All a basil plant needs is sun, water, and a bit of pruning in order to grow long, luscious, aromatic leaves. Basil comes in more than 150 varieties from sweet to spicy, and it can be found in shades like dark green and deep purple. Because basil is an annual plant (meaning it lasts just one season), you can try out a few different varieties every year.
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When and Where to Plant Basil
Planting at the right time of the year is crucial to basil's growth. Since the herb thrives in warm temperatures, plant it outside after the last spring frost in your area. If you're growing plants from seeds indoors, start them six to eight weeks before planting them outside, says Melinda Myers, gardening expert, author, and host of the Great Courses' "How to Grow Anything" DVD series.
According to the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), for basil to grow well, it needs six hours of sun a day, so take a good look at your yard to see where it's the sunniest. If you don't have a yard, plant basil in a container and put it near a window where it has access to lots of sunlight.
How to Grow Basil
Plant seeds directly in the ground or in raised beds or containers. Spacing plants correctly is essential to healthy growth, says Myers, and you can find this information on seed packets or tags that accompany seedlings (young plants that a nursery started from seeds). According to the NYBG, a good rule of thumb is to space seedlings about one foot apart in the garden bed.
"Basil likes rich organic soils whether planting in the ground, a raised bed, or a container," says Myers. To improve your in-ground garden soil, she says to add compost rather than purchased topsoil, which often contains a lot of weed seed and could actually be worse than your existing soil. If you do buy soil, look for a blend of topsoil and compost. As for potting mix—which you fill containers with—Myers recommends an organic combo that includes some compost as well as peat moss and rice hulls for drainage. Another good option: a mix of coir, peat moss, and perlite.
How to Prune Basil
When tiny flowers begin to grow on your basil plants, or your plants reach more than six inches in height, it's time to start pruning. Just remove the flowers and leave the stems alone, says Mark Whittier, color and foliage merchant at Pike Nurseries. He advises gardeners to stay on top of pinching off the flower buds as soon as they appear. "Prune or harvest frequently to keep the blooms at bay and prevent the stems from becoming woody. Once stems become woody, the basil becomes bitter and past its prime." When pruned often, basil can yield an ongoing supply of leaves, according to the NYBG. It's best to cut—not pull—enough of the stem to leave only two to four leaves on the plant.
How to Harvest Basil
"Cut the stems down as far as needed to get enough leaves," says Whittier. "Cut just above a node—where the main stem meets two side stems—for the most attractive leaves to use on salads, sandwiches, and pizzas. Pick off the lower leaves for drying and cooking." He suggests harvesting in the morning for peak flavor.
How to Dry Basil
The NYBG says to wipe off dirt and debris and tie in bunches of three to five stems. Hang it upside down in a dark, warm place, and the basil will be dried within two to four weeks.
How to Store Basil
According to the NYBG, keep just-cut basil fresh, and don't wash or refrigerate it; instead, tie a few stems together and place in a glass of cold water on a countertop without leaves touching the water. You can also freeze basil leaves: Though they'll turn dark, the basil won't lose any of its robust flavor.