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Basil: Planting, Growing, and Harvesting

Basil, an aromatic herb with a delightful fragrance and flavor, and a versatile and popular addition to culinary dishes, gardens, and even herbal remedies.

Learn how to plant, grow and harvest basil and add flavor to your favorite recipes

Widely cultivated worldwide, Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow. The leaves are used fresh or dried to flavor meats, fish, salads, and sauces. Its sweet aroma and strong flavor make it popular in a variety of cuisines.

All you need to know about Basil

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum) belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae), along with oregano, thyme, and rosemary. Native to the tropical regions of Asia, it was introduced in the Mediterranean basin by the Greeks and Romans and later diffused in the rest of Europe and the Americas. Dozens of cultivars and varieties are available, offering a rich array of flavors, leaf colors, and textures, from sweet Italian varieties to spicy Thai basils.
  • Most varieties are short-lived tender perennials that thrive in warmer climates, such as the Mediterranean region and Africa. In cooler climates, they are usually grown as aromatic annuals or biennials. Adaptable to the heat, Basil is a warm-season herb that is frost-sensitive and does not survive a light frost.
  • Depending on the varieties, Basil is ready to harvest 60 to 90 days after planting. It is regarded as one of the easiest plants to grow.
  • Basil grows extremely well both indoors and outdoors. It requires a sheltered, warm, sunny site with well-drained soil.

Most Popular Basil Types

  • Sweet Basil: This is the most popular variety, with large, smooth, and glossy bright green leaves and a sweet taste. Perfect for all salad and Italian dishes, it is widely grown in Italy for use in pesto. 18-24 in. tall (45-60 cm).
  • Genovese Basil: This is one of the most popular varieties for culinary use, particularly for its use in pesto. The leaves are large and slightly crinkled with jasmine, lemon, and licorice aroma. 24-36 in. tall (60-90 cm).
  • Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora): Also known as Licorice Basil, Thai basil is a small variety with showy purple flowers and pointed green leaves with purplish veins. It is savory, spicy, and anise-like and holds up well to high-heat cooking in stir-fries. It originates in Thailand and is the perfect basil to use in Thai dishes. 12-18 in. tall (30-45 cm).
  • Greek Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum): Very compact and ideal for containers, Greek basil has smaller leaves than sweet basil. They have an intense flavor with reduced anise overtones. Use it to make pesto or add it to tomato sauces or pizzas. 8-12 in. tall (20-30 cm).
  • Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. citriodorum): This variety has narrow, matte green leaves with a fresh lemon-anise flavor. A key ingredient in Arabic, Indonesian, Philippines, Lao, Malay, Persian, and Thai cuisine. Great for seafood dishes, basil lemonade, and basil butter. 24 in. tall (60 cm).
  • Opal Basil: Also called Purple Basil, this striking variety has great flavor and ornamental value with its dramatic, glossy, deep-purple leaves. The leaves have a sweet, savory, and earthy flavor with notes of anise, ginger, cinnamon, clove, and mint. Best suited for flavoring both fresh and cooked preparations. In the summer, the plants produce edible small lilac-pink flowers with a mild, subtly sweet flavor. 18 in. tall (45 cm).
  • Lettuce Leaf Basil: This slow-grower produces an abundance of large, wrinkled, bright green leaves reminiscent of lettuce. The foliage has a mild and slightly sweet flavor and is often used as a base for salads. 18-24 in. tall (45-60 cm).
  • Cinnamon Basil: This tall variety produces smooth, slender, pointed leaves with a spicy, cinnamon-tinged flavor. It is most often used in Asian cooking, including marinades, fried rice, and noodles. 24-36 in. tall (60-90 cm).

Guide Information

Hardiness 2 - 11
Plant Type Annuals, Herbs, Perennials
Genus Ocimum
Exposure Full Sun
Season of Interest Spring (Late)
Summer (Early, Mid, Late)
Fall
Maintenance Low
Water Needs Average
Soil Type Loam, Sand
Soil pH Acid, Alkaline, Neutral
Soil Drainage Well-Drained
Characteristics Fragrant, Showy
Tolerance Rabbit, Deer
Attracts Bees
Landscaping Ideas Beds And Borders, Patio And Containers
Garden Styles City and Courtyard, Informal and Cottage, Mediterranean Garden
Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’ (Basil)
Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’ (Sweet Basil)
Ocimum basilicum (Sweet Basil)

Basil Benefits and Uses

  • Basil is one of the most popular and widely used culinary herbs in the world. Sweet Basil is the quintessential Italian culinary herb, most famous for its use in pesto. It is also used for flavoring salads, tomato sauces, soups, vegetables, chicken, egg, and fish dishes. Citrus-scented and spice-flavored varieties work well in Asian recipes. Young leaves have the best flavor, while old ones have a coarser, stronger taste.
  • Although Basil naturally repels mosquitoes and flies, it attracts bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects to the garden.
  • Basil is a valuable addition to the vegetable garden and an excellent companion plant for tomatoes, peppers, parsley, lettuce, asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, eggplant, marigolds, potatoes, or oregano.
  • While Basil makes a colorful and flavorful addition to many dishes, it can also provide some health benefits. It contains many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential oils. However, all these great compounds disappear during drying, so opt for fresh basil whenever possible to enjoy the most benefits. This wonderful herb can help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, fight free radicals, and reduce high blood sugar levels. It has antibacterial properties. Popular in Ayurvedic medicine, Tulsi provides many benefits, including improving mental health, reducing anxiety and depression, and lowering the risk for age-related memory loss.
  • Basil is low-maintenance. Just pinch off the flowers as they arrive to send the growing energy into the leaves, which is why most people grow basil.
  • Basil has no serious pest or disease issues. It is no favorite of deer and rabbits.
Ocimum basilicum ‘Dolce Fresca’ (Sweet Basil)
Ocimum basilicum ‘Siam Queen’ (Thai Basil)
Ocimum sanctum (Holy Basil)

When to Plant Basil?

  • Seeds are easily started indoors or planted directly in the garden.
  • Basil can be directly seeded in the garden once soil temperatures reach 70ºF (21°C) and night temperatures are above 50°F (10°C).
  • It can also be started indoors 6 weeks before the last frost date.
  • Plants germinate quickly, sprouting within 5-10 days, and is ready to harvest in 60 to 90 days.
  • They will die off at the end of summer once temperatures start to fall.
  • Protect your plants with row covers when temperatures drop below 50°F (10°C), or dark spots caused by cold injury may appear on leaves.

Where to Plant Basil?

  • Basil is a heat-loving plant that is perennial in zones 10-11 but grown as an annual elsewhere.
  • It is easily grown in full sun (at least 6-8 hours of sunlight daily), although it grows reasonably well in part sun, particularly in the hottest climates.
  • Basil thrives in light, well-drained, fertile soil in a sheltered position.
  • It works well in kitchen gardens, herb gardens, containers or raised beds.
  • Basil is a valuable addition to the vegetable garden and an excellent companion plant for tomatoes, peppers, parsley, lettuce, asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, eggplant, marigolds, potatoes, or oregano. Avoid planting it near Rue (Ruta graveolens) and Sage (Salvia officinalis).

How to Plant Basil?

  • Sow seeds about 1/4 inch deep (1/2 cm). Cover with a thin layer of vermiculite and water gently.
  • Once seedlings emerge and have their first true leaves, thin seedlings to one plant every 10-12 inches (25-30 cm) or 16-24 in. (40-60 cm) for larger varieties.
  • Keep plants indoors until all danger of frost has passed, then harden them off to gradually acclimatize them to outdoor conditions.
Ocimum basilicum ‘Everleaf Emerald Towers’ (Basil)
Ocimum basilicum ‘Lemon’ (Lemon Basil)
Ocimum basilicum var. purpurascens ‘Purple Ruffles’ (Purple Basil)

Growing Basil

Water and Moisture

  • Keep the soil evenly moist to prevent stress from weakening plants. During the dry periods in summer, water your plants freely.
  • Basil dislikes having wet roots overnight, so water in the morning if possible.
  • Never water from overhead, as this could lead to powdery mildew issues. Always water at the base of the plant.
  • Spread mulch around the plant to keep moisture in and weeds out.

Fertilizer

  • Plants should not be over-fertilized because the leaf flavor will be reduced during quick plant growth.
  • Fertilize sparingly throughout the season with a 5-10-5 fertilizer.

Deadheading / Pruning Basil

  • Pinching or cutting back plants regularly encourages branching. This will create bushy plants with more tender foliage for harvest.
  • For the most flavorful foliage, flower buds should be pinched out as soon as they appear.
  • Some flower spikes may be allowed to develop if you wish to collect seeds.

Harvesting Basil

  • Make sure to pick the leaves regularly to promote growth throughout the summer.
  • If only a few leaves are required, remove the tops of the plants to encourage bushy growth.
  • Harvest beforehand if a sudden frost is imminent, as the cold temperatures will destroy your plants.
  • Harvest Basil early in the morning before the heat of the day sets in.
  • Cut off the central stem almost at ground level, just above 3 to 4 side shoots.
  • Remove all foliage that will fall below the water level. Make the next cuts at the end of the stem being harvested. Place them immediately in water.
  • Leaves last 7 to 10 days in a vase.

Storing Basil

  • Store in a glass jar at room temperature and out of direct sunlight, like a bouquet of flowers. Change the water regularly. The cut basil will last 7 to 10 days.
  • Freeze your basil. Freezing will prevent the plant from losing a good portion of its flavor. Basil should last about 3 months.
  • Dry your Basil (some flavor will be lost). Place the basil leaves on a single layer on a baking sheet, and bake them for 2-4 hours in the oven on the lowest heat setting with the door slightly open.

Pest and Diseases

  • Basil has no serious pest or disease issues. However, some problems may occasionally occur:
  • Snails and slugs may eat leaves, especially on young plants. Keep the soil free of leaf debris, and set out slug and snail traps.
  • Aphids can be easily treated with horticultural soaps or oils.
  • Powdery mildew can be avoided by providing good air circulation between plants and by watering at the base of the plant.
  • Fusarium Wilt is a fungal disease that can attack plants, causing sudden wilting.

Companion Plants for Basil

Allium sativum (Garlic)
Borago officinalis (Borage)
Matricaria recutita (German Chamomile)
Origanum vulgare (Oregano)
Solanum lycopersicum (Tomato)
Capsicum annuum (Pepper)
Brassica oleracea Botrytis Group (Cauliflower)
Brassica oleracea Italica Group (Broccoli)
Petroselinum crispum (Parsley)
Asparagus officinalis (Asparagus)
Beta vulgaris (Beet)
Solanum tuberosum (Potato)
Raphanus sativus (Radish)
Tagetes (Marigold)
Tropaeolum (Nasturtium)
Compare All Ocimum (Basil)
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Ocimum (Basil)
While every effort has been made to describe these plants accurately, please keep in mind that height, bloom time, and color may differ in various climates. The description of these plants has been written based on numerous outside resources.

Guide Information

Hardiness 2 - 11
Plant Type Annuals, Herbs, Perennials
Genus Ocimum
Exposure Full Sun
Season of Interest Spring (Late)
Summer (Early, Mid, Late)
Fall
Maintenance Low
Water Needs Average
Soil Type Loam, Sand
Soil pH Acid, Alkaline, Neutral
Soil Drainage Well-Drained
Characteristics Fragrant, Showy
Tolerance Rabbit, Deer
Attracts Bees
Landscaping Ideas Beds And Borders, Patio And Containers
Garden Styles City and Courtyard, Informal and Cottage, Mediterranean Garden
Compare All Ocimum (Basil)
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Ocimum (Basil)

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