Growing herbs is an easy and practical way to start getting your fingers green, particularly if you only have limited space, or are looking for plants that can survive on a sunny windowsill. Learning how to grow basil will not only reward you with a delicious cooking ingredient, but give you the skills you need to move onto other herbs, like mint, chives, dill and coriander.
Growing Basil: Getting Started
For the best results, you should plant basil seeds indoors in the first part of the year and let them develop into seedlings before moving them outdoors a few months later. With the right care, basil plants started in February or March will provide you with delicious, aromatic leaves through summer and autumn.
Sow in: February, March, April, May, June, July
Move outside: June, July, August
Harvest in: June, July, August, September
Start your basil plants off by planting them in 7.5cm pots. Fill the pot with compost (tips on how to make you brown compost here), then sprinkle a few basil seeds on the surface and cover lightly with vermiculite. Water them, and then cover. Using a propagator tray is recommended, but if you don’t have one then you can fasten a sandwich bag around the top with an elastic band, or you can cut a plastic bottle in half and place it over the seeds. Adding a cover – whichever method you choose – will trap heat and moisture, helping your seeds to germinate.
Leave the cover on for a few weeks, until your seedlings are about 3-5cm tall, and have their first “true” leaves (not the little round ones that sprout first). When they look sturdy enough to handle, you can split them out so you have 1-2 per 7.5cm pot.
How to grow basil
Frost will damage your basil, so don’t move it outside until the nights are reliably above freezing. Like tomatoes or chilli peppers, you can harden your basil plant off by putting it outside for a couple of hours, and then bringing it back inside – gradually increasing the amount of time each day. This process helps young plants acclimate to the exposure of outdoors, compared to indoor conditions.
When your basil is ready to move into the ground, choose a sunny spot that’s well-sheltered. You can also leave basil to grow in containers, sizing up every time you notice roots poking out of the bottom. If you’re also growing tomatoes, you might want to position the two near each other – basil is considered a companion plant to tomatoes, and is thought to improve their flavour!
Keep your basil plants healthy and productive by pinching the tips off of branches every so often (focusing growth at the centre of the plant), and removing flowers before they can form. It’s also best to water basil in the morning, as it can sulk if it’s roots are cold and wet overnight.
You can harvest basil leaves at pretty much any time, but I do have a few tips for keeping your plant healthy! For example, don’t immediately pick off all the biggest leaves – these are essentially your basil’s power plants that are generating all the energy it needs to grow. Instead, take a combination of larger and medium-sized leaves each time.
When you’re only taking one or two leaves, use the opportunity to pinch off the top of the plant and the ends of any leggy stems. As I mentioned before, it helps your plant focus its growth closer to the middle.
Common Problems With Basil
If you follow the above tips about pinching off excess growth, harvesting carefully and watering your basil in the morning, you should find it relatively easy to grow a happy, healthy basil plant. However, there are two main pests that you should familiarise yourself with when you’re learning how to grow basil.
- Aphids are a pretty common problem when you’re growing edible crops, and basil is no exception. We’ve got a guide to getting rid of aphids that you can check out, but the most important thing to be aware of is that they multiply quickly. If you notice even one of these tiny bugs (they can be white, green, yellow or grey), squish it quickly and rinse any other suspicious bugs off of your plant as soon as possible.
- Slugs and snails like to chomp on basil – look out for slime trails when you go to water your plants first thing in the morning. There are natural ways you can deter slugs and snails… be careful about using pesticides on any plant you intend to eat.
Learning how to grow basil is a fun gateway into taking care of more herbs and edible plants. Take a look at our beginner vegetable-growing guides, tips for growing herbs indoors and more kitchen garden ideas.