August 8, 1997

I've been growing basil, Ocimum basilicum, for a number of years now, and I am hooked. This addiction started as part of a herb garden project: I had a rather tenuous idea that it'd be nice to have some herbs. So, I ordered seed of the types "everyone grows", such as dill, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and basil; along with some that are not quite as widely grown, like lemon balm, cilantro, and anise hyssop.

The flavor of the fresh herbs was, as you would guess, better than that of their dried counterparts (incidentally, many herbs actually preserve better frozen than dried). That first year we enjoyed herb breads featuring dill, fish flavored with garden thyme, and parsley-sage potatoes. But none of that prepared me for the basil. My wife made a dish with cheese-filled pasta shells, which normally calls for spinach. We were a bit short of that green, so she substituted in basil, lots of it. It was incredible! Other herbs tasted better than their store-bought counterparts, but the fresh basil was like an entirely different herb! Believe me: If you've never had fresh basil, you've never really had basil.

Basil is the one herb I cannot be without. Fortunately, it does well under artificial lights; so I grow it through the winter on my growing bench. The key is to keep the area reasonably warm, have the lights as close to the plants as possible, and to pinch the plants tops early, so they spread out more (this way, more of the plant gets as much light as possible).

You have no excuse for not growing basil! It's incredibly easy to start from seed, and transplants without a hitch. When sown in warm soil (70F-80F), it will germinate in about 2-3 days. Since I garden where the soil tends to be cool all year, I like to start it indoors. First I fill 2"x2" square pots almost to the top with seed starting mix. Then I scatter a few seeds in each pot, and cover them with about ¼" more mix. The pots are then set in a shallow tray of lukewarm water, until the soil at the top is visibly moist; then I lift them out, let them drain for about 15 minutes, and put them in a warm, bright spot (I have an electric plant heater under a fluorescent shoplight; but a sunny summer window will work well too). In almost no time you'll see the distinctly oval seed leaves opened flat over the soil.

In general, basil is pretty problem-free. Aphids are an occasional pest; they can be washed off with a gentle stream of water, or a spray of Safer's Insecticidal Soap. Slugs sometimes bother the young plants, but rarely attack the mature ones (at least in my garden). Basil can be infected with Fusarium wilt, but that is pretty rare on seed-started plants (although Fusarium has been known to live on the seed coat). The biggest problem for basil is cold weather. Don't set your plants out until you can count on the night temperatures being above 40F or so. If you put it out too early in spring, it will sulk; but watch it take off once summer arrives!

Basil comes in all sorts of varieties. My personal favorite is Purple Ruffles, a frilly-leafed basil which grows about 18 inches tall. This plant is a beautiful ornamental in its own right, but also is excellent for cooking. Another type is Genovese basil, which is probably the variety most people have seen. A similar basil, with larger leaves, is Manmouth (also called Mammoth). There's cinnamon basil, 'Dark Opal' basil, lettuce leaf basil, 'Red Rubin' basil, sacred basil, Thai basil, lemon basil… enough varieties to keep even the most demanding basil connoisseur busy for years!

Please, PLEASE, try growing basil! Believe me, you will thank me later!

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013