A woody, branching plant, basil is a warm-weather annual that grows very fast in 80- to 90-degree weather. When growing basil, note that two or three plants will yield plenty of fresh leaves for a family of four — unless you plan to make pesto. (To make and freeze a winter's supply of pesto, plant a dozen or more.) Many gardeners mix various types of basil in their flower beds, where it is ready for a quick harvest anytime. It is also great for containers.
Quick Guide to Growing Basil
- Plant basil 2 weeks after the last spring frost. This flavorful herb is perfect for raised garden beds, containers, and in-ground gardens.
- Space basil according to label recommendations, usually 12 to 18 inches apart. Grow in fertile, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. Consider a premium bagged potting mix for growing in containers.
- Give your garden a great foundation by mixing in several inches of aged compost or other rich organic matter into your native soil.
- Basil thrives in moist soil, so check moisture levels often and water deeply once the top inch becomes dry.
- As basil plants grow to 4 to 6 inches tall, pinch off the topmost branches to promote more side shoots and a taller plant overall. Be sure to pinch off blooms to prevent your plant from going to seed.
- Encourage excellent leaf production by keeping basil fed with a water-soluble plant food.
- Once basil grows to 6 to 8 inches tall, harvest leaves anytime by pinching them off.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Basil needs 6 to 8 hours of sun; in the South and Southwest, it benefits from afternoon shade. Start with strong young basil plants from Bonnie Plants® for best results, and set them out at least 2 weeks after the last frost in spring. (Summer planting is okay, too.) Space at the distance recommended on the label, which is generally 12 to 18 inches apart. Plants are very frost sensitive, so keep plants protected in case of a late cold spell.
Basil likes rich, moist, but well-drained soil with a pH of 6 to 7. Test your soil, or simply improve it by adding plenty of organic nutrients from compost, blood meal, or cottonseed meal. Or, just add a few inches of aged compost-enriched Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics® All Purpose In-Ground Soil to the top layer of your native soil. If planting in a container, use a large pot to keep the plants from drying out quickly in hot weather. Fill the pot with Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics® All Purpose Container Mix, which also contains compost but is lighter and fluffier than in-ground soil, perfect for growing in pots.
While rich, nutritious soil is a great starting point for growing basil, you'll get even better results if you also feed your plants regularly—especially because basil is harvested heavily for lots of leaves. Fertilize your basil with Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics® Edibles Plant Nutrition. It goes beyond just feeding your plants, also nourishing the beneficial microbes in the soil that help those plants take up all the nutrients they need.
Water deeply and thoroughly whenever the top inch of soil is dry. Keep in mind that pots tend to dry out faster than in-ground gardens, and that no matter where you plant, you'll probably need to water more often as temperatures rise. You may also want to add mulch around your basil plants to help keep the soil moist and extend the time between waterings.
Want to grow basil indoors? Read our How to Grow Herbs Indoors article for tips on growing in pots, or consider planting basil in a water-based (aka hydroponic) growing system like the Miracle-Gro® Twelve™ Indoor Growing System. Here's how it works: Plants grow directly in water that is circulated around the roots, delivering all the air, moisture, and nutrition they need, while an LED grow light provides the "sunlight". It's an excellent environment for growing!
Occasionally, basil is bothered by aphids, slugs, or Japanese beetles. However, the biggest threat is poor drainage, so to avoid root rot, plant in a well-drained location. Also, don't let it get too dry, or growth may be stunted. If your plants get away from you to the point at which they are making seeds and have stopped growing, shear off the top third of the stems and fertilize with liquid fertilizer. Never cut the woody part of the stem, or the plant won't sprout back.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest leaves by pinching them from the stems anytime after the young plants have reached a height of 6 to 8 inches. Pinch the leaves from the tips of the stems to encourage the plant to branch and make more leaves. Try to keep the stems pinched even if you don't use the leaves; otherwise, the plant will begin to flower and make seeds, and will stop producing leaves. At the first prediction of even the lightest frost, go ahead and harvest all your basil because it will quickly turn black in cold weather. Make easy work of this by cutting the entire plants off at ground level, then pick off the best leaves. You can dry them, but freezing them or using them in vinegar best preserves the herb's flavour. You can also use the leaves to flavour oils and pesto, which should be kept refrigerated or frozen. (Don't keep fresh leaves in the refrigerator, though, as they will turn brown.)
You can also keep cut stems fresh for a few days by putting the cut ends in water just like a cut flower. They will add a fresh fragrance to the air.
For the fullest flavor, add fresh basil to dishes within the last 5 or 10 minutes of cooking time. Use fresh basil in tomato dishes, soups, salads, sauces, and pasta. Its flavor blends well with parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage.