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Basil Growing Guide

Basil Growing Guide

Searching for a herb that’s as attractive as it is flavoursome? Look no further than the myriad leaf textures and aromas of basil.

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Basil quick links

How to grow Basil

Pungently aromatic and bursting with vibrant flavours, basil is the first herb that comes to mind as a catch-all addition to many dishes.

A native of tropical regions of Asia basil is believed to have originated from India. It has tracked its way across the globe to become a firm favourite in many national dishes. In the Mediterranean it now grows wild, and forms the basis to pasta sauces and succulent salads. Indian and Thai recipes use the herb in many dishes to create a depth of taste that’s unrivalled. 

Meanwhile, British gardeners have learnt that basil is one of the most accommodating of all the herbs. It’s quick to grow, and produces masses of aroma-packed leaves to satisfy our love of international cuisine.

In terms of basil growing conditions, basil can grow outside anywhere, and you can grow basil inside. All that’s required is a warm, sheltered and sunny position where the plants can settle back and imagine they are in their native lands. A range of leaf colours, textures and shapes make basil an intensely pretty herb. It looks equally at home with the bedding plants as it does in its own terracotta patio pot.

The commonest form of basil is the versatile sweet basil, but there are many other forms that will help expand your culinary horizons. Purple basil, for example, has a warmer flavour that’s the perfect complement to rice dishes, while lemon basil is delicious with fish. Thai basil has spicy undertones, and Mexican cinnamon basil a distinctive taste of that spice. All these flavours are due to subtle differences in the essential oils within each variety. 

You can grow Thai basil inside, just like all other varieties. If you’re interested in propagating holy basil, otherwise known as the tulsi plant, then you’ll find that holy basil’s growing requirements are similar to other basils. ed out and encourage those aromatic leaves for as long as possible.

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Growing Basil month-by-month

January

Prepare the ground for basil in spring. Dig in well-rotted garden compost or manure to improve drainage and increase available nutrients.

February

Finish preparing the ground and order in new propagation materials such as pots and multipurpose compost ready for sowing.

March

Sowing can begin this month if you are growing basil indoors. The light levels are now bright enough to ensure a good, even crop.

April

Begin sowing basil under cover, either in a warm greenhouse or on a windowsill if you're growing basil at home indoors. Maintain a minimum temperature of 15°C.

May

Plant out young basil plants at the end of the month. By this time the soil will have warmed up and the danger of frost passed.

Must do this month!
June

Finish sowing new plants by the end of June. Outdoor-sown basil will benefit from the protection of a cloche in northern gardens.

July

Regularly pick the stem tips to encourage plants to bush out and produce even more leaves. Enjoy basil fresh in salads for a real treat.

August

Continue harvesting your basil to get the most from the plants. Pinch out flower shoots as soon as you see them.

September

Plants may begin to slow down towards the end of September as the heat of summer recedes. Allow some of your basil to grow flowers for the bees.

October

Dig up the remaining basil plants before the first frost and dry them upside down under cover to enjoy preserved leaves during winter.

November

Clear away the last remnants of basil, which will likely be a mushy mess after the first frosts. Remove dead plants to the compost heap.

December

Order in the new seed catalogues and start planning what basils you'll grow next year. Pick a few of the unusual varieties for interest.

How to grow Basil from seed

Being a tender herb, basil cannot tolerate frost, so don’t grow basil outside in the UK from seed. If you’re wondering ‘can basil grow indoors’, the answer is yes, especially at the beginning. Most plants are started off in pots inside before being planted out after the final frosts of spring. This gives plenty of time to prepare the ground for these sun-lovers. 

You can grow basil outside in the ground, or you can grow basil outdoors in pots, after you’ve started the plants off. The soil should be free-draining, but full of nutrients. This is easy enough to achieve by ensuring that plenty of compost is dug in during the months before planting time. 

Sticky clay soils may need further improvement by digging a little gravel into the site just before planting. This will open up claggy plots and facilitate their drainage.

In most parts of the country a sunny and sheltered position should suffice to yield a generous crop of leaves over the summer months. In colder or exposed regions of Britain some further protection may be necessary. 

If summer is late to arrive and autumn early, your basil will need some extra warmth. Use a bell cloche or similar to create a mild microclimate. Basil may also be grown in a greenhouse, conservatory or on a windowsill in such instances.

Caring for your Basil plants + problems

Plants will need watering in any dry weather, especially after planting. Water at the base of plants to avoid soaking the leaves and stems, which can encourage fungal diseases. You can lock in soil moisture by spreading a layer of mulch around plants. Container-grown basil will need watering more often, as much as three times a week. Apply a liquid fertilizer, such as diluted seaweed or comfrey feed, to these container plants twice a month to encourage even growth.

Left to its own devices basil will quickly stretch upwards and run straight to flower. While this is undoubtedly a beautiful sight it means fewer leaves for you to pick. Promote leaf production right from the start by regularly pinching out the growing tips of stems. This is easily done by nipping out the top two leaves and growing point of each stem between your finger and thumb. The result is the stimulation of more shoots further down to bush out the plant. When flowers do show up, pinch them out early on to keep plants filled out and to encourage those aromatic leaves for as long as possible.

How to harvest Basil

Pick little and often to get the most from your plants. It’s better to take a couple of leaves from each plant rather than hack back one plant at a time. Regular harvesting of shoot tips is what helps plants remain bushy and healthy, providing you with an extended cropping period. 

Harvesting will begin from about the start of June and, given a warm summer, and will continue right up until October. This is when plants will slow down and die off with the return of cold weather.

If you’d like to try storing basil, any excess basil can be dried for winter use. To do this, tie bunches of the herb upside down in a cool, dry and dark place until they have fully dried out. This should take about one week. Once dry, flake up the leaves and fill airtight jars or containers. 

If you’re growing basil for pesto, remember that basil may also be frozen and made into bulk batches of pesto or pasta sauces. Putting some basil aside for the winter is a great way to brighten up dark, dank days.

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