Can you imagine a garden without basil? Impossible! Its familiar fragrance, easy care, and many uses make it indispensable in herb, ornamental, and container gardens—and, of course, in the kitchen. A member of the mint family (Labiatae), as so many herbs are, basils have the familiar four-sided stems and whorled flowers of that family; they are not, however, in the least invasive, as mints can be. The genus name of sweet basil, Ocimum, is from a Greek verb that means “to be fragrant.” The species name, basilicum, comes from the Greek basileus, which means “king or prince.” Basil is often referred to as the “king of herbs,” and no wonder—it is one of the most useful, and most used, of all herbs. In frost-free climates, sweet basil may act as a perennial, but in most areas of the country, it is an annual, dying at the first touch of frost. There are more than 30 different species of basil, but the most commonly grown are O. basilicum and its subspecies.
Basil Growing Tips
Select a Site. Basil grows best in a location that receives full sun—at least six hours (or more) of direct sun daily. With less sun, the plants have a tendency to get “leggy.” Plants in containers require the same exposure.
Prepare the Soil. Although herbs are not very fussy, they do need a light, fertile soil with good drainage. Amend what you have by digging in about a 2-inch layer of peat moss and compost before planting (we prefer Bumper Crop Soil Organic Ammendment). This is particularly important if your soil is mostly clay.
Transplant. Choose a cloudy, calm day or late afternoon to transplant your basils to give them a chance to settle in before they have to contend with the drying effects of sun and wind. It is very important to plant at the right time, which means not too early in the season. The slightest cold will set them back. Set the plants in the ground at the same depth they were growing in the pots. If you bought six-packs or flats of basil plants, water them first; then carefully lift each plant out of its cell or separate them from each other in the flat, keeping as much soil around the roots as possible to minimize moisture loss. If they don’t come out easily and you need to handle the plants, do so by their leaves, not their stems (plants replace leaves more readily than stems). If you started plants in peat pots, set the pots below the soil line—they have a tendency to dry out quickly when exposed to the air.
Space plants 10-12 inches apart; dwarf basils, 8-10 inches apart; larger basils, such as ‘Sweet Dani’, up to 20 inches apart.
Water the plants immediately after setting them in the ground.
Basil is as ornamental as it is edible. Put it in a traditional herb garden, in the vegetable plot in the center of a bed of red- and green-leaf lettuces or edging a bed of tomatoes.
Use both the green- and purple-leaved varieties in borders; the latter are especially beautiful with perennials such as coral bells (Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’), Sedum ‘Vera Jameson’, fountain grass (Pennisetum), dusty miller, and blue Salvia farinacea. Both combine well with annuals, such as dwarf or medium-height snapdragons, nicotiana, French marigolds, and petunias.
Try the old-fashioned technique of keeping flies away by planting basils around a patio or in containers on a deck.
Taking Care of Basil
Like most herbs, basils do not require much maintenance. In sandy or infertile soil, fertilize basil plants for continuous growth. If you amended the soil with organic matter, you may not need to fertilize basil. Basil plants need about an inch of water a week. Water, if rain does not provide for the plant’s needs.
Although the flower spikes are attractive, it is recommended to cut them off as they deplete the plants’ energy resulting in fewer leaves.
The leaves have the best flavor—the most essential oils—when they are harvested before the plants flower. Cut whole stems rather than individual leaves, especially if you want to use the leaves as a garnish because they bruise easily. Cutting whole stems is a tasty way of creating a bushy, compact plant: Cut just above a pair of lower leaves; the plant will produce new shoots at that point.
Growing Basil In Containers
Basils are excellent herbs to grow in containers because they add such attractive colors and textures to the plantings. They look good in pots or window boxes in full sun. A container of basil by the back door or on a deck provides easy access for harvesting! The container should have drainage holes in the bottom or sides. Fill it with a soilless mix, which is more lightweight than garden soil and is also free of diseases and weed seeds. It is easy to provide nutrients all season by incorporating a controlled-release fertilizer in the mix before planting. With mixed plantings, place most basils near the center of containers or at the ends of window boxes. Use dwarf basils to edge a container planting or on their own in smaller, 8-inch pots, and place the pots around a larger planter, marching up steps, or along a walk. Basils combine well with other herbs and with annuals. Plant basils at the same level as, or just slightly deeper than, they were growing in their original pots. Water the container well after planting. Keep the plants evenly moist through the growing season; the roots of any plants in a container cannot reach down or out in search of available moisture. Smaller containers will require more frequent watering than large ones. If you plant in a window box, remember that overhanging eaves may prevent rain from reaching the plants.