A woody, branching plant, basil is a warm-weather annual that grows very fast in 80- to 90-degree weather. When growing basil, note that two or three plants will yield plenty of fresh leaves for a family of four — unless you plan to make pesto. (To make and freeze a winter’s supply of pesto, plant a dozen or more.) Many gardeners mix various types of basil in their flower beds, where it is ready for a quick harvest anytime. It is also great for containers.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Basil needs 6 to 8 hours of sun; in the South and Southwest, it benefits from afternoon shade. Set out plants at least 2 weeks after the last frost in spring; summer planting is okay, too. Space at the distance recommended on the label, which is generally 12 to 18 inches apart. Plants are very frost sensitive, so keep plants protected in case of a late cold spell. Basil likes rich, moist, but well-drained soil with a pH of 6 to 7. Because it is harvested continually for lots of leaves, it needs a little fertilizer. When planting, add plenty of organic nutrients from compost, blood meal, or cottonseed meal to the soil. Feed with Miracle-Gro® Shake ‘N Feed® Tomato, Fruits & Vegetables Plant Food to help keep tender new leaves coming on as you pinch back the stem tips.
If planting in a container, use a large pot to keep the plants from drying out quickly in hot weather. You may also want to add mulch around the plants to help keep the soil moist and extend the time between waterings.
Occasionally, basil is bothered by aphids, slugs, or Japanese beetles. However, the biggest threat is poor drainage, so to avoid root rot, plant in a well-drained location. Also, don’t let it get too dry, or growth may be stunted. If your plants get away from you to the point at which they are making seeds and have stopped growing, shear off the top third of the stems and fertilize with liquid fertilizer. Never cut the woody part of the stem, or the plant won’t sprout back.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest leaves by pinching them from the stems anytime after the young plants have reached a height of 6 to 8 inches. Pinch the leaves from the tips of the stems to encourage the plant to branch and make more leaves. Try to keep the stems pinched even if you don’t use the leaves; otherwise, the plant will begin to flower and make seeds, and will stop producing leaves. At the first prediction of even the lightest frost, go ahead and harvest all your basil because it will quickly turn black in cold weather. Make easy work of this by cutting the entire plants off at ground level, then pick off the best leaves. You can dry them, but freezing them or using them in vinegar best preserves the herb’s flavour. You can also use the leaves to flavour oils and pesto, which should be kept refrigerated or frozen. (Don’t keep fresh leaves in the refrigerator, though, as they will turn brown.)
You can also keep cut stems fresh for a few days by putting the cut ends in water just like a cut flower. They will add a fresh fragrance to the air.
For the fullest flavour, add fresh basil to dishes within the last 5 or 10 minutes of cooking time. Use fresh basil in tomato dishes, soups, salads, sauces, and pasta. Its flavour blends well with parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage.