Caring for Basil Plants

By Denise Plevier , last updated February 4, 2011

Homegrown basil plants require little care, and you will be so grateful to have it when cooking. Basil is a wonderful, versatile herb and an essential staple in Italian cooking. Plus, it has a fresh, clean and wonderful fragrance that will add a great flavor to your kitchen, home or garden. Every cook or gardener should have at least one variety of this delicious herb in their summer garden. It is not hard to grow but following a few simple guidelines will help it to really thrive.

Basil is a sun- and heat-loving herb, originating in the sunny locales of India and Africa. It should not be planted until after the last frost in your area. Pick a sunny location. You can use a pot with ample room for root growth, or plant it directly into the soil. The soil needs to be kept moist and needs to be watered at least once a day, especially if it is in a pot. Make sure your soil drains well. Basil can also be grown indoors, if you have a warm and sunny window away from drafts.

There are many varieties of basil (over 150 to be exact!) all with unique culinary uses. Sweet Italian basil (or bush basil) is the most common. It grows to about 18 inches tall during the season and is great in a summer tomato salad or any kind of Italian dish. Purple basil is another variety with adds a nice pop of color to the garden. The taste is slightly less sweet than its green cousin. Lemon basil is a more citrusy tasting variety, and Thai basil has a stronger, licorice flavor and is wonderful combined with other Asian herbs and spices in Thai dishes.

If you are starting your basil plants from seed, you will need to either start them indoors a month before the last frost date in your area. The seedlings should be slowly acclimated to the outdoors by bringing them out for a couple of hours each day. If you choose to buy plants from a garden center you simply need to plant them carefully in your garden after all danger of frost has passed. Basil plants should be planted at a distance of 12 inches apart from each other to insure that they have plenty of room to grow. They may be fertilized occasionally but do not do this too often: Over-fertilizing can affect the flavor of the plant.

Harvesting often is the key to healthy, full basil plants. Pinch off a few leaves whenever you need to add them to a salad or sauce. When a center shoot with flower buds develops it should be pinched off immediately. This will encourage the plant to grow fuller and bushier. The flowers also can affect the flavor of the leaves, so it is best to remove them immediately. Fresh leaves can be used in salads, sauces and a myriad of other dishes.

An old organic gardening trick is to plant basil near a suitable “companion plant.” The best companion for basil is tomatoes: Both plants have similar sun and water requirements, and basil has natural insect-repelling abilities that can help keep both plants healthy. Being near tomatoes also helps increase the growth of the basil plant!

Basil is a wonderful plant with many culinary uses and is a valuable addition to any garden!

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