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Growing Basil

Nothing says summer more than fresh basil growing in the garden. This warm-weather loving annual herb is not only versatile but is also easy to grow. Today, I will share tips on growing basil and some tricks to ensure you get a bountiful harvest from your prolific plants.

Basil is one of those herbs you don’t need to plant too many of. With a couple of plants, you can enjoy fresh sauces and leaves. If your goal is to fill the freezer with pesto and the spice cabinet with jars, then you will need at least five plants. That’s good for me because I always plant extra basil plants.

Growing Basil

Basil is one of the easier herbs to grow from seed. If you don’t like starting your seeds, head to your local garden center. Be careful about going to the garden center. With all the available varieties, you are likely to come out with ten plants when you only intended to purchase 2.

When growing basil from seed, remember it is a summer crop. What does that mean? They love warm and humid temperatures. Basil is one of the herbs that benefit from beginning the germination process on a seedling heating mat.

Like other veggie seeds, make sure to:

  1. Use an airy seed starting mix

  2. Keep the soil consistently damp but not soggy.

  3. Provide heat to aid germination

  4. Provide a light source. Whether it be from a window sill or an overhead LED light

Planting Basil

Basil is a warm-season crop, so make sure to plant the basil after the danger of a frost has passed. It loves well-draining, rich and fertile soil. I have noticed that I grow the best basil in beds that have been amended with compost or leaf mold. When planting basil seedlings, try to keep 8-12” spacing between plants. This spacing recommendation I tend to disregard and plant my basil seedlings closer. The 4-6” spacing is what I like. Then the plants will grow together into one large bush, providing support and shade for each other.

Basil needs 6-8 hours of sunlight. Lightly filtered light is ok, but basil prefers direct sun. If you live somewhere like here in Houston, you may want to consider providing your plants with a bit of afternoon shade. To accomplish this, plant basil between taller plants like tomatoes or peppers where they will receive shade.

No garden bed? No problem. Basil thrives in containers. I once grew a holy basil plant in a 10-gallon pot for over 18 months before the historic freeze wiped it out. Growing basil in a container allows you to place the pot where it would receive shade.

Basil is not drought tolerant, so water when the soil starts to dry. For the best harvest, you want to have a consistent watering schedule. Drip Irrigation systems make this easy to achieve. Applying mulch around the base of the basil plant will assist with water retention. 

Pruning Basil

When basil seedlings reach 4-6” tall and have multiple sets of true leaves, it’s time for their first chop. Grab a pair or snips, and cut above the second highest node. The node is the area where two larger leaves are growing out of the stem. A few days after making this cut, tiny leaves on both sides of the cut start growing. These little leaves will eventually grow into two new larger branches.

If you purchase the transplant from your favorite nursery, it should have a decent size. You will want to follow the same steps as listed above. Located the top two sets of leaves and cut above or below the node. This will cause the plant to send out two new main stems.

Now the secret to achieving the bushy basil plant we are all searching for is to continuously top, or cut below a node, on every main stem. Since this process produces two new branches, every time we make this cut, whether we know it or not, we are telling the plant to become wider.

Harvesting Basil

There is only one way to achieve a big, bushy, healthy, flourishing basil plant use it. By regularly harvesting from the bush, you are signaling the plant to produce more. Basil is one of those herbs that you should continuously harvest. Harvesting basil frequently helps prolong the life of the plant.

Now people will say make sure you cut off flowers to encourage more vegetative growth. I don’t subscribe to this mindset. Rather, I always leave my basil flower. Why? Because it is a favorite of the bees and other pollinators in the garden. Usually, I do a couple of big basil harvests every season instead of continuous harvests. When I harvest, I remove whatever flowers there are along with the vegetation. One of the drawbacks of this method is that I don’t always harvest these flowers before the seeds produce. Then I end up with basil plants popping up everywhere. I don’t know if that is a drawback since I love basil.

Storing Basil

Have a plan for the basil before you harvest. Do not just go outside and cut it randomly. That is a surefire way to waste your harvest.

To store basil in the fridge or on the countertop, treat it as a flower. Place the cut stems in a bowl or jar of water.

If you opt for a larger harvest like I do, then be prepared to make pesto or have a way to dehydrate the leaves.

Growing Basil: My Favorite Varieties

· Tulsi/ Holy Basil – My absolute favorite basil of all times. I use it for tea. Said to be the best basil you could grow.

· Genovese- Original basil used for pesto

· Thai Basil- Add this basil to lemonade in the summer

· Lemon Basil- Great fir tea blends and fish dishes

· African Blue Basil- a favorite of the pollinators

Thanks for reading! Now it’s time to just grow it.

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