Basil leaves are commonly used in various foods including pesto, pizzas and salads. In Thai cuisine, meats stir-fried with basil are a regular staple. Growing this versatile herb is quite easy either from basil seeds or from an existing plant. You can even spice up your herb garden with different varieties such as sweet basil, lemon basil and purple basil. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to plant, grow and harvest basil at home.
Using fresh ingredients for cooking can bring out the best in a dish and there is nothing fresher than plucking herbs right off the plant as you cook, as celebrity chefs often do. Basil is one of those herbs that you can easily plant either indoors or outdoors. Besides tasting great, the plant itself looks pleasing and can be used to spruce up your living space.
How do you grow basil?
There are two ways to grow basil. You can either sprout them from seeds or grow them from a cutting off a fresh plant. Basil seeds can be purchased from most nurseries or delivered to your doorstep by ordering from online shopping sites. The basic things you need are:
Pot: The size of the pot really depends on how much space you have but if possible, choose one that is at least 20cm deep for healthy growth. The pot will need to have holes at the bottom for drainage. If you plan to keep your basil indoors, look for a nice pot that will complement your home décor. If you are reusing your pots, empty out any existing soil and sterilise the pots before use. Used pots can carry bacteria that will infect your new plants.
Potting soil: Do not use soil from your garden that may be too hard and contaminated, making it difficult for your basil to grow. Get potting or organic soil that has been pre-mixed with nutrients. If you are using normal soil, mix it with compost for nutrition and perlite for better drainage. Mixing in crushed eggshells will help to fertilise the soil.
Growing basil from seeds
Step 1: Prepare a seeding tray. If you don’t have one, you can save money (and the environment) by using egg cartons. Drill or pierce holes at the bottom of the carton for water drainage. Soil that is too wet can cause rotting of the roots.
Step 2: Fill about two-thirds of each cell with potting mix. Coco peat retains moisture well so you can add some into the potting mix for better seed germination.
Step 3: Drop about two or three seeds into each cell and cover them with a thin layer of soil. You do not need to soak basil seeds before planting.
Step 4: Finally, water the cells until the soil is moist but be careful not to flood the cells. A spray bottle works well for this.
You can also reuse plastic containers of fruit and vegetables. Some grapes and berries containers already have holes in them that will save you the trouble of drilling holes. For these larger containers without individual cells, fill them to about two-thirds with soil and scatter some seeds evenly on top. Cover with more soil and water. Leave your container in a place with indirect sunlight. Too much sun will cause the soil to dry up.
How do you transfer basil seedlings to soil?
Step 1: Regularly water the seedling tray and basil seeds should sprout after a week. When you see a second sprout of leaves on the seedlings, you can start to transplant them into pots.
Step 2: Prepare your planting pot with potting mix. If the pot is fairly small, plant only one seedling in each pot as it needs space to grow. With bigger or wider pots, allow at least 10cm of space between each seedling. If you have more seedlings than pots, choose the healthier and stronger ones for transplanting.
Step 3: Create a small hole in the soil either with your finger or an object like a pencil.
Step 4: Scoop out the seedling from the cells together with the soil. For this, you can reuse plastic takeaway spoons.
Step 5: Water the transplanted seedling regularly. If all goes well, you should be able to harvest the basil after about a month.
How to grow basil from basil leaves / cuttings
If you have an existing basil plant, you can grow more from a cutting. You can even try growing store-bought cut basil if it is fresh enough.
Step 1: Prepare a clear jar, preferably one with a thinner mouth that the leaves can rest on. Basil leaves submerged in water will rot. Using a clear jar allows you to easily monitor the root’s growth.
Step 2: Snip off about 7 to 10cm of a basil stalk using clean, sterilised scissors or gardening shears.
Step 3: Remove leaves at the bottom of the stalk, leaving just one layer of leaves at the top. If the stalk has started to flower, snip it off so that the energy and nutrient absorbed by the stalk are directed into producing roots.
Step 4: Put the stalk into the jar with water covering more than half of the stalk and place it somewhere with indirect sunlight, usually by a window.
Step 5: Change the water every two to three days. It will take between two to four weeks for the roots to grow.
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Transferring basil from water to soil
Once the cuttings have produced a good amount of strong roots, they can be transferred into pots.
The cutting will continue to grow if kept in water but it is not advisable to grow basil in water unless you have a proper hydroponic kit. Water does not provide the same nutrients as soil while the roots and stem are prone to rotting.
You can also grow any remaining basil from potted supermarket basil by separating the plants and transferring them into pots. These supermarket herbs are usually sown from seeds in a small pot and will grow when you give each one more space in a bigger pot.
Caring for your basil to ensure a successful growth
Basil thrives in a moist environment so it is vital to water it daily. However, soil that is too wet will lead to root rot so make sure the pot has proper drainage. If your basil is growing indoors, make sure it is able to get some indirect sunlight. If you are growing it outdoors, be mindful of where you place it. The sunlight in tropical countries can be very intense so it should preferably be placed somewhere with some shade.
While you can also plant basil directly in the ground, planting it in a pot gives you the flexibility to move the plant around in case of intense sunlight or rain. Unless you have a proper patch to grow your plants on the ground, there is the risk of your basil being infected or overtaken by weeds. As the basil leaves are eaten directly, planting them in pots provides at least some protection against pests and even pets.
How to harvest basil
Once the basil plant has grown to a significant height, it is time to reap what you sowed. Wait until the stalk has at least three to four layers of real basil leaves before harvesting. Snip off the top part of the stalk, preferably just above a lower layer of leaves that has started to sprout smaller leaves. If the stems are soft enough, you can even pinch them off with your fingers without needing shears.
How do you harvest basil so it keeps growing?
You can keep your basil growing healthily by making sure it grows into a nice bush instead of just growing upwards. When you harvest the basil by snipping above the sprout nodes, these sprouts will grow into branches, ensuring that the plant will continue growing.
If the basil plant is growing faster than the rate that you are harvesting the leaves, you will still need to prune the stalks regularly to promote growth and also to keep it looking tidy. You want to prevent the plant from flowering because it changes the taste of the basil leaves. If it has started to flower, prune off the parts with flowers.
How long will a basil plant last?
In temperate climates, a basil plant will usually die off when the weather starts getting cold. You will have to start growing it from scratch in spring when the weather gets warmer. In tropical climates like Malaysia, it could last for up to two years if it is properly looked after. One way to get a continuous supply of basil is to regularly grow more by planting cuttings from your existing plant or by collecting seeds from the flower.