What’s there to say about growing sweet basil? Plenty – but for nearly two thousand years, a great deal of it wasn’t very flattering.
Take the opinion of Greek philosopher Chrysippus of Sol, who observed of sweet basil in the 2nd century B.C. that it “exists only to drive men insane.”
Or of those who spread tales that sweet basil leaves weres capable of generating serpents when crushed and placed beneath stones!
These were only two of the dark legends which shadowed sweet basil since Alexander the Great transported it from Asia to Greece, 200 years before Chrysippus of Soli’s day.
But, luckily for us, the spicy, clove-scented herb has outlasted its slandered past. Based on its “medicinal, culinary, and decorative” qualities, the International Herb Society named basil their 2003 Herb of the Year!
From where I’m sitting, that recognition was long overdue. So, with May almost upon us, I decided the time for a post about growing sweet basil has arrived!
How Much to Plant When Growing Sweet Basil?
Sweet basil has become such a gardener’s favorite that almost any nursery or big-box garden store is sure to have shelves full of it at this time of year. Two or three well-tended plants supply a summer’s worth of seasoning leaves for a family of four.
Are you planning on making lots of pesto (vegan and oil-free, of course!)? Figure on 2 cups of loosely packed leaves per two cups of pesto.
A single, 12-inch high and wide sweet basil plant should provide that, so plan on growing enough that the demand won’t outstrip your supply.
Look for full, glossy-leaved plants with no chewed yellowing leaves, and make sure they’re from an organic grower. Veganic, if you can find any, would be even better!
Choose and Prepare Your Planting Site
Choose a spot that gets from six to eight hours of daily sun. Sweet basil will grow with as little a four hours per day but will have leggier stems and smaller leaves.
A location with eastern exposure full morning sun) is preferable to one facing south, with strong afternoon sun.
Proper spacing is an important part of growing sweet basil. Leaving 12 to 18 inches between plants allows for good air circulation, limiting the risk of downy mildew and other fungal diseases.
Growing sweet basil interspersed with some of its favorite companion plants will benefit them all:
- Brussels sprouts
and their classic culinary partner, tomatoes. Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that tomatoes grown near sweet basil taste better!
Mixing the plants is a great way to discourage disease outbreaks or pest invasions.
Sweet basil performs best in well-drained, consistently moist soil with a pH of around 7. Before planting, spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of vegan compost over the site. That’s enough to feed it through the growing season.
Additional fertilizer will get you more leaves, but they won’t have nearly as many aromatic oils that give sweet basil its unique flavor.
Planting Sweet Basil
Plant your sweet basil after the daytime high reaches at least 70 F, and the nights remain above 50 F. Wait for a cool morning to set them out.
Water the plants, and while they drain, dig holes of the same depth as the nursery pots.
Slide a plant gently from its pot. If roots are protruding from the drainage holes, snip them off so the plant doesn’t resist.
If an unexpected frost threatens, insulate the plants by spreading a 3-inch layer of straw or pine needles around them.
Covering them with plant pots or cardboard boxes also helps. Continue watering and leave the protection until the temperatures are again suitable for growing sweet basil.
When and How to Harvest Sweet Basil
The only hard and fast rule about harvesting a sweet basil plant is to leave at least one-third of its leaves intact. They’ll support it until it replaces what you took.
The leaves always taste better if you harvest them before your plants flower. If that’s not possible, pinch off the flowers instead so the plants will spend their energy on growing leaves instead of setting seeds.
No matter how many leaves you’re harvesting, the process is the same. Pinch or snip a stem at a point just above where a pair of leaves meet.
Trimming this way results in more symmetrical and densely branched plants.
Next week, we’ll look at how you can use some of those leafy stems to keep yourself in vigorous new basil plants well into the fall. For FREE!
How insane is that?