Sowing Directly in the Garden
Sow seeds in the garden when the soil has warmed up to about
55 to 60 degrees day and night temperatures. Sow the seeds
about 1/2 inch deep in good garden soil; if you cover the
seeds with less soil, they may float to the surface after a
heavy rain. Basil germinates readily, therefore you do not
need to sow thickly. You can sow the seeds in rows or in
groups; drop two to three seeds in each hole for the latter.
Keep the seedbed moist until germination occurs. When the
seedlings have at least two pairs of true leaves and are 2 to
3 inches tall, thin them to stand 10 to 30 inches apart,
depending on the species or cultivar. Begin pinching out the
growing tips for compact growth when the seedlings are 3 to 4
To have an uninterrupted supply of fresh basil, most gardeners
sow basil seed several times during the growing season. The
National Garden Bureau recommends sowing basil seed every 3 to
4 weeks to harvest fresh leaves for culinary uses.
Selecting Bedding Plants
Basil is so popular that you can readily purchase plants at
garden centers or nurseries in addition to growing it from
seed. The plants may be sold in individual pots, six-packs or
flats. Look for young, compact plants. Avoid tall, leggy
plants -- even though you can correct their growth habit
somewhat by cutting them back after you have planted them at
The leaves of sweet basil should be a clear deep green; spots
on the leaves may indicate they have been exposed to the cold.
Pass up plants that have obvious pests, such as aphids, on
stems or leaves.
If you can't plant the herbs the day you bring them home,
set them in a protected area away from the drying effects of
direct sun and wind until you can put them in the ground or in
Out In The Garden
Select a Site. Basil grows best in a location that receives
full sun -- at least six hours (or more) of direct sun daily.
With less sun, the plants have a tendency to get "leggy."
Plants in containers require the same exposure.
Prepare the Soil. Although herbs are not very fussy, they do
need a light, fertile soil with good drainage. Amend what you
have by digging in about a 2-inch layer of peat moss and
compost before planting. This is particularly important if
your soil is mostly clay.
Transplant. Choose a cloudy, calm day or late afternoon to
transplant your basils to give them a chance to settle in
before they have to contend with the drying effects of sun and
wind. It is very important to plant at the right time, which
means not too early in the season. The slightest cold will set
them back. Set the plants in the ground at the same depth they
were growing in the pots. If you bought six-packs or flats of
basil plants, water them first; then carefully lift each plant
out of its cell or separate them from each other in the flat,
keeping as much soil around the roots as possible to minimize
moisture loss. If they don't come out easily and you need to
handle the plants, do so by their leaves, not their stems
(plants replace leaves more readily than stems). If you
started plants in peat pots, set the pots below the soil
line -- they have a tendency to dry out quickly when exposed to
Space plants 10-12 inches apart; dwarf basils, 8-10 inches
apart; larger basils, such as 'Sweet Dani', up to 20
Water the plants immediately after setting them in the ground.
Basil is as ornamental as it is edible. Put it in a
traditional herb garden, in the vegetable plot in the center
of a bed of red- and green-leaf lettuces or edging a bed of
Use both the green- and purple-leaved varieties in borders;
the latter are especially beautiful with perennials such as
coral bells (Heuchera 'Palace Purple'), Sedum 'Vera
Jameson', fountain grass (Pennisetum), dusty miller, and
blue Salvia farinacea. Both combine well with annuals, such as
dwarf or medium-height snapdragons, nicotiana, French
marigolds, and petunias.
With its natural round shape, the dwarf basil
Globe' makes a wonderful edging for any type of garden:
perennial, rose, or herb.
Try the old-fashioned technique of keeping flies away by
planting basils around a patio or in containers on a deck.
Taking Care of Basil
Like most herbs, basils do not require much maintenance. In
sandy or infertile soil, fertilize basil plants for continuous
growth. If you amended the soil with organic matter, you may
not need to fertilize basil. Basil plants need about an inch
of water a week. Water, if rain does not provide for the
Although the flower spikes are attractive, it is recommended
to cut them off as they deplete the plants' energy resulting
in fewer leaves.
The leaves have the best flavor -- the most essential
oils -- when they are harvested before the plants flower. Cut
whole stems rather than individual leaves, especially if you
want to use the leaves as a garnish because they bruise
easily. Cutting whole stems is a tasty way of creating a
bushy, compact plant: Cut just above a pair of lower leaves;
the plant will produce new shoots at that point.
Growing in Containers
Basils are excellent herbs to grow in containers because they
add such attractive colors and textures to the plantings. They
look good in pots or window boxes in full sun. A container of
basil by the back door or on a deck provides easy access for
The container should have drainage holes in the bottom or
sides. Fill it with a soilless mix, which is more lightweight
than garden soil and is also free of diseases and weed seeds.
It is easy to provide nutrients all season by incorporating a
controlled-release fertilizer in the mix before planting.
With mixed plantings, place most basils near the center of
containers or at the ends of window boxes. Use dwarf basils to
edge a container planting or on their own in smaller, 8-inch
pots, and place the pots around a larger planter, marching up
steps, or along a walk. Basils combine well with other herbs
and with annuals.
Plant basils at the same level as, or just slightly deeper
than, they were growing in their original pots. Water the
container well after planting. Keep the plants evenly moist
through the growing season; the roots of any plants in a
container cannot reach down or out in search of available
moisture. Smaller containers will require more frequent
watering than large ones. If you plant in a window box,
remember that overhanging eaves may prevent rain from reaching
From Garden to Kitchen
Basil complements many kinds of dishes and combines well with
other herbs, whether used fresh or dried. The flavor and
appearance of the leaves are best fresh. Many gardeners are
unable to eat their fresh, homegrown tomatoes without fresh
basil and a dash of premium olive oil. Freshly harvested basil
leaves added to mesclun or lettuce salads liven up the
flavors. Pesto is another favorite use for basil. Create the
classic pesto sauce, a combination of basil, garlic, olive
oil, pine nuts, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Whip up basil butter. Cream together one stick of unsalted
butter and 1-3 tablespoons of dried, crushed basil or 2-6
tablespoons of fresh, minced basil. Place in a covered
container or roll into a cylinder-shape and refrigerate for at
least an hour before using.
Make basil vinegar to use in salad dressings. Heat vinegar
(any type) in an enamel pan; pour it into a bottle and add
several sprigs of basil. Let set for 2 weeks before using.
If you have any basil left at the end of the growing season
consider drying the leaves. To dry basil, cut the entire plant
and hang on a string in a well ventilated room. When dry, just
pluck the leaves from the stems and store in airtight jars out
of direct light.
It is easy to bring container-grown plants inside, but you can
also pot up a few plants from the garden. Cut them back rather
severely -- to about 3-4 inches tall -- so they will put out new
growth when they become acclimated to the indoor environment.
Grow them on the sunniest windowsill you have, preferably with
a southern exposure, or put them in a light-garden. Keep the
soil evenly moist and fertilize them once a month.
Because basils are so easy to grow from seed, however, the
National Garden Bureau recommends it is just as simple to sow
fresh seed indoors at the end of the outdoor growing season.
Pot the seedlings into individual 4- to 6-inch containers and
enjoy fresh basil all winter harvested from your windowsill.
Pests and Diseases
You may find a few aphids or Japanese beetles that like your
basil as much as you do. To circumvent aphids, wash them off
the plants with a strong spray of water from the garden hose.
Pick or knock Japanese beetles off into a jar of soapy water
Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungus that causes yellowing of
foliage, discoloration of the stems, reduced height and
eventual wilting of the entire plant. If you plant basil in
the same garden place year after year this could be a problem.
Seed companies have addressed this problem by selling Fusarium
free seed. Be sure to check the seed packet for Fusarium
tested seed. The best cure is prevention. Because it can
overwinter in the soil, don't plant basil in the same
location every year. Avoid excessive watering and provide
proper drainage that will reduce the spread of Fusarium wilt.
The only variety resistant to Fusarium wilt is 'Nufar.'
Researchers are working towards breeding Fusarium resistance
into many of the common basil varieties on the market.
Back to start --
Special thanks to
Eleanore Lewis as the author of this article. Thanks also go
to the two Basil experts who reviewed this text before
publication. Renee Shepherd, Renee's Garden and James Simon,
Rutgers University greatly assisted in providing accurate