Growing Basil

Basil can be identified partly by its hairy, square stem. It is an herb that belongs to the mint family known as Lamiaceae. There has been some debate as to whether basil is a perennial or an annual. In most temperate climates it is treated as an annual. It cannot live through the harsh northern climes. It can, however, last for several years indoors in a pot on a windowsill. This means that it is officially a perennial. When grown in this manner it must be constantly trimmed and can become somewhat gnarly.1

There are over 40 varieties of basil (some claim there are more than 60). Burpee Seeds sells twelve varieties, which include, "Summerlong" with many leaves (small ones), "Pesto Perpetuo" which is touted for its "flavor and form", and "Genovese" which is reputed to be good in Italian dishes2.

Basil can be planted directly into the ground from seed. Find a well-drained spot where daytime temperatures reach at least . They like to stay above 60 degrees at night. Be sure to plant after all danger of frost is past. They are very tender, especially at the early stages of growth. Try not to over water to avoid problems with root rot (damping off). At the University of North Carolina "a light sand to silt loam with a pH of 6.4" is recommended3.

Gardeners with restricted space or who live in apartments can plant basil in pots. For this it is best to start with well composted soil, such as can be easily obtained by using a vermicomposter. Plants may be grown indoors in a bay window. Be sure that the plants have adequate sun and moisture.

Young plants may also be scorched by the sun. A bit of protection from the searing heat at noon-time would not go amiss. Pinching off leaves frequently will promote bushiness. Harvesting is recommended before the plant flowers. Many people think that waiting after flowering causes the leaves to take on a bitter taste. In point of fact, the flowers themselves are edible, but most people do not find them as tasty as the young leaves.

Leaves can be harvested whole plants, a few branches, or even a few pinched leaves at a time. It can be used immediately in a sauce or a stew, or saved for later. There are several ways to preserve basil. The most common is drying, which can be done in bunches tied together and suspended from a dry place or, of course, in a dehydrator.

Basil seems to hold its own against most plant pests and diseases. It will be attacked by slugs, grasshoppers and the standard variety pests. However, mosquitoes do not particularly like it. It does have one vulnerability, a disease called Fusarium Wilt. This is a fungus that may be carried by the seed into your garden bed (try to buy seeds that have been pretested for this condition) and thereafter will kill any other sweet basil plants cultivated there for up to 12 years. Infected plants will grow to be 8 - 12 inches tall. Then the stems will begin to turn black, as will the leaves. They will fall off and the plant will die. This problem seems to affect primarily sweet basil. Other varieties of basil seem to be resistant. Nevertheless, once a basil plant has been infected, do not reuse the pot or the plant bed it was in for more basil (or any mint plant).

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  1. PapaGenos
  2. Ref to:
  3. North Carolina State University

Interesting Fact:

Tomatoes grow well with basil, either alongside in the garden or even in the same container. Nearby basil can actually help ward off insects that harm tomatoes, and even add flavor.

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