Growing basil, how to pick basil leaves, how to use basil. It’s all right here, folks. It’s a favorite summertime herb and rightfully so!
Have a big bunch of basil? Try making my family’s favorite pesto recipe!
This post about growing basil and harvesting basil was originally published in July, 2011; it has been updated.
Years ago an old farmer told my young boys that when they started dating, a big bunch of sweet basil in the car would win a girl’s heart. Now, I don’t know about that, but growing and harvesting basil is one of my favorite summer garden activities. The fragrance definitely makes me happy!
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual herb used frequently in Italian cooking and is the base for our favorite pesto recipe. It’s not the only type of basil, though. There are many types of basil to choose from. Some are purple, some are ruffled, and some, like Thai basil, are favored for specific cuisines.
This fragrant herb with flavorful leaves is one of those wonderful garden plants that just keeps on giving. Unlike radishes and beets that are done once you harvest them, basil plants provide their pungent goodness for months if you treat them right. Harvesting basil so that it produces all summer long is easy.
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Basil likes warm weather, tolerates heat, and prefers well-drained but moist soil. Direct sow seeds after your last frost date, once the ground has warmed. Trust me; trying to get a jump on it by planting too soon will just waste basil seeds.
Basil varies in height a bit based on variety, but most basil plants grow about one to two foot tall.
Varieties of Basil to Grow
There are numerous varieties of basil to plant in the garden. Genovese basil is the popular heirloom that many of us plant in our gardens (it’s a favorite for making pesto), but there are a dizzying number of other basil varieties to choose from.
There’s large leaf basil, curly leaf basil, frilly basil, and purple basil. Then there are basil varieties that feature other flavors, such as lemon basil, cinnamon basil, clove basil, and lime basil.
Basil varieties to look for include:
- Genovese basil
- Thai basil
- Cinnamon basil
- African blue basil (perennial in warm climates, shown at top)
- Holy basil
- Lemon basil
There are many named varieties of basil from different origins.
How to Plant Basil
You can start basil plants from seed indoors or in a cold frame about 4-6 weeks before you plan to transplant them into the garden. Wait to transplant in the garden until the soil has warmed and nighttime temperatures are a reliable 50 degrees.
To start basil seedlings for transplanting into the garden later, use a grow light and a heat mat to increase the soil temperature and assure enough light; this will greatly improve your odds. The ideal germination temperature for basil is between 75-85°F.
If direct sowing basil seeds in the garden, wait until after the last frost and when soil temperatures reach between 55-75°F. Plant seeds about ¼-inch deep, about 12 inches apart.
Requirements for Growing Basil
Basil prefers well-drained soil. Amend the garden bed with plenty of organic matter, like compost or well-aged manure.
Plant basil seeds or seedlings in full sun (6-8 hours per day).
Water deeply and regularly. To maintain even soil temperatures and to hold in moisture, add a thick layer of organic mulch around plants when they’re several inches tall.
Like a lot of plants grown in the herb garden, basil isn’t susceptible to many pests. They can be impaired by fungal diseases like powdery mildew and fusarium wilt. Choosing resistant varieties can help, as can allowing enough space between plants for good air flow.
These rules for harvesting basil apply for growing basil indoors, too, though an indoor basil plant might not need to be trimmed as frequently since it’s unlikely that it will grow as vigorously inside as it would in a sunny garden bed. Basil can also be grown as microgreens!
When to Prune Basil Plants
Once young basil plants reach about 6″ high and have multiple sets of leaves, you can begin to harvest. The initial harvest will come from the main stem. This will cause the plant to send out new branches. The new stems will make more leaves, and the next harvest will be bigger.
Pruning or trimming healthy basil plants helps to encourage bushy basil plants. Every time you trim the plant, it will send out new growth. And every time you prune basil, you’ll have a fresh bunch of basil leaves to use!
You can harvest basil from a healthy, mature plant just about any time. Harvest the basil leaves you want to use in recipes as you need them.
When flower buds start to form at the top of the plant, it’s time to really prune your basil. If the plant is allowed to flower, it will put energy into trying to regenerate itself by making seeds. Pruning basil prevents that, so you’ll have a basil harvest all summer long.
If you see basil flower heads beginning to form on a young plant, pinch them off. Pinching the flower heads off prevents the plant from putting energy into producing seeds, allowing it to grow more foliage.
Harvesting basil needs to be done regularly. Regular harvesting inhibits flower production on growing basil plants so the plant will continue to produce new leaves and provide an abundant basil harvest.
Here’s how to trim basil: Simply use a small pair of scissors or pruning shears to snip off the upper leaf clusters. Make your cut close to the set of leaves below. No scissors? It’s perfectly okay just to pinch the basil from the plant with your fingers.
Often, you’ll need to cut more than one leaf cluster, and that’s okay. Just be sure to snip right above the set of leaves you’re planning to leave on the plant. New sets of leaves will sprout from that point, allowing you to harvest throughout the season.
You’ll want to make sure to leave some green growth so that the plant can do its photosynthesis thing, but the plant will be noticeably smaller. Prune basil every week or two, to keep your plant healthy. The cut stems and leaves are your basil harvest.
Besides girls and pesto and Italian food, here’s another reason to grow basil: bees.
Bees Love Basil
Trouble is, in order to maintain steady foliage growth all season long, the basil flowers need to be removed. Allowed to flower, the plants will go to seed and stop producing those fresh lovely leaves.
Luckily, there’s an easy solution. Plant several extra basil plants. Once you’ve harvested the first batch of leaves, allow a few plants to go into flowering mode.
The bees will appreciate it, and you can continue harvesting leaves from the plants you’ve designated as “yours.”
Saving Basil Seeds
I’ve had good success with saving and replanting basil seeds for a sustainable basil harvest, year to year. If you want to gather seeds, choose one basil plant as your seed producer. At the end of the growing season, allow the plants to flower and form seed heads. Allow the seed to brown on the plant.
If wet weather threatens, you’ll want to clip them and bring them inside to dry. Pull the dry seed pods from the stem. Roll dry pods around in the palm of your hand to remove the small black seeds.
Seal fully dried basil seeds in a paper envelope and store in a cool, dry place. Saving heirloom seeds from year to year is easy to do and will save you the expense of buying seeds.
Using Your Basil Harvest
Growing basil in my garden means I use fresh basil leaves all summer long snipped into in salads, wraps, sandwiches, and for flavoring soups and pasta. By far, though, our favorite way to use it is to make pesto.
We spread pesto as a base for wraps, on egg salad sandwiches, and of course, use it in pasta dishes. I freeze pesto in small glass jars for use all through the winter months. I love adding spoonfuls of it to soup! Check out this collection of 25 basil recipes for more ideas. And consider drying some basil to flavor your meals all year long.
The best way to preserve the fresh flavor of basil for cooking is to chop it finely and put into ice cube trays. Top the fresh herbs with olive oil and freeze.