Although commonly found in delicious, Italian dishes, basil is thought to have originated in the Far East and was first cultivated in India. While this plant doesn’t care for cooler weather, it’ll grow in abundance in most areas once frosts have passed. Basil also makes a great container plant that can be moved indoors when cold weather approaches. Basil comes in many colors and sizes, with most common varieties growing 1–3′ tall with green or purple glossy leaves and red, purple, or white flowers.
Genovese basil is a type of sweet basil known for the strong flavor of its large, deep green leaves. That flavor has been described as similar to licorice or mint, but its got a tang all of its own. Plants can reach up to 2 feet in height and diameter. It prefers warm weather but will grow easily in a container throughout the year. This type of basil is a must-have for gardeners, as it provides fresh leaves year round for use in pesto, salads, and pizza.
Seed Depth: 1/4″
Space Between Plants: 6–10″
Space Between Rows: 12–18″
Germination Soil Temperature: 65–85°F
Days for Germination: 5–10
Sow Indoors: 4–6 weeks before average last frost date.
Sow Outdoors: 1–2 weeks after average last frost date or when soil has warmed to over 60°F. Sow more seeds every 3 weeks for a continual harvest.
Vegetative: Commonly propagated by taking stem cuttings. Cut about 4″ of a stem and remove the leaves from the bottom 2″. This cutting will root easily in a glass of water, aeroponic system, or soilless media. When roots are about 2″ long, or it has been growing for 2–4 weeks, new plants can be transplanted to their final location.
Basil is a semi-tropical herb and likes sunny days and comfortable temperatures. Because its leaves are slightly succulent, basil doesn’t tolerate temperatures below freezing. Mild zones, like those above USDA Zone 5, exhibit ideal climate conditions for growing basil as an annual. This cultivar is grown as a perennial in Zones 9–12.
Natural: 4–6 hours of full sun. Tolerates partial sun. Basil will do just fine on a sunny windowsill.
Artificial: Will grow well under artificial lamps such as a compact fluorescent. Provide 8–12 hours of light per day.
Soil: Prefers a well-drained loamy soil. A pH of between 6.0 and 7.0 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Start seeds in a soilless mix or mineral wool cubes. Container-grown plants will do well with a soilless mix with added nutrients.
Hydroponics: Thrives in a variety of hydroponic systems, including NFT or a media-based hydroponic system. Use clay beads, perlite, coco coir, a soilless mix, or a combination.
Aeroponics: Cuttings will root easily in an aeroponic system.
Water: Requires moderate levels of water. Consistently moist soil is best, but take care not to overwater. Use drip irrigation or carefully hand water to avoid getting leaves wet.
Nutrients: Requires moderate to high levels of nutrients. Amend soil with compost before planting or transplanting. Feed plants every 2–3 weeks during the warm growing season.
Foliar: Will benefit from a foliar spray of diluted Epsom salts if the soil is deficient in magnesium.
Pruning: When seedlings have 3 sets of true leaves (not counting the initial seed leaves), pinch off the top set. Continue this pattern when harvesting, pruning each branch you harvest back to just above its first or second set of leaves. If your plant has started to flower or seed, remove flowering stems to prolong harvest. To extend your harvest, you can cut off the top third of the plant to stimulate new growth if it seems to have slowed.
Mulching: Use mulch to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Deficiency(s): A magnesium deficiency will cause yellowing of leaves between the veins. An iron deficiency will also cause yellowing of leaves, usually starting with new growth. A nitrogen deficiency will cause slowed growth and yellowing of leaves. So, the lesson is: yellow leaves means fertilize!
Rotation: Rotate plots of basil every year.
Companions: Plant near tomatoes, peppers, oregano, and petunias. Avoid planting near sage or rue.
Harvest: Leaves will have the best flavor when picked before flowers emerge. Take the top sets of leaves from about 1/3 of the plant’s stems, cutting the whole stem just above a full set of leaves to encourage branching of new growth. If you’ve got some outdoor plants and a frost is in the forecast, cut the whole plant ASAP.
Storage: Fresh leaves will not keep over two or three days, even with refrigeration. Crumble dried leaves into an airtight container to keep for over a year.
Fun Fact: Genovese basil is an Italian staple, with the best plants grown near the city of Genoa. The plant is considered a symbol of love, so bring a bouquet of basil flowers to your next date!
Preserve: Leaves can be dried for later use. The best results will come from hanging stems upside down in a sheltered location or with paper bags around the stems. Poke adequate air holes in the bag for ventilation. Leaves can also be used in pickle recipes, though usually only in small quantities, for flavoring. Alternately, you can chop or blend basil and freeze it in oil or water, using ice cube trays for single-serving portions.
Prepare: Fresh basil leaves need only a quick rinse just before use. Chop or use whole as a pizza topping, in pasta dishes, in salads or fruit salads, or use a large harvest to make pesto. You’ll also see leaves in soup and sauce recipes. Seeds are also edible and can be mixed into drinks, similarly to chia seeds.
Nutritional: Provides vitamin(s) K, C, beta-carotene (which is converted into vitamin A), calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron.
Medicinal: Basil has anti-inflammatory properties. It is also used as a digestive aid and to reduce gas, nausea, and stomach cramps. Seed extracts and oil have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Topical applications of basil leaves may help to reduce itching associated with insect bites. The scent is used in aromatherapy to support mental healthy and invigoration. It’s prominently used in the ancient Ayurvedic system of India as well.
Put a twist on traditional pesto by making this Hemp Basil Pesto and keep some in your fridge or freezer for a year round treat.