Spring is happening here in Toronto. Flowering bulbs and hardy perennials are popping up in my garden quickly now and the local corner shops have begun hauling out carts full of plants to tempt us. Right on schedule, emails about basil have come flooding in.
“Hi there, I bought a basil plant a few weeks ago. I swear I’ve been doing everything right but it’s going all brown. Is it dying?”
“I only water it when the soil is dry. What am I doing wrong?”
It’s not you, it’s the plant. No, really. Of all of the herbs I have ever grown — and I have grown a good many — basil is consistently the most finicky of the lot and the hardest to get going. Don’t get me wrong, a lush basil crop is easy enough to grow mid-season when it is sunny and warm and nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50°F (10°C). The plant is surprisingly amenable to life in pots and even though I have been experimenting with basil since the start of my gardening “career” and have grown as many as 22 varieties in one season, I am still amazed by the exceptional variety of forms, colours, and flavours available. This is a fantastic herb, and my second favourite food crop to grow besides tomatoes. Judging by the questions I receive about this plant, I think it’s one of your favourites, too.
The trouble is that in our eagerness to grow basil we become impatient. We want it make it happen NOW, but basil will happen when it is good and ready, thank you very much. Like I said, it is a summer plant. While too much direct sun and drought can stunt its growth and cause it to fizzle out, a cool, wet season will make it rot almost overnight. Basil hates it when its roots stay wet for too long, especially if it is cold. For this reason, basil is always the last herb that I put outside, if not one of the very last plants, period. There is no magical time to do this. I simply watch the weather and hold it back until I am absolutely certain that the coast is clear. Sometimes this is as late as mid-June in my region.
Growing Basil on a Windowsill
“OMG! You can SO grow a pot of basil on a windowsill!!!!”
Regardless, of what many over-enthusiastic and bubbly exclamation point-style articles will tell you, basil is not happy on a windowsill and will not tolerate life there for too long. Okay, to be fair, I should qualify this statement. Some varieties of basil will survive life long-term on a windowsill. I have had excellent results growing tough-leaved varieties such as ‘West African’ and ‘African Blue’ on my windowsill through the winter. I have also had some positive experiences growing soft-leaved Genovese varieties (the types we like best for pesto) on a windowsill through winters that were exceptionally sunny and those that receive fairly consistent conditions. Unfortunately, most winters are not that sunny and most windowsills are inconsistent, going from hot to freezing in a heartbeat. I’ve had some success in the winter by placing my basil on top of a towel or snuggling the pot inside a homemade cozy. My greatest success is in treating the plant as a short term crop rather than a longterm one. Directions are on page 81 in my book, “Easy Growing: Organic Herbs and Edible Flowers from Small Spaces.”
Sowing and Planting
Transplants are the easy way to go if you’re only planning to grow a couple of plants, but seeds are also simple enough to pull off and much more economical if you share a pack amongst friends. Start indoors, just before the last frost. Here in Toronto, I start mine in mid-May. Plants started too early grow slowly and tend to sit inactive for weeks, just in time for late sown plants to catch up once they all go outdoors and the heat and day length intensifies. Bottom heat helps germination, especially if you are starting seed in a cool spot like a basement. I have good results using a heating mat.
When you do set plants out, put them in a warm and sheltered spot away from intense midday sun. I plant mine underneath tall tomatoes, which provide the plants with a little bit of shelter. Keep the soil moderately moist, but make sure it drains well (doesn’t puddle).
Growing Basil in Pots
Pots that are at least a foot deep are best for most basil varieties, but there are a few dwarves such as ‘Purple Bush’ that will produce in a pot half that size. Make sure that there are drainage holes in the bottom and use very well-draining container soil mix. I often mix regular container soil with cactus soil or add grit and/or sand to it. Don’t allow potted plants to dry out entirely.
Begin to pinch or snip the growing tips every two weeks or so after planting. This creates plants that are bushy and full. Remove flower buds as soon as they show up to keep the plant focused on making leaves. Add them to salads!
About a month or so after planting you can quickly and easily double your basil crop by taking cuttings from established plants.
Further reading on growing and using basil can be found in the archives, or in my books, “Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces” and “Easy Growing: Organic Herbs and Edible Flowers from Small Spaces.”