Hydroponics / The Garden

Everything you ever wanted to know about growing basil

Growing basil is a must for me because as far as herbs go basil is right there at the top of my list of favourites. It is pretty much in a first-place tie with cilantro in my books. At this point, half of you are probably like mmmm cilantro and the other half are gaging as it tastes like soap to you. Fun fact this love-hate relationship with cilantro starts in your genes. But that’s enough about cilantro, for now, we can delve into it further in another post. Let’s get back to basil.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Some of my favourite basil varieties are purple basil, Emily (Genevese) basil, and Thai basil. I actually have all three of these growing right now in my “basement garden” thanks to my Aerogarden Farm Plus. I grow herbs (and veggies) year-round in my basement. Why? Well, I got sick and tired of paying $3 for a bunch of herbs from the grocery store that comes from god knows where. On top of that, I was sick of finding their sad little carcasses in their plastic coffins in the back of my fridge a week later. That was also the reason I started keeping an “empty” fridge (which also saved me money), curious what I’m going on about? You can check out my “empty” fridge post here.

Aerogarden Farm Plus

So let’s review reasons to grow basil (year-round if possible):

  • Less plastic
  • Saves money
  • Freshest herbs you can get
  • Organic
  • You know exactly where they came from

Well, those seem like more than enough reasons for me! Even if you don’t have an Aerogarden like me (if you want to check them all out you can go to Aerogarden’s site). You can still grow basil in the basement using soil, you are just going to need a grow light. I picked up an Aerogarden grow light, but any as long as it is full-spectrum LED will do. Or you could build your own hydroponic system, this is definitely on my to-do list for the near future! Let’s delve a bit deeper into the wonderful world of basil.

What is Basil?

Basil, or as it is known scientifically Ocimum basilicum, is a herb that is from the mint family (Lamiaeae). There are many cultivars of Ocimum basilicum, which has about 60 different varieties. Basil is typically an annual, which can vary in height from 30cm to 150cm depending on the variety. There are also differing essential oils present in the different varieties which accounts for the variety of smells each possesses. Historically it is native to tropical regions such as India and it can be found from Africa to Southeast Asia.

What type of Basil should you grow?

As I mentioned at the outset my favourite types of basil to grow are Dark purple opal basil, Emily (Genovese) basil, and sweet Thai basil. I get all my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, they have free shipping, give you a free seed pack with your order but most importantly they have heirloom seeds. No Monsanto seeds or GMO seeds which is VERY important to me, but that is a topic for another post (rant). They also have seeds for plants you probably haven’t even seen or heard about (like walking stick kale or Uzbek golden carrots). I love growing different, non-mainstream veggies which is why they are my go-to seed store!

Basil seeds

So let’s look at a few different types of basil and some of their qualities:

  • Dark purple opal basil
    • Dark purple leaves adorn this Italian style basil.
  • Emily (Genovese) basil
    • This is pretty much the same as your regular Genovese basil but it is much more compact. This makes it great for container gardening and for growing in an Aerogarden.
  • Thai sweet basil
    • If you love Thai food like me, then you have had this delicious basil for sure! It is a staple in Thai cuisine and has a sweet and spicy licorice flavour.
  • Genovese basil
    • This is the classic Italian heirloom basil. Delicious flavour, large leaves and amazing in just about any dish, especially bruschetta.
  • Persian basil
    • This is not your run of the mill basil. It has a distinct spicy, lemony aroma and it is also known as Reyhan.
  • Thai holy basil
  • Lime Basil
    • Another delicious Thai basil that is packed with a citrusy flavour.
  • Dwarf Greek basil
    • Adorable and tasty! This variety only grows to about 6-10″ so it’s great for container gardening. This is a goto for Greek cooking and has a bit of an anise flavour and is a bit spicy.  This one would be great for growing hydroponically!
  • Lettuce leaf basil
    • This Japanese basil has HUGE 3-5″ leaves and amazing flavour to boot!

Growing basil hydroponically

I will start with growing basil hydroponically as (in case you hadn’t noticed) I’m a HUGE fan of this method of growing. Don’t get me wrong I have my outside garden which is pretty big as well. But living in Ontario, Canada my growing season is limited. Honestly. I have also found that some things just grow better hydroponically, basil and peppers being at the top of that list. The biggest basil leaves I have ever seen came out of my little countertop Aerogarden Harvest. They were literally as big as my hand!

Growing basil hydroponically

Growing basil hydroponically is beyond easy! First, you are going to need an Aerogarden like my countertop Harvest model or if you’re going all-in then a large one like my Farm Plus model or some similar type. You could also build your own hydroponics system as well. Once you have your growing system, then you are going to need to pick up some grow baskets, seed pods, grow domes and of course your basil seeds of choice.

Assuming your hydroponic system is up and running then all you need to do is set the grow basket into the hydroponic system, put 2-3 seeds into each seedpod, pop the seed pod into the grow basket and top it off with a grow dome. You should see the first signs of life within 7-14 days. Make sure to keep an eye on them so that you can take the grow domes off before they get too big. Grown hydroponically basil is ready to be harvested within 4-6 weeks and if cared for properly it can give you continuous harvests for up to 6 months! Which is perfect for making a pant load of pesto! If you are not sure what type of basil you want to grow you can always pick up this handy Aerogarden basil starter pack that comes with 8 varieties of basil.

Growing basil hydroponically also gives you the best of both worlds. I use my Aerogarden to start all my seedlings, basil included. So in the run-up to planting season (April/May for me in Zone 5) I get all my seedlings started hydroponically and then transfer them to soil and plop them under the grow lights until it is time to harden them off so they can be moved outside. Then I replant in the Aerogarden to keep growing basil in the basement for the fall/winter.

Basil seedlings in soil

Growing basil in soil

If you opt to grow your basil in soil then how you proceed will depend on whether you are starting your seedlings indoors out direct sowing outside once it is warmer.

If you are starting your basil inside then you will want to plant your seeds in late winter or early spring. Grab yourself a seed flat like this 72 cell seedling starter tray from Bootstrap Farmer. Add in some organic soil and moisten it. Then you can scatter your basil seeds over the surface. Carefully press them into the soil, cover them and place them in a warm spot. I like to use a seed warming mat which is perfect for helping seeds to germinate without getting too hot and killing them. Basil typically likes a temperature of 21C or 70F to germinate.

Once your seedlings have reached about 6″ tall and assuming that all danger of frost has passed then they are ready for the hardening-off phase. It is crucial to harden off your seedlings or you risk wasting all your efforts and enduring the pain of watching your babies wither and die.

Basil is also prone to dampening off so be sure to make sure that once your seeds sprout that they are well ventilated. I typically run an oscillating fan on low to help with ventilation and also to help strengthen their developing stems.

If you are more libel to let them fend for themselves or don’t have the room to start seedlings inside, then you can direct sow them outside once the danger of frost has passed. You will want to sow the seeds at a depth of 1cm (1/2″).

Your basil growing questions answered!

Now that you know how to grow it, let me take a few moments to address the myriad of questions that you are probably just waiting to ask.

Basil seedlings

How long does it take basil to grow?

Basil will typically germinate within one to two weeks. It will appear with it’s set of seed leaves and you can expect the first set of true leaves to appear about 2-3 weeks later. If grown outside it will typically keep producing (as long as you pinch off and flower buds) until the temperatures drop and frost occurs. Grown indoors and well cared for it can produce for up to 6 months.

Does basil come back every year?

Basil is an annual in most places around the world as it is very cold sensitive. If however, you live somewhere in Zone 10 or above then you are one of the lucky ones that can grow basil year-round outside.

When should I “pinch” my basil?

Let’s first look at why we “pinch” basil. Pinching basil is done to removed premature flower buds before they have a chance to bloom. This is done because once a stem is allowed to flower it will become “woody” and will reduce its essential oil and foliage production. Which is good if you are trying to keep your basil producing lovely foliage to put in your belly. So if you are looking to keep your basil harvest going you will want to pinch any flower buds as soon as you see them. Make sure to check all the stems as each one will try to produce flower buds.

If you to control the height of your basil and create a bushier plant you can also “top” your basil. Make sure to pinch off the top of the stems at your desired height. This will help to direct the plant’s energies into the side stems that have not been pinched off.

Should I let my basil flower?

If you want to save some basil seeds for the next year (and you should) then you definitely do not want to pinch your basil. Once the flowers mature and die off you will be left with a mass of tiny dark seeds that you can save and store in a cool dry place. Then when the next growing season comes around you can start up your own batch of new basil. Which is perfect as it means you know where the seeds came from AND you don’t have to pay anyone else any money. Another reason not to pinch your basil is the beautiful flowers they produce! I let my sweet Thai basil go to seed last year and I wasn’t disappointed.

Thai basil flowers
Thai basil flowers

Does basil need full sun?

Basil is a heat lover and is known for being cold-sensitive. It thrives in hot, dry conditions where the daytime temperatures remain in the 20C/70Fs and nighttime temperatures remain above 10C/50F. It does best when exposed to 6-8 hours of full sun per day. Given these conditions, you will experience stronger plants with fewer disease problems.

How often should I water basil?

Basil likes moist soil but will not tolerate sitting in water. So be sure to water deeply on a regular basis and pair that with well-draining soil.

What type of soil does basil like?

Basil is partial to moist, rich, well-draining soil with a pH of between 5.1 to 8.5. Not sure what your soil pH is? Then you should pick up a soil pH meter (this model checks pH, moisture and sunlight). Basil can definitely benefit from you augmenting your soil with nutrient-rich mulch or compost. If you want to know how to compost like a pro check out my post. As you will be harvesting your basil often it can also benefit from an all-purpose fertilizer help keep it strong.

What are some common basil pests?

As much as we love basil so do some creepy crawlies. The biggest culprits for basil are aphids as well as beetles and slugs. You will know they are preying on your poor basil if you start to notice holes in the leaves. Luckily there is an easy fix. Just mix up 2 tsp of dishwashing soap and a gallon of water, then proceed to cover your whole plant with the soapy solution.

Coffee grinds

Are coffee grounds good for basil?

Yup, they are! They are also great for a lot of other plants in your garden. Many Starbucks will give away their used grounds for free! But if you have a local coffee shop then it wouldn’t hurt to pop in and ask them if they will set them aside for you. The coffee grounds provide the basil with a source of nitrogen. This makes coffee grounds a great alternative to commercial fertilizer. Just sprinkle the used grounds on top of the soil.

What are some basil companion plants?

Companion plants? I don’t meet like keeping them company as in BFFs, but when gardening it is always important to keep in mind the best plant pairings to ensure optimal growth. Yup, that’s right, you can affect your plant’s growth by who you choose for its neighbour. Ironically, one of the best companion plants for basil is tomatoes! Which in my books is a match made in heaven! One of my favourite comfort foods is homemade gnocchi with a rich Pomodoro sauce.

Are eggshells good for basil?

Eggshells are a win-win in the garden. They are primarily a great source of calcium (93%) although they do also contain a small amount of nitrogen. They are wonderful to include in your homemade compost and they can also be crushed up and sprinkled on the surface of the soil to deter slugs and snails. As slugs are a known villain when it comes to basil you can use eggshells to protect them. As an added bonus the perfect companion plant for basil, tomatoes, really benefit from eggshells due to the calcium. So another win-win situation!

How do you pick basil without killing it?

To start make sure that you don’t start harvesting your basil before the plant is at least 8″ tall. This gives it enough time to grow sufficient leaves and the strength of its stem. When you pick leaves only take a few from each section of the plant. Don’t cut a stem, just pick off some leaves. This is also beneficial as leaving the stem and harvesting in this way actually encourages the plant to grow more! If you are harvesting a piece of a stem, then take from the top and cut as close to the top of the next leaf node.

So there you have it, my basil growing manifesto! Once you have a neverending supply of basil there is no end to what you can do! You can become a pesto kingpin, corner the market on dried basil or even make some frozen basil cubes to use later when cooking.

What is your favorite variety of basil? Do you grow your basil hydroponically or in soil?

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