season slightly by covering your plants with row covers when frost is threatened. Don't let the row cover touch the leaves. Frost on the outside of the row cover is enough to damage the tender leaves and is to likely turn them black.

If you live in a frost free area, you might want to allow some basil plants so set flowers and self-seed in your garden. Not all varieties will do this successfully.

Growing Indoors: You can grow basil indoor, from seed, seedling or cuttings from your vegetable garden plants. Provide direct sunlight and warmth and feed monthly. An underfed basil plant, indoors or out, will have pale green leaves.

Problems: Aphids are the biggest basil pest, especially if grown indoors. Beetles and slugs can be a nuisance outdoors, tearing holes in the leaves.

Harvesting: Frequent harvesting or pinching of the leaves will keep your basil plants producing longer. You can pinch off individual leaves or take the tops off of large plants, if you need a large amount.

Uses: Basil can be used in cooking, generally added at the end to keep its fresh taste and color. Basil can also be used fresh in salads, on sandwiches or even as a wrap, for instance around cheese cubes.

Preserving: Basil can be dried or frozen, for use after harvest.

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