How to grow basil, summer’s favorite herb

You can Grow Your Own Way. All spring and summer, we’re playing in the vegetable garden; join us for step-by-step guides, highly recommended tools, backyard tours, juicy-ripe recipes, and then some. Let’s get our hands dirty.

One of the common goals of new and experienced gardeners alike is to grow an endless supply of herbs for cooking. Basil often finds itself high on that list because who doesn’t love the idea of plucking fragrant, beautifully cupped leaves and scattering them atop a homemade pizza or happy-hour cocktail?

I’ll admit I’ve had some real fist-in-the-air struggles with basil in the past. I was forcing it to grow in places that I wanted it to grow . . . and in turn, it showed me it was not pleased. It wasn’t until after a few rounds of experimenting with container gardening and succession sowing that I was able to figure out a reliable, full-season production of gorgeous tender greens (and purples!). And thankfully, it’s not that hard.

Consider this your crash course in how to grow basil. By following a few of these tips, you’ll see how simple it really can be to grow any herb, but especially delicious, use-everywhere basil.

Some like it hot

Basil is quite effortless when given the right conditions, the first of which is warm weather. More specifically, warm soil (ideally 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit), which encourages germination and steady growth. Start seeds or transplant starts in a location that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun each day in well-draining soil — I’ve had my best luck growing in large containers where I can keep soil healthy and consistently watered. Bonus points if you can place basil in an area that you check on often, like outside the kitchen or patio door.

Seed vs. nursery starts

Seeds can be started indoors as early as six weeks before the last frost, or sowed directly outdoors in your location of choice. Common problems when starting from seed are either planting too deeply or too closely together. Sow seeds no more than 1/4-inch deep — and once sprouts have 2-3 leaves each, thin the plants down to 10 to 12 inches apart. I know thinning is painful, but at least you can toss these microgreens into a sandwich.

If you’re looking for basil on the quick, nursery plants are an excellent way to go. In fact, I like to do a combination of nursery starts and seed sowing in the same container to have a continuous source of plants to harvest from throughout the spring and summer season. When shopping for plants, look for an abundance of healthy green leaves (no yellowing or brown spotting) and, if possible, choose one with little to no flowering.

For bushier plants — regardless whether you started from seed or start — pinch back several sets of leaves from the top of the plant, leaving behind at least two sets of leaves on each stem. This will encourage additional branching (aka: less leggy plants, and more leaves for you to harvest throughout the season).

Watering and fertilizing

Moisture is your friend: Basil likes it best with consistent watering and very little drying-out between drinks. Like most garden plants, try to avoid any overhead watering that will splash soil onto leaves, which will steer you clear of (most) future pest or disease issues.

Mulching is a great way to retain moisture during the hottest months; experiment with compost or garden straw, but keep either from touching your plant’s stem. I prefer to use compost as a top-dressing mulch since that doubles as a fertilizer and soil-health enhancer, but you could also use a 5-10-5 fertilizer sparingly. Basil really doesn’t need the extra care, so don’t stress too much about it.

The not-so-goods

Japanese beetles, slugs, and aphids are your top three suspects when it comes to bugs on basil. Hand-removal of pests is preferred over pesticides (as gross as that might seem), so keep an eye out for early nibbles or changes in leaf color to stop pests before they spread. I like to use a strong jet of water to knock those bugs right off.

Bacterial leaf spot, or basil shoot blight, is a major uh-oh when it comes to pathogens. With appropriate watering (i.e. never soaking the plant’s leaves or splashing soil onto the stems), removal of deceased or damaged leaves, and consistent harvesting to increase airflow, you’ll keep the plant happy and strong.


The beautiful thing about herbs is that the more you harvest, the more you get . . . when done right. Always work from the top of the plant downwards, pinching off above a set of two leaves to stimulate new growth. If you want to lengthen the plant’s production of leaves, simply snip off any flower buds to push energy back into the plant rather than allowing it to go to seed. In other words, don’t be shy about plucking your goods.

Extra credit

There are two gardening techniques that I like to incorporate when growing basil, and they’re both easy, and will give you a longer, more productive growing season:

Succession sowing 

This is the practice of sowing seeds several times over the course of the season to fill the gap between the first harvest and subsequent regrowth. I like to sprinkle in new seeds every two weeks to keep new plants germinating.

Companion planting

Did you know that certain plant pals work together to resist pests and make your food more delicious? Try planting basil alongside marigolds to deter pests, borage to attract more beneficial bees, chamomile chives or oregano to enhance aromatics, and tomatoes to increase their yields as well as flavor.

Basil varieties to add toy your mix

It’s estimated that there are more than 150 species of basil cultivars and hybrids out there. Here are four unique, yet easy-to-find varieties to add flair to your next basil harvest:

Cardinal basil

Grown more for its beautiful blooms than its leaves, these giant purple pom-poms are so beautiful you’ll find yourself wanting to harvest them for a vase instead of dinner. Well, the cinnamon-clove flavor and hints of anise are pretty irresistible as well.

Dark opal basil

These dark purple-hued leaves are a beautiful addition to your basil bouquet. I love succession sowing these in between other Italian sweet basil varieties for a steady supply of herbs; its unique, sweet-savory, and earthy flavor is a great addition to the more common basil varieties.

Holy basil

A highly regarded medicinal herb also known as tulsi, this basil is most commonly dried and used for tea, but is also a delightful addition to Thai cooking.

African blue basil

This particular variety is a staple in my garden; I have several large clusters of these and love the minty herbaceous flavor that the leaves add to my salads and caprese. A perennial herb that the bees go crazy for, it grows back year after year even with hard pruning. Don’t forget to let them flower so they can attract pollinators.


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