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Basil Growing and Harvest Information

by chuck.mcmullan

Basil is used widely both fresh and dried in a variety of cuisines, particularly crucial in Mediterranean cooking. Some culinary experts suggest that dried basil simply cannot compare with the flavor of fresh basil, but few true basil lovers will not pass up either.

Basil comes in a range of varieties, from purple to lime green, curly to ruffled-edged leaves, and smooth to hairy leaves. Often referred to as sweet basil, this annual grows up to 2 feet tall. Its leaves are very fragrant with a rich, mildly spicy, mint/clove flavor. Use fresh leaves for maximum flavor in tomato sauces, salads, vinegars, teas, and eggs, and on lamb, fish and poultry; it is generally added at the last moment, as cooking quickly destroys the flavor. Add dry leaves to potpourris and sachets. Other species of basil vary in color, form, flavor, and fragrance.

Where to Grow

Basil is a tender half-hardy annual that is susceptible to frost damage. Because of this, it would be ideal for growing it in a pot to be brought indoors during cold weather. It prefers moist, well-drained, rich soil and full sun. It also prefers a climate with moderate temperature extremes, but it tolerates heat better than cold. The first fall frost will kill the plant.

Soil for Basil

Basil needs a well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. It does well in soil that many other plants wouldn’t tolerate; and too-fertile soil is a disadvantage, because it encourages lush foliage but a low oil content, which affects the aromatic quality of the herb. Do not fertilize basil; over-fertilizing is a disadvantage to most aromatic herbs. If the soil is very acidic, sweeten it with some lime. Otherwise, let it be.

Planting Basil

When –

It’s grown from seed or transplants, and you can plant either in spring, a week or two after your area’s average date of last frost. Basil makes a charming houseplant — put it in a sunny window.

How –

It transplants easily and also can be easily grown in a greenhouse. If you grow from seed, sow the seed 1/4 inch deep in rows 18 to 24 inches apart. When the seedlings are growing strongly, thin them to stand 10-12 inches apart. A sunny spot is best, but basil will tolerate light shade. Basil seeds itself and will often produce good plants if the soil is not disturbed too much in the spring. Using transplants in the spring will mean you can harvest your basil sooner. You can also buy a healthy plant from a nursery or farmers’ market stand and plant that. If you want to grow basil indoors, put it in a sunny window or under lights.

Germination75 - 85 F
For GrowthHot
Soil and Water
FertilizerNot Recommended
pH5.5 - 7.0
WaterBelow Average
Planting Depth1/4"
Root Depth8 - 12"
Height18 - 24"
Width20 - 30"
Space between plants
In beds10 - 12"
in rows12 - 18"
space between rows16 - 24"
CompanionsPepper, tomato
IncompatiblesCucumber, rue, snap beans
Pick continuously before flower buds open, up to 6" below the flower buds or ends to encourage continuous growth. Cut in the morning after the dew has dried. Do not wash the leaves or aromatic oils will be lost.

How Basil Grows

Basil is quickly started from seed, and grows as high as 2 feet tall. It has large, oval-shaped, shiny leaves and small white flowers that bloom in clusters. The leaves are typically light green and soft textured with square stems and opposite leaves. Basil may also have either green or purple-red, soft-textured leaves, and spikes of small whitish or lavender flowers. Flowers in general are small, white and appear in spikes.

Storage Requirements
Leaves can be used fresh, dried, or preserved in oil (must be refrigerated) or in vinegar. To dry, find a warm, dry, dark place and hang bunches of snipped stems with leaves, or spread leaves on a wire mesh. When thoroughly dry, strip leaves off stems. Do not crush or grind leaves until you're ready to use them. Store in airtight containers or freezer bags in a dark place. Some people believe that basil stored in oil or vinegar is more flavorful than dried. If storing frozen pesto, don't add garlic until you're ready to serve, because garlic can become bitter in the freezer.
FreshExcellent (particularly for pesto)
DriedFair-good (relative to fresh basil)

Cultivating Basil

Once established, pick the tops off often, as this will make the plant branch out and produce more leaves and slow down flower production. Continuous harvest benefits this herb because pruning encourages new growth. Unless the plant is pinched back, it becomes tall and leggy. Snip leaves frequently to flavor anything with tomatoes or use with fish and cheese dishes.

Harvesting Basil

Pick the basil as you need it by cutting a few inches off the top. This will encourage the plant to become bushy instead of going to flower. Store the crushed dry leaves in an airtight container in a dark place. You can also freeze the leaves. Studies advise against storing basil in the refrigerator, for it lasts longer when kept in a glass of water at room temperature. You can preserve larger quantities of basil by making pesto.

Basil Pests

None of significant concern.

Basil Diseases

None of significant concern.

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