How to grow basil
Everything you need to know about growing fragrant basil, in our detailed Grow Guide.
Basil is a versatile annual herb, used in pasta sauces, pizzas, salads and Thai curries. Sweet basil tends to dominate the supermarket shelves, but there are many more exciting types to try when you grow your own.
How to grow basil
Sow basil seed successionally from spring to summer so you have a continuous crop. Pot on into individual pots when plants are big enough to handle. Water sparingly – basil hates to sit in wet compost. Harvest the leaves individually rather than chopping the plant with scissors, as this will enable new leaves to grow.
Basil is essential topping for delicious sauces for homemade pizzas. Check out our tests of the best pizza ovens, in collaboration with BBC Good Food.
How to sow basil seed
Grow basil in well-drained, fertile soil in a warm, sheltered position out of direct midday sun. To get a quality crop that lasts from early spring to mid-autumn, it’s best to grow basil in a container.
Start your seeds off in pots of moist peat-free multi-purpose compost on a warm but not sunny windowsill. When seedlings are big enough to handle, pot them on into individual pots filled with a peat-free, soil-based compost. Put them outside in early summer after the last frost. To acclimatise them to conditions outdoors, stand them outside in a sheltered, lightly shaded spot during the day, and bring them back in at night. Do this daily for about two weeks.
Watch Monty Don plant out basil with tomato plants, in this clip from Gardeners' World:
How to care for basil plants
Outdoors, basil needs protection from wind and frost. Always water with care, ideally before midday, and avoid splashing the leaves. This should help prevent botrytis (powdery mould).
Plants will grow fast in containers, so expect to pot them up a few times during the growing season.
Basil is a half-hardy annual, so new plants will be needed each year. However, in autumn, when temperatures start to dip, bring a few plants back indoors to provide a fresh supply of leaves in winter.
Growing basil: problem solving
Protect plants from snails and slugs. Basil is also prone to attack by whitefly and red spider mite, both of which can be treated with horticultural soap.
How to harvest basil
Pick the leaves and tops of basil regularly throughout the summer to use fresh. You can be quite ruthless, so long as you leave at least three pairs of side shoots so your plants can regrow. Don’t wash the leaves until you’re ready to use them as they’ll turn slimy.
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Preparing and using basil
For the best flavour, add fresh basil at the end of cooking. It’s said that you should tear rather than chop basil leaves to release their wonderful aroma. Use in salads, soups, stews, to make pesto and other sauces, particularly any recipe containing tomatoes.
Here, Monty Don demonstrates how to make pesto using fresh basil from the garden:
Store leaves in the fridge for up to three days. Or, stand cut stems in a glass of water ready to use. To freeze basil, chop the leaves and place them in an ice-cube tray, cover with water and pop in the freezer. Use within five months.
How to grow supermarket basil
Most fresh basil sold in supermarkets is sweet basil. It takes just 22 days from seed to sale, so the rootball is underdeveloped. This is why it normally dies if you plant it in the garden. If you want to give it a go, tip the plants out of their pot and tease their roots apart to separate them. Replant individually into pots of soil-based compost. Keep them moist but not wet, and place them somewhere warm but not in direct sun. When you see roots through the drainage holes in the pot base, harden off and plant out in the garden.
Basil varieties to grow
- ‘Cinnamon’ – olive green/brown leaves that have a very spicy flavour
- ‘Greek’ – small leaves with a strong anise-clove flavour. Good in pots
- ‘Red Rubin’ – produces highly aromatic, deep purple leaves
- ‘Sweet Genovese’ – large-leaved variety with a sweet flavour
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