Basil is one of the most-used herbs in my garden. It is a nice companion plant for tomatoes, a wonderful addition to tomato sauces or salads and a must-have for amazing pesto. Basil is an easy-to-grow annual that does in the garden as well as in containers- or even indoors on the windowsill as a houseplant.
How to Grow Basil
Basil is usually started from seed about 8 weeks before your last frost date. Sow your seeds into a light seed-starting medium and lightly cover with about ¼ in of soil. Keep the soil evenly moist to ensure proper germination. Germination should take place in about 5 days. Keep your seedlings in a sunny window or under artificial grow lights until the weather has warmed. Once all threat of frost has past you can transplant your basil seedlings into their final spot in your garden. Make sure your final planting spot receives full sun, though it will grow in partial shade- as long as it gets at least 6 hours of sun each day. Plant your seedling about 18 inches apart. Basil need ample water, so be sure to water during dry periods and mulch to help conserve and prevent water loss.
Care and Harvest of Basil
Once the weather has warmed, basil will grow quite fast. You can begin harvesting some of the leaves almost immediately. Pinching off the growing tips will help create a bushy plant with more stems and leaves. Once your plants are about 6 inches tall you can start pruning- aka harvesting! When it comes to pruning, don’t be afraid to take off a lot of stems. Some things to remember are:
- You want to top the plant, leaving the bottom 1/3of the plant still growing. Your plants will look small and scraggly after pruning, but they will come back big and bushy in a matter of weeks.
- Prune your plants regularly- about every 4 weeks. Give them a chance to rest in between. You can still pick leaves for soups or salads, but leave your drying and pesto making for after your big harvests.
- Pinch off any flowers or buds you see on your plants. Your leaves will have a much stronger flavor if it has not been allowed to flower.
With proper care and regular harvests, you will be able to have a ready supply of basil all season long.
If you want fresh basil all year long, try growing a few plants in containers that can be brought inside when the weather turns cooler in the fall. You can also preserve your summer harvest by either drying or freezing your basil.
Like most herbs, drying basil is fairly simple. You can tie your stems together in a bunch and hang them upside down inside until completely dry. Since basil has a high water content, it can sometimes take quite awhile to dry completely enough to store in jars or containers. Using a dehydrator is helpful in drying your basil completely so that it won’t mold.
You can also freeze basil by:
- Chopping coarsely and coating with olive oil before placing in your freezer containers.
- Pressing basil leaves into ice cube trays or other containers, filling with water, then freezing.
- Blanching your basil leaves and flash freezing them before transferring to a freezer bag or container.
- Freezing your basil as pesto.
Don’t be tied down to sweet basil! There is a big basil world out there, here are some other varieties you might want to try out this year:
- Corsican: A basil originating in the Mediterranean, with mottled green and purple leaves. It has a strong, aromatic flavor that makes for an amazing pesto!
- Genovese: An Italian heirloom basil with large leaves. Grows fast with high yields. Great for cooking.
- Siam Queen: A strong, clove-scented basil. Benefits from afternoon shade in hotter climates. Great for stir-fry or curries.
- Cinnamon: A basil with a concentrated cinnamon scent. Make a wonderful tea or infused oil. Can be used in some recipes to replace cinnamon.
- Lemon: A light, lemon scented basil. Great for adding to lemonade or seafood dishes. Makes an interesting twist on your standard pesto.