Grow Basil, the Easiest Herb

May 6, 2012 | By | Comments (20)

My boy, Brian, 18, (Merit scholar and future theoretical physicist who will one day save the planet from the Borg), never thought highly of growing plants. Whenever I tried to elicit from him the slightest interest in any aspect of gardening, he’d roll his eyes and give me a look that said, “You are so totally lame. Weren’t you the Dad on Leave It to Beaver?”

Then, in a deliciously ironic turn of events, he suddenly became very interested. His very pretty girlfriend gave him some seeds and ordered him to grow them. Fortunately for Brian, they were basil seeds.

Of all the herbs he could be asked to grow, basil is the easiest. All at once, my supercool son became as totally lame as me.

Basil Out the Wazoo

Native to tropical and subtropical Asia, basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual that loves warmth and thrives in the hot, humid weather of the South. Its shiny green leaves possess a distinctive clove-like fragrance and spicy-sweet flavor that make them indispensable in the kitchen. The flavors of basil and tomatoes are a match made in heaven, so you might as well grow them together. Basil is simple to start from seed, but most garden centers sell transplants as well.

Now there isn’t just one kind of basil. The most common kind, ‘Sweet Genovese,’ is the one Grumpy likes best. It grows 2-3 feet tall with large, wide leaves boasting the perfect flavor for use in pasta and pesto. ‘Siam Queen’ grows 2 feet tall and offers a spicy, licorice flavor that’s great in Thai and Vietnamese dishes. This year, I’m growing Greek columnar basil from Bonnie Plants. It combines small, spicy leaves with a dense, upright growth habit. You can also grow cinnamon basil, lemon basil, lime basil, and purple-leafed basil. For more info on them, read “Flavor Your Summer with Basil” by Grumpy’s colleague, Gene Bussell.

Basil Basics

Basil demands just three things to grow well, all of which are easy to supply — full sun; warm soil and air; and moist, well drained soil. Start with good soil containing organic matter and you won’t have to fertilize more than two or three times in a season with an organic liquid fertilizer. Feed it more than that and you’ll dilute the flavor. Brian used Herb & Vegetable Plant Food 8-4-4 from Bonnie. It’s made from oilseed extract.

Last year, Brian started his basil seeds in a pot in the window in February. That was too early, but his girlfriend made him. You understand. As Locutus of Borg famously stated, “resistance is futile.”


Locutus of Borg, Galactic Basil Grower

A too-early start made for this-is-taking-forever germination. Eventually, two tiny seedlings appeared. Brian would dutifully check their progress each day, using measuring tools developed for nanotechnology, to prove they were actually growing. Naturally, as his Dad, I encouraged him all the way with such classic expressions of affirmation as, “How incredibly puny!” and “Your efforts are quite pathetic.” This is why I’m his hero.

Basil 001
Brian’s basil in in May. Enough for a really, really teeny pizza.

The Sweet Smell of Success

Things changed as soon as the unbearably hot, humid summer weather we all cherish in Alabama set in. His tropical basils grew like weeds. Brian repotted them several times and they grew into small shrubs we put out on our deck. We picked leaves several times a week for cooking and the basils never missed them. In fact, we were harvesting fresh basil all the way to frost. Regular harvesting is the key to making basil plants last that long, because it spurs new growth. You must also pinch off all the flowers, because once basil goes to seed, it’s no good anymore.

Basil 005
Brian’s basil in July. This is getting out of hand!

Storing Basil

As a tropical annual, basil dies with the first frost. So say you have a lot of basil plants, a frost is coming, and you just can’t bear to part with all that flavor. What can do you do?

Brian and I tried drying basil leaves between two paper towels weighed down by a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This technique proved as useful as the Encyclopedia Britannica itself. The dried basil lost its flavor. A much better way to store basil over the winter is to make pesto ice cubes. Read “Abundant Basil” for easy instructions.

Cooking with Basil

There is no better way to get young people interested in gardening than to show them how plants can be used in cooking. That’s what happened with Brian. I wanted to smoke some lamb chops on the grill using grape wood chips, so I asked him to come up with a suitable marinade. He quickly responded with one made from olive oil, basil, rosemary, oregano, garlic, pepper, and a little salt. He placed each chop in a ziplock bag, added the marinade, and placed it in the refrigerator for 4-5 hours before grilling.Delicious!

Want some other totally excellent basil-flavored dishes? Try these:

You’re welcome.


  1. 52 Ingredients: Basil

    […] like saying you can’t walk. Southern Living even calls this sprightly sprouted plant the “easiest herb.” Did I mention it’s in season year-round? Because it is, leaving you no excuse to not grow […]

    September 2, 2014 at 3:36 pm
  2. Steve Bender


    Water your plant often enough to keep it from wilting. The soil should be moist, but make sure the pot has a drainage hole. Feed it every two weeks or so with liquid plant food, like Miracle-Gro. Twelve hours of sun are just fine. Don’t move the plant outside while it’s cold, though. Basil likes it hot.

    April 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm
  3. Shonta

    Hello Brian:

    You did such a wonderful job growing your basil. You are my inspiration!! I, too, am from Alabama, but have lived in DC for the last 13 years. I just transplanted a seedling 3 days ago. How often do I need to water it? When should I fertilize it? When I initially purchased the seedling, the ends of the leaves were brown. I think that was from too much watering. I have noticed that it has grown a little bit. The leaves were touching the soil, now they are not. One more thing, I am growing my basil in my bay window in my kitchen. It gets about 12 hours of sun. The weather hasn’t started to get warm yet. As of this post, it’s 50 degrees outside. 😦

    April 2, 2013 at 11:04 am
  4. Steve Bender

    No matter if you start it from seeds or transplants, growing basil is easy, easy, easy! It needs full sun, though, so growing it indoors will be a problem.

    March 20, 2013 at 2:49 pm
  5. Fishy

    Well I got seeds and I was wondering if it’s better to wait for may for the basil or if it’s better for them if you plant them earlyer than it says

    I love this website and if it had a tatting I bet it would be 5 stars

    I’m not very good at growing stuff so keep your fingers crossed for me

    I have lemon basil it is supposed to smell like lemon and I intend on keeping it in my room so my room smells awesome

    Thanks for all the great tips:D

    March 17, 2013 at 11:16 pm
  6. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Excellent tip, Marie!

    May 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm
  7. Marie

    I found that if I lay the basil on paper towels on a baking sheet, then I preheat my oven to 200. When it is preheated I turn the oven off and put the basil … or any herb in there and let it dry. It seems to hold its flavor and scent much better.

    May 28, 2012 at 8:22 am
  8. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Thanks, Jason. Basil does take a while to get going, but once warm weather sets in, it grows fast.
    It could be a fungus or it could be that your plants dried out briefly. Be careful not to wet the foliage when you water. If not too many leaves are affected, pick out the affected ones, throw them away, and then feed the plants with Miracle-Gro.

    May 21, 2012 at 8:34 am
  9. Karen Mercer

    My basil is loosing a their leaves – some turning brown on the edges. What do I do?

    May 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm
  10. Jason

    A big thanks to Brian’s girlfriend for influencing him to grow basil and grow it early. Makes me feel not so pathetic about my past efforts at growing herbs! Although the massive shrubs he’s pictured with will be a goal to attain here in the Northwest.
    This article is timely as my wife and I were just talking about growing basil to help sustain our Thai food addiction. Will check out the Slam Queen variety as suggested – thanks!

    May 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Thanks, Barbara, for straightening us out. We promise never to do that again. :>)

    May 16, 2012 at 12:12 pm
  12. Mil

    You should try the lemon basil plants. Same care as your basil, but the lemon flavor really knocks you off your feet. Great with chicken and fish.

    May 16, 2012 at 9:23 am
  13. Barbara out West

    I can’t believe they tried drying culinary herbs between paper towels. This process is only used in drying flowers to keep their color.
    The proper way to dry these herbs is by cutting large sprigs, bunching them in small clusters, and hanging the tied bundles UPSIDE DOWN to retain the aromatic oils inside the leaves. Hang the bundles in a cool, dry, dark and airy place until they are completely dry. Then break off the leaf clusters and pop them into a glass jar, storing for future use as you would any fine dried herb. I’ve kept basil in this condition for over two years, and it still flavors dishes quite well!

    May 15, 2012 at 6:16 pm
  14. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    It is the logical choice.

    May 15, 2012 at 1:26 am
  15. Nancy

    Basil was created by the Borg to assimilate the entire garden space! Not only does cooking encourage gardening, gardening encourages broadening food choices. It’s hard to let something you worked so hard to grow go to waste.
    May your basil live long and prosper!

    May 11, 2012 at 11:33 pm
  16. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Good tip, Jill!

    May 10, 2012 at 1:01 pm
  17. UrsulaV

    Basil infused olive oil is one of our cooking staples down here, and I’m delighted that it turns into a shrub in North Carolina. I’ve never bothered to pinch the flowers, though, and it doesn’t seem to impact the flavor significantly–in my own experience, it’s still plenty basilly. But I’ve heard people swear that you have to pinch or it’s completely ruined. Go figure.

    May 7, 2012 at 8:24 pm
  18. Jill in Atlanta

    I freeze all my herbs flat in ziplocks. When I need them over the winter, I pull them out, chop some off (fast) and put the remainder back in. I think they last much better than dried- not just basil, but oregano, sage, parsley… all of them.

    May 7, 2012 at 2:09 pm
  19. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    My dear Aunty,
    Methinks you are correct. So why are the dried basil leaves you get from McCormick so good?

    May 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm
  20. Aunty Matter

    It’s unfortunate that basil loses almost everything when dried…it’s all in the aromatics. Released in bursts when moved, touched, or cut when fresh, those aromas don’t happen after it dries.
    I’m supposing that it’s a lack of aromatic oil content.
    That’s why dry basil from your spice rack is a different animal, when you compare them. There’s something nice there, but it’s nothing, compared to fresh.
    I have two pots, but nothing like THOSE.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm

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