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Growing Basil Your Italian Grandmother Would Envy

Growing Basil Your Italian Grandmother Would Envy

My glorious garden basil of years past.

My glorious garden basil of years past.

Did you know the ancient Greeks and Romans thought basil would only grow if you screamed wild curses and shouted while sowing the seeds? This explains why my basil isn't growing very well this year - I usually curse and shout much later when things go wrong, not when I'm first sowing the seeds.

I have a confession to make. I have become a bit over-confident about my basil-growing abilities. It's one of those things that's always been successful for me in the garden and now I just expect that the moment I put a basil seed or two in the dirt, suddenly rich stalks of basil will result with little effort. This year's start to my basil plantings is knocking me down a notch or two. The problem is that I have become personally invested in the outcome of my basil. I now rely on a hearty storage of pesto that I make each season from my harvest (read more about that here) and the thought of not having amazing pesto whenever I want it is unthinkable.

This year, my first planting of basil is sadly mediocre. I think that my mistake was not moistening the soil enough before planting the seeds and they ended up washing into oddly-spaced clusters. It makes me sad, but I rarely give up, so I'm planting more...it's June in Zone 7a and it's not too late to plant.

Sad start to my 2015 basil.

Sad start to my 2015 basil.

So, lets talk basil....one of my favorite garden edibles. There are lots of different kinds of basil. My favorite is Genovese Basil. The leaves are large and lovely and so fragrant and tasty. And, of course, they're great for making pesto

According to herbinfosite.com, basil can be used as a digestive and anti-gas aid. Some herbalists apparently recommend it to ease anxiety, headaches and stomach cramps. So, if you're feeling achy, anxious and bloated, it's time to down some basil.

For recipes using fresh basil, check out my Fresh Basil 3 Ways post

Planting Basil

There are two ways to start your basil plantings....Indoors or Outdoors.


If you you live in a climate that threatens cold or frost in late spring, you can start the growing process indoors.

  • Start about 6-8 weeks ahead of the last frost. (Learn more about finding your frost dates here.)
  • Start your seeds in container pods with equal parts of:
  • Dampen the soil before you plant seeds.
  • Give your seedlings at least 6-8 hours of steady sunlight each day.
  • How to transplant: Once two sets of true leaves have formed, you can transplant them to the garden or containers. (Don't do this until the threat of frost has passed.) Space them about 6 inches apart. 

Outdoors - Direct Sow

  • Plant seeds about 1/4 " deep in the soil and about 10-12 inches apart. (Would it be bad to admit I put as many seeds as I can around the box and worry about thinning them later?)
  • I've grown basil from seed indoors by natural light and under grow lights, but I find that I get the same results when I direct sow the seeds outdoors. So, from a convenience perspective, this is my preferred method.
TIP: Plant some basil with your tomatoes. They'll swap nutrients and enhance the flavor of the tomatoes. This is also supposed to deter tomato hornworms

Still not convinced you should be growing basil? 

Even if only in containers on your windowsill? Think for a moment about how much you pay for store-bought basil, which turns black in about 3 milliseconds. What did that cost you? Something like $4? Did you know you could get a packet of 100 seeds for about the same price? Seriously... I pick up packets of Burpee seeds for this. You can get a packet of 100 online at the Burpee site (or any site that sells seeds - I'm not in any way endorsing one seed company) or you can pick up smaller packets at Home Depot or local nursery for $1.37 for a packet of seeds. I bet there's $1.37 of loose change sitting under your couch cushions. What are you waiting for?

Growth & Maintenance

  • If your'e using the direct sow method, once they get about 2-3 of their true leaves, it's time to thin your plants. I hate thinning my plants because I feel like it's wasteful, but your plants will be better for it. What are true leaves? Read more here
  • Water basil daily or every other day. Don't drown them, but keep them up with a steady stream of moisture.
  • If you get flowers....PINCH THEM OFF IMMEDIATELY. This is something that happens, but you have to remove them. Your basil will "go to seed" if you don't do this.

Harvesting Basil

Image credit:  Aero Garden  

Image credit: Aero Garden 

This is something that's taken me a long time to learn. I used to cut just the biggest leaves to prune/harvest basil, but this was all wrong. Here's how you do it.

  • Every time a top branch has 6-8 leaves, cut that cluster/branch. This still leaves the bunches growing underneath it. 
  • Don't forget to trim the flowers! If you leave those on, the basil will lose its flavor.

Basil-Growing Tips:

  • Moisten the soil thoroughly before planting seeds.
  • Tall and thin basil plants often mean they're not getting enough light. Move them to a sunnier spot.
  • When you see the plants starting to flower, trim the flowers off of the plant. If you leave them on, the basil will start losing flavor.

P.S. - I'm not sure if that thing about the Greeks and Romans is true, but this site seems to think so.

Potato Problems

Potato Problems

Fresh Basil 3 Ways

Fresh Basil 3 Ways