How to Grow Fresh Basil

Planting aromatic basil from seed is the best way to go.
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Basil for Summer Cooking

Basil for Summer Cooking

Basil comes from a Greek word that means "king," and that makes sense since basil is like royalty in most herb gardens.

"If you like to cook and you like to garden, it's a very nice thing to have," says seed-catalog co-founder Ellen Ecker Ogden. "It grows easily, it fills out fast, it's lovely to look at and its fragrance is divine. It's a really wonderful herb to have in the garden."

Sweet basil is by far the most common variety, but there are actually more than 60 different cultivars of basil grown worldwide. For simplicity's sake, Ogden breaks them down into five groups. There is culinary basil (which includes sweet basil), the darker basil used for vinegars, fine-leaf basil, lettuce-leaf basil (a big leaf that can be used to wrap things), and scented basils.

Follow these steps for growing your own basil from seed:

  • Start with a plentiful, 20-row tray, which you can find in well-stocked garden centers or catalogs.
  • Fill the tray with a nice, lightweight, potting mix. Gently tamp a shallow ridge down each row.
  • Lightly sprinkle the seeds with the same potting soil to cover. Basil seeds are tiny and shouldn't be planted much deeper than 1/8-inch. Repeat the process until you've planted a row or two of several different kinds of basil.
  • Once the seeds have been planted, it's time to water. Because the seeds are so tiny, water gently, giving them just enough to moisten the soil. "These seedlings are only a couple weeks old," says Ogden. "I want to make sure that they don't get overwatered and that they get plenty of light." According to Ogden, the secret to healthy basil is to let the soil dry out completely between waterings.
  • When the seedlings are established, fill transplant pots with a loose, light, potting soil. Ogden uses an organic mix containing peat and pearlite with no additional fertilizers. Too much nitrogen can sap basil's essential oils and affect the flavor of the leaves. To ensure a healthy crop, transplant only the biggest. "I'm planting one to each container because that way it will grow faster and it doesn't have to compete with its neighbors to get bigger."
  • Once the danger of frost has passed, into the ground the basil goes. Originally from India, basil loves to bask in the sunshine, preferably next to a few basil counterparts, and it is a great companion plant for several veggies. "If it goes well in the kitchen, it probably goes well in the garden," says Ogden. "Basil and tomatoes, basil and eggplant, those are wonderful combinations."

The best part about basil is the more you harvest, the more productive the plant. Pruning also helps inhibit the growth of seed heads. All annuals go to seed much like this cinnamon basil. Since all the essential oils start going to the seeds instead of the leaves, Ogden says it only makes sense to trim them off.

"My favorite thing about basil is when I plant it near the path, I brush past it," says Ogden. "It gives the aroma and the bouquet of a lovely, sweet, clove-scented plant." In borders, in containers, herb or vegetable gardens, basil can spice things up in almost any setting.

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