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'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 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, 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.

I'm Catherine, a small-space urban gardener in New Jersey (Zone 7a) who started gardening out of upcycled wooden wine boxes. For years, I wanted to try gardening, but didn't know where to start. I got up the nerve to give it a try - starting small with a single wooden wine box that turned an idea into reality. That reality quickly turned into my filling every sunny inch of space of my postage-stamp size lawn and turning it into a garden oasis. I grow mostly vegetables and herbs with some exception for fruits (when the squirrels and rabbits don't get to them first). I love learning from gardening communities (and lots of trial and error).

I hope one day to take all that I'm learning and apply it to a larger plot of land. To help me get there, I'm extending my learning through the University of Massachusetts, Stockbridge School of Agriculture's, Sustainable Food & Farming program. (I'm addicted to learning as much as I am to gardening.)

This blog isn't just for gardeners (although I hope it inspires some of you to try growing a plant or two). The recipes (food & cocktails) in theRecipes section of this blog contain ingredients that don't have to come from your own backyard. If you like visiting your local farmer's market(or even your grocery store) and would like to get some new recipes you can use with the fresh produce and herbs you get from your local growers, this blog will have plenty for you too.

In addition to gardening and cooking, I also love to visit and photograph my surroundings. I feel fortunate to have so many amazing places here in New York/New Jersey, where I live and work. Visits to local farms, farmer's markets, and cycling through rural farming areas help me feel connected and refreshed. share these experiences in theExploring section of the blog so that you might visit through proxy or be inspired enough to visit yourself. 

With very few exceptions, all of the photographs on this site are ones I have taken myself. (For the photographers out there, I shoot with a Canon 7D and sometimes with my Lumix  DMC-ZS15 compact camera.) 

I hope this blog inspires you to grow, create, explore, and try something new. The best way to stay up-to-date is to follow me using the social buttons above, or click Subscribe and sign up for my email newsletters.    

Happy Gardening and Healthful Living!

- Catherine