Grow a Fresh Supply of Basil Leaves at Home
Basil is an incredible herb, a must-have for anyone interested in growing even just a little bit of their own food. Fresh basil leaves taste so fantastic and are super versatile in the kitchen. The plants themselves also look really beautiful growing in raised beds or containers.
That's why my goal in the warmer months is to grow as much basil as I can. It's the season to stop buying those little plastic containers of basil leaves from the grocery store and revel in the freshest, most delicious leaves you've ever tasted—the quintessential flavor of summer.
Reasons to Grow Your Own Basil
(If you still need more...)
- There are so many varieties of basil out there, each with different flavors, aromas, and appearance—not just the Genovese basil you buy from the grocery store. The best way to experience as many different types of basil as possible (not to mention the freshest flavor) is to grow them yourself. (Explore the best types of basil to grow at home.)
- Of all the herbs in the mint family (including rosemary, sage, basil, thyme, oregano, and mint, of course), basil is the easiest to grow from seed.
- Like most herbs, basil is a super low-maintenance plant, making it a great choice for beginner or new-ish gardeners. Basil grows prolifically, and the more leaves you cut from it, the more it gives you.
- Basil can grow just about anywhere. I grow my favorite varieties in my pollinator garden, in containers, in my raised beds, and in sunny windowsills—basically wherever I can! Once you've tasted homegrown leaves, you'll want to plant it everywhere too.
Let's get into how to grow your own organic basil.
Is Basil a Perennial?
The life expectancy of basil actually depends on your climate. Basil is what we call a tender perennial, which means it can't handle cold weather, like, at all.
In its native habitat, basil can live for several years and grow into the size of a bush. When basil is grown in a colder climate, however, it doesn't even make it past the first frost of the fall/winter season. This is why gardeners who live anywhere with frost treat basil like an annual and plant new basil each warm season by seed or from cuttings. In warmer climates, gardeners can enjoy growing basil outdoors for several years.
Basil is kind of the odd man out of its family. Other herbs in the mint family will die back in winter but then return from their roots in the spring. These perennials include sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, and oregano, and they're often very slow to grow from seed. Basil sets itself further apart from them by being very easy and quick to grow from seed, more like a true annual herb.
If basil flowers and drops seeds in your garden, you'll get basil again the next growing season, though the plants will be coming up from those dropped seeds rather than from the roots.
How Basil Grows Best
Basil Growing Season
Herbs are motivated to grow not just by temperature but also by day length. Basil, like its cousins in the mint family, loves long and warm days. Think "sunny and 75", like the Joe Nichols song.
Basil can take the heat and push into the summer months, even in warmer climates. When temps spike over 90°F, basil benefits from some afternoon shade.
To know when you can grow basil, search "[your city name] + [first and last frost dates]". These dates are basically bookends on your basil growing season. You won't want to sow basil seeds or move basil plants outside before your last anticipated frost of the season, and you'll need to remove basil from your garden or pot it up and bring it indoors before your first frost.
The longer time you have between your last frost in the spring and your first frost in the fall/winter, the longer you have to enjoy fresh basil leaves from the backyard.
Basil Light Requirements
Of all the herbs you might grow in your garden, basil is one that needs the most sunshine. It is, after all, from the sun-drenched Mediterranean. It will survive with just 4 hours of direct sunlight a day, but your plant will be much happier and you'll see way more leaf production if your plant gets 6 or more hours of sun.
If you're growing basil indoors, south- and east-facing windows are best. You really want to maximize sunlight hours on the leaves since your windows will filter out a lot of the light.
Basil can also be grown under grow lights. You'll want to leave these on for 14 hours a day since artificial light is not the same as the sun.
Basil Water Requirements
For most herbs in the mint family, the danger lies not in watering too little, but in watering too much. Basil continues to be the oddball in its family in its water preferences. It actually appreciates a little more H₂O than oregano and rosemary and definitely more than lavender.
Basil likes consistent but not too much water. You can follow the one-inch-per-week rule. No herb likes to have its roots sitting in water for too long, so make sure whatever you're growing basil in has at least one good drainage hole.
Keep in mind that the smaller the container for your basil plant, the more often you'll need to water it. I've struggled to grow basil and other herbs in small pots because of this. I inevitably kill them. That's why I prefer to grow my herbs together in one large herb planter. My favorite planter is about 10 inches tall and 2 feet wide. I pack it with herbs, and in return, I get tons of leaf harvests.
When I shared my newest herb planter on social media recently, I got lots of comments like: "That basil has totally different water requirements than rosemary. They shouldn't be in the same space."
They can actually quite happily coexist, and here's how: I plant other herbs in the mint family on the outside edges of the garden, where I know the soil will dry out first. I plant basil and herbs like dill, cilantro, and parsley, which like a bit more water, in the interior of the planter, where the soil will stay moist longer.
This setup allows you to water all your herbs in one space. Plus, you don't have to water as often because it's a bigger container; herbs have more room to reach for resources they need. I've found this enables me to keep all my herbs alive and happy.
The Best Soil to Grow Basil
Herbs like basil can be grown almost anywhere, but they thrive in sandy, well-drained soil.
Your native soil is likely a little too thick for the roots of basil to be entirely happy. For best results, either amend the soil in the ground or grow basil in a container or raised bed. To amend the soil, simply work in some coarse sand and compost. The sand will improve drainage, and the compost will add important nutrients.
If you're filling a container for basil, mix equal parts organic potting soil, coarse sand, and compost. I like to add a little extra organic matter like earthworm castings. Compost is typically enough to give herbs all the nutrients they need to power their growth, but still. Basil tastes best when it's grown in super fertile soil.
Again, make sure your container has at least one good drainage hole in the bottom. It doesn't matter how good your soil is if excess water has no place to go.
Your raised beds are likely already filled with a sandy loam soil that's great for growing herbs and veggies. Just add some compost and maybe some earthworm castings to the surface before you plant more basil.
How to Plant Basil Seeds
Basil is super easy to grow from seed. Starting your own herbs from seed means you have more options for varieties than you would if you waited till spring to buy herbs from your local nursery or garden center. Plus, it's a much cheaper way to source herbs for your garden. You can also start new basil plants by rooting cuttings (AKA propagating basil, AKA performing plant magic).
The only difficult thing about sowing basil seeds is how tiny the seeds are. I've found it's best to handle them without gardening gloves. I spread some seeds out in my palm, lick my opposite index finger, and use the tip of that finger to try to pick up just one seed at a time. (It probably goes without saying you'll want to have clean hands if you try this!)
When to Plant Basil from Seed
Your climate will determine not only when you should start basil by seed, but also whether you start basil by seed indoors and transplant it later or sow basil directly.
If you live in a colder climate, you'll get to have fresh basil leaves sooner if you start basil by seed indoors in preparation for warmer weather. The best time to do this is about 3 to 4 weeks before your last frost date.
For those of you who live in a warmer climate, you can start basil indoors or you can just wait until all threat of frost has passed to direct sow your basil outdoors. The best herbs to grow via direct seeding (planting seeds directly into the garden bed) are annuals and basil, which is basically an honorary annual. You'll have plenty of time to enjoy your basil from spring to late fall.
Let's look at how to sow basil seeds indoors and outdoors.
How to Start Basil Indoors
If you're new to starting seeds indoors, check out our recommended list of supplies.
Unless you want to end up with lots of basil plants, you could start basil in the same tray as other herbs. The basil seeds will germinate faster, but you can always pop them out and pot them up as needed.
Follow these steps to start basil seeds indoors:
- Step 1: Grab some organic seed starting mix. Moisten the mix in a bowl so that it's ready to be a good medium for the seeds.
- Step 2: Fill up a seed starting tray with the moistened mix.
- Step 3: Place 1 to 2 basil seeds in each cell. This is one of those things that's more difficult than it sounds. In the picture below, you can see way too many basil seedlings that have sprouted in the same cells, the result of planting too quickly. Make sure to label the row using plant tags or painter's tape if you're growing multiple herbs or different basil varieties.
- Step 4: Use your fingers to lightly pat down on the cells. Since these seeds are so small, they don't need to be buried. They really just need to have good soil contact in order to germinate.
- Step 5: Water the seed trays from the bottom and put under grow lights as soon as you see signs of growth. If you have a heat mat, place it under the tray until you see the first sprouts appear. Basil germinates best in warmer soil.
- Step 6: Keep grow lights on for 14 to 16 hours a day.
Your basil seeds should sprout within about 5 to 7 days. And in just 3 to 4 weeks, you'll have little basil plants you can move out to the garden once all threat of frost has passed.
How to Transplant Basil Seedlings
Your basil seedlings are ready to be transplanted outdoors when they have about 3 pairs of leaves.
Make sure to harden off your basil seedlings—this is a slow process to get your herbs accustomed to growing outdoors.
Dig a hole that's as wide as the rootball and a little bit deeper. You can bury your basil seedlings all the way up to their first set of leaves. The stems will actually grow lateral roots if buried, which will help strengthen the plants after their big move.
How Many Basil Plants Per Pot?
Overall, herbs like basil grow more vertically than they do horizontally, so you can pack more plants together. But be ready with your garden scissors if you choose to plant intensively. Though the roots aren’t going to take up that much space, the plant will start to spread out and produce tons and tons of flavorful leaves, so make sure you’re harvesting often.
The number of basil plants you can have growing per pot will depend on how large your pot is. Each basil stem should be 3 to 4 inches from its neighbor. If you sow seeds too close together, you'll end up with leggy plants. Plants grow leggy, or too tall, when they're cramped or trying to get more sunlight on their leaves.
This is often the situation when you buy basil plants from the store. They might look like one healthy, bushy plant, but in reality, the grower has over-seeded each pot so that it looks full. If you check the sides, you'll notice too many stems coming up side by side. Each of these little plants is competing for water, air flow, and nutrients from the soil. None of them will ever grow to their full potential if you leave them crammed together like that.
Click on the article below to learn how to separate basil plants being grown too closely together.
How to Direct Sow Basil Seeds
Wait about 2 weeks after your final frost date since basil is so sensitive to cold temps. Ideally, air temperatures will be above 50 degrees and soil temperatures above 70 degrees. Anything colder can stunt the growth of your basil.
Spread some fresh compost over the planting area. Then use your hand or a small rake to level the surface.
The rule of thumb for planting is the larger the seed, the deeper it should be planted. Basil seeds are pretty tiny, so they should not be buried deeply at all. Instead of digging holes, I just space my seeds about 8 inches apart and then press each seed down with my finger to ensure good soil contact. You could sprinkle a light layer of compost on top if you wanted. Some basil varieties prefer to feel a little light on their seed coat as they're germinating, so be sure to check the back of the seed packet for planting details.
Water the planting area well to tell your basil seeds it's time to sprout. Keep the soil moist while you're waiting on them to grow.
Common Basil Growing Problems
The best way to prevent problems is to grow basil under its preferred conditions. Even so, sometimes things just happen. Here are two common problems and how to fix them:
Basil Leaves Turning Yellow
Why Basil Leaves Turn Yellow
Yellow leaves are likely due to the plant getting too much water or not enough nutrients or sunlight. Overcrowding could also be the cause since overcrowded plants struggle to get enough water, nutrients, and sunlight. They're also more prone to disease, which can cause yellowing leaves, typically from the bottom of the plant up.
What to Do About Yellow Leaves
Decrease the amount you're watering and double-check to make sure the container is draining well. Potted basil plants are more likely to suffer from root rot caused by too much water than herbs grown in raised beds or large containers. Re-pot with some fresh soil if needed.
Move the basil to a sunnier spot if possible. Add some compost around the base of the plant or some nitrogen-heavy fertilizer to encourage healthy leaf production.
Prune away yellowed leaves.
Shop our favorite garden tools for your herbs
This set contains a mini dibber to help plant your herbs, mini pruners to help keep your herb garden looking tidy, special herb scissors to harvest all those leaves, and cute little wooden plant labels to keep track of all your herbs. Dry all your herbs for winter on our beautiful herb drying rack.
Basil Leaves Turning Brown
Why Basil Leaves Turn Brown
Basil leaves that are brown are often showing signs of over- or under-watering, or they're scorched from the sun. Plants that are being under-watered will often have brown, shriveled leaves that taste more bitter than usual. Over-watered basil leaves will droop and turn brown.
What to Do About Brown Leaves
Water your basil plants when the soil feels dry about 1 inch down.
If your basil plant is being grown under grow lights and the leaves look like they've been scorched, the light source might be too close. Move the grow light further away from the plant or reduce the time it's left on.
Basil Plant Growing Tips
Basil really doesn't require a lot of extra care or attention. Reason number 101 to grow your own, in my opinion. Basil doesn't even have any severe pest issues. Your main concerns—in addition to watering—will just be to encourage this herb to grow big and bushy.
Basil tends to grow tall and narrow and produce flower spikes quickly, especially if it's growing in less-than-ideal conditions. You can encourage this herb to branch out and be bushier through careful pruning and harvesting. (Some people call it pinching off, some people call it pruning, but I just call it harvesting and eating it because that's what we're gonna do.) I'll talk about harvesting in a bit.
If you feel that your basil needs more nutrients, you can add compost around its base at any time and as often as you like. You could also add nitrogen at regular intervals by pouring in a little extra nitrogen liquid when watering or even spritzing the leaves with this liquid on a regular basis.
To be clear, I rarely amend my soil or add new nutrients to my herb gardens. Apart from a quarterly installment of fresh compost or a little addition of earthworm castings, I find that my basil plants grow really well when set up correctly with a rich soil that’s full of nutrients from the beginning.
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Harvesting Basil Leaves
Once your plants have produced five to ten main stems, you can expect to harvest from them weekly (and you should). The more that you cut from your basil, the more it’ll produce. I recommend working harvesting (and eating) into your schedule at least once a week or so as soon as your basil plant is established.
Harvesting regularly can also help prevent your basil from going to seed and ceasing leaf production. Flower heads come at the end of the basil’s lifecycle, but we can slow the seed head formation process and redirect the plant’s energy to leaf production by pruning the flowers, also called pinching them off.
With most herbs, you harvest the older, outer leaves first. Basil is, once again, the oddball. It's best to harvest from the top down by cutting right above a leaf node. This harvesting method encourages the plant to grow bushier and keep producing leaves for you.
At the end of the season, you can let your plants flower and get tons of basil seeds for next year. (Here's how to save your own basil seeds.) That means one seed package of each of your favorite basil varieties is really all you need to be set for life.
Basil Growing FAQs
Can basil survive winter?
Basil has zero frost tolerance. If you want to keep basil alive during a freeze, you'll need to pot it up and bring it indoors or take some cuttings to root inside over winter.
Can basil grow in shade?
Basil can survive in part-shade, but it will only thrive and produce lots of delicious leaves for you if it gets at least 6 hours of sun a day. On super hot summer days, basil does appreciate some afternoon shade.
Are basil flowers edible?
The leaves, stems, flowers, and even seeds of the basil plant are edible. Some basil flowers have a similar flavor to the leaves, while others are more bitter. Taste-test a bloom before you go wild and toss a bunch into your salad bowl.
Can basil and cilantro be planted together?
These herbs have similar water preferences and grow alongside each other well when their growing seasons overlap briefly. Cilantro likes growing best in the cool season, and basil prefers warmer weather. Cilantro will bolt and go to seed when the days are long and warm, just as basil is really taking off. A light freeze will kill basil but most likely not affect cilantro.
In the herb planter below, I'm adding cilantro and basil to the middle of the container, where the soil will stay moist longer.
It's Basil Growing Time!
Once you're harvesting basil leaves by the bowl, it's time to make your own pesto and margarita pizzas and caprese salads and whatever else you enjoy basil on (you'll have enough leaves to get creative!).
The best way to store fresh basil is to put the stems in some water and keep them at room temp on your countertop—basically just like you would cut flowers. Basil leaves don't like to be cold and will turn brown quickly in the fridge.
Whatever you don’t use right away can be dried, which is the simplest way to store your excess herbs. Hang the stems upside down in a cool, dry place and let them dry over a few weeks before storing. Dried basil can add a little taste of summer to winter dishes.
Alternatively, you could turn your basil into an oil to use on pasta by cooking it down and then blending it with an oil (like EVOO, avocado oil, grape seed oil, etc.). Store your blend in the freezer. My mom likes to pour her oil and basil into ice cube molds for easy defrosting later.
However you enjoy the leaves best, basil makes it super easy to grow and harvest a little bit of your own food. Thanks for making gardening ordinary again!
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