Basil is one of the most popular herbs for Texas gardens. Here in Central Texas, we can grow basil outdoors for the majority of the year. I have to say, it feels so good when there’s no need to go to the grocery store to grab one of those expensive little packets of basil leaves because you have your own growing right out back!
Basil’s mighty green leaves burst with flavor and add vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron into your diet. Just brushing against a basil plant to release its fragrance can make you feel like you’re walking through a Tuscan garden.
We’ve got everything you need to know to grow your own basil, plus our favorite pesto recipe to try when you’re harvesting basil by the bouquets!
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OUR FAVORITE TYPES OF BASIL TO GROW
There are many different basil varieties, and by growing your own, you can try them all!
- Sweet basil – AKA Genovese basil, this is the type you’re most likely to find at the store—and for good reason. It’s a crowd-pleaser with that classic basil flavor used in dishes like pesto. If you’re only going to grow one type, start here.
- Purple basil – Add some color to your herb garden with these deep purple leaves. This type has hints of clove and all spice.
- Lemon basil – This type tends to stay smaller, making it great for containers. It adds, as you might guess, a citrusy tang to food and drinks.
- Thai basil – This type looks a lot like sweet basil, though its stems can have a purple tinge and its leaves tend to pucker up (like a cupped palm waiting to catch water) instead of down. It has more of a spicy kick and a slight anise flavor. It holds up to heat better than other varieties, which is why it’s often used when cooking Asian-inspired meals.
- African blue basil – This type of basil produces gorgeous flowers that drive the bees wild. (In fact, we had to include it in our 10 Best Flowers to Grow in a Vegetable Garden post.) The only negative is you can’t start this type from seed (they’re all sterile). You’ll need to root cuttings (more on that later) or buy a plant from a local nursery. Either way, adding this plant to your garden is worth it!
- Cinnamon basil – This variety, also called Mexican spice basil, is a cultivar of Thai basil. Bright green leaves grow on dark purple stems, and the leaves, as you’d expect, have a cinnamon-y punch.
ARE BASIL PLANTS PERENNIAL?
Basil plants are actually capable of surviving for several years before they produce seeds. In climates that don’t get any frost in the winter, basil can turn into small bushes.
Here in Central Texas, basil grown outdoors behaves more like an annual thanks to our recent trend of getting a hard freeze at least once each winter. That means we plant basil in the spring, enjoy it all summer and fall, and remove the plant before our first frost arrives. Then we start all over the next spring!
If you’re growing basil in a container or pot, you can always bring it indoors for the winter.
Basil growing season
Basil grows really well in warm, moist soil. It will hang in there through the hottest of summers if you look after its needs.
Basil has zero frost tolerance.
Can basil plants survive winter?
You can try covering basil with frost cloth before a light freeze to see if you can prolong its time in the garden a bit longer, but there’s no guarantee. The only way to ensure survival when there’s frost is to move your plant inside.
If you’re buying a basil plant, you can plant it outside in your vegetable garden anytime between late March and September to enjoy it while our weather is warmest.
If you’re starting basil from seed, you can direct sow seeds in the garden space in early spring (right around mid-March, which is our last frost date in the Austin area) or start seeds indoors in February to set out later.
When in doubt about when you can grow basil in your area, just google your average frost dates. The period between your last frost in the spring and your first frost in the fall is when your basil can go outdoors.
WHERE TO GROW BASIL
Your raised garden bed is the perfect place to give basil the well-drained soil it prefers. Basil thrives when planted near tomato plants (just as it tastes extra good paired with tomato in a Caprese salad).
Basil can also be grown in containers at least 6 inches deep, but make sure to water more frequently since the soil will dry out faster. Like I said, potted-up basil is super easy to bring indoors during cold weather.
Do basil plants need full sun?
Basil thrives in both full sun and partial shade. Your plant will produce more leaves for you if it gets at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
On hot summer days, a little afternoon shade is best.
Growing basil in containers
The best pots for basil plants are made of more natural materials, like terracotta, and will have at least one good drainage hole so that excess water can drain out.
If you’d like to grow several herbs all together, look for a wide pot or a steel tub (you might need to drill your own hole for drainage). Your favorite herbs, some chives, and a good container flower like sweet alyssum all make perfect companion plants for basil (chives can actually increase the scent and flavor of basil). This type of container garden is great for beginner gardeners.
What herbs grow well with basil?
Put a little piece of weed barrier cloth or a coffee filter over the drainage hole to prevent your soil from running out when you water your herbs.
Growing basil indoors
Did you know you can grow basil indoors in a sunny spot like a south-facing windowsill?
If you don’t have great natural light indoors, you can also supplement with an LED grow light. Aim it right over the top of the basil plants and leave it on for 12 to 14 hours a day.
HOW TO GROW BASIL FROM SEED
Basil is super easy to start from seed. It sprouts quickly, and seeds have high germination rates, which means you should typically end up with a seedling for every seed you sow.
If you’re new to gardening, basil is a great plant to begin with, whether you’re starting seeds indoors or direct sowing seeds out in the garden.
Here’s the one caveat: Basil seeds are tiny! If you accidentally pick up three seeds when you meant to grab only one, you can always snip extra plants at their base with scissors once they’ve popped up.
How to grow basil from seed outdoors
Spread a 1- to 2-inch thick layer of finished compost over the planting area to give yourself a nice, rich soil surface.
Do your best to grab only 1 basil seed and press it onto the soil where you want it to grow. Space your seeds about 2 inches apart.
Since basil seeds are so tiny, we don’t really need to bury them. Simply press them into the soil to ensure they have good surface contact and then sprinkle a very fine layer of compost over the seeds when you’re done.
Make sure to water the planting area to tell the basil seeds it’s time to sprout. Keep the planting area moist until your seeds have germinated.
Once your little basil babies have grown about 6 sets of leaves, pinch off the top set of leaves using your fingers. This is how you get the plant to grow a little bushier for you, instead of in one tall column.
How to start basil from seed indoors
Starting basil seeds indoors gives you a 6- to 8-week head start on our spring growing season. Follow the steps in our indoor seed starting guide for success.
When it’s time to transfer you basil plants outdoors, dig a deeper hole than you normally would for transplants. Burying a bit of the stem helps this herb create a stronger base.
How to transplant basil from the store
The best place to source a new basil plant from the store if you’re not interested in starting your own from seed is your local nursery. When you bring your new plants home, there’s a couple things you can do to ensure the best results.
First, give your plants some water.
Next, count the number of stems coming out of the soil. Each pot of basil you buy from the store is typically several plants grown too close together to make the little pot look nice and full. (Annual herbs are often over-seeded like this, whereas perennial herbs are more likely to be sold individually.) One large container of basil could actually have a dozen or more basil plants!
They might look really healthy like this (that’s the whole idea), but they’re actually a little too cramped. They’ll do much better in your garden if you give them more space to grow.
Remove the plants from the pot and gently tug each root section apart. Plant each of these separately in your garden ASAP. Dig a hole for each little basil seedlings that’s deeper than the root section, and bury these plants past their neck (where the roots meet the stem). This will help the little guys build a stronger foundation since they’re used to being propped up against their neighbor.
Lastly, pinch off the very top off each basil plant to encourage it to bush out more.
How to grow basil from cuttings
Propagating a plant like basil is a really easy (and free!) way to get more plants. Here’s all you have to do to root a basil cutting:
- Cut a stem above a leaf node (where two leaves grow from the stem) at an angle. Aim for each cutting to be 3 to 4 inches long.
- Remove the bottom leaves from the cutting.
- Dip your cutting in rooting hormone if you have it.
- Place your cuttings in a little cup of fresh water like you would a bouquet of flowers. Keep the leaves dry. Place your cup in a place that gets indirect light.
- Change the water every couple of days and watch for roots!
- Once the roots are about 2 inches long, transfer your cuttings to soil.
BASIL GROWING TIPS
Follow these tips to keep your growing basil plants happy and healthy.
How to prune basil to promote bushier growth
Prune your basil leaves regularly to encourage bushier growth. Fortunately, pruning herbs really just means harvesting a lot!
Pinch off the top sets of leaves as soon as your plant reaches six inches in height so that each stem will become two new stems.
Do basil plants flower?
Basil is a flowering herb. While the flowers are lovely, letting your plant flower can sometimes mean you lose the best flavor in the leaves. Unless you’re growing a variety like African blue basil, you’ll want to delay flowering as long as possible.
Use your fingers to pinch off flowers before they bloom.
How to fertilize basil
The best fertilizer for basil would be something high in nitrogen to promote leaf growth. I like using a slow-release fertilizer like MicroLife All Purpose.
You can always just support your herbs with fresh compost whenever their leaves aren’t looking as green as you’d like them to.
How to water basil
If you’re growing in pots or containers, I recommend using a soil moisture meter so you don’t overwater your herbs.
Basil does like a more moist soil than other herbs like rosemary and thyme. It’ll need a good inch of water each week. During dry periods, make sure you’re supplementing with water.
How long does basil take to grow?
Basil is one of the fastest-growing herbs. You’ll be able to cut your first leaves within about two months, when the plant has grown about 6 to 8 inches tall.
HOW TO HARVEST BASIL
When you’re harvesting from your basil plant, avoid pulling off the biggest leaves (the ones on the bottom branches); instead, focus on the top of the plant with the goal of creating two new branches from one.
Look for two small leaves growing exactly opposite from each other. Use clean scissors or shears (or your fingernails) to cut just above this leaf set.
Again, cut often to promote new growth and many a bountiful harvest.
Are basil flowers edible?
The leaves, stems, and blooms of basil are all 100 percent edible. Some flowers can be a little bitter though, so do a taste test and see which ones you like. You can use them as garnishes or, if you love the flavor, toss them into your salads or pasta bowls.
Harvesting basil seeds
It’s really easy to harvest and save your own basil seeds. This way, you only have to buy seed packets for your favorite basil varieties once. After that, you’ll be set for life and can even share with friends!
Let some of your basil plants form flowers and then leave these flower heads alone while they dry on the plant. You can then cut the flower heads from the plant and store them in a little jar for next year, or you can let the seeds drop onto the soil.
If you go with option number two, you’ll have basil sprouting as soon as the weather begins to warm up again next spring!
HOW TO STORE FRESH BASIL
Basil leaves can be washed, dried, and kept fresh in the fridge for a couple of days before they start turning brown.
I’ve actually found better success keeping my harvested leaves in a little cup of water that I keep on my countertop like a bouquet of freshcut flowers. This is becuase basil leaves are really sensitive to the cold air in your fridge. You can store leaves like this for at least a week.
For longer-term storage of basil, chop up clean leaves and put them in an ice cube tray with some olive oil. Freeze. Once cubes are frozen, pop them out and store them in a freezer-safe container or baggie. You can use these cubes in your cooking!
Are black and brown spots on basil leaves safe to eat?
These spots are often signs of cold damage on leaves. They might not be pretty, but leaves with spots are perfectly fine to eat.
Take these spots as a good reminder that some herbs are best enjoyed as soon as you harvest them!
EASY BASIL PESTO RECIPE
I add this pesto to pasta and bread and even use it as the sauce for homemade pizzas. Almonds are a cheaper alternative to the classic ingredient pine nuts.
2 cups fresh basil leaves (can supplement with spinach leaves if you’re short on fresh herbs)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (alternative: Pecorino cheese)
¼ cup pine nuts or crushed almonds (option: lightly toast almonds before crushing)
¼ cup olive oil; add more as needed
2 cloves of peeled garlic
Dash of salt and pepper
- Optional: splash of lemon juice
1. Combine basil, cheese, almonds, olive oil, and garlic. While you can use a blender or a food processor, you’ll get better flavor using a good ol’ mortar and pestle. Pesto, after all, means pounded in Italian.
2. Add in more olive oil as needed to make pesto thick and smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Add lemon juice or more cheese—whatever your taste buds fancy!
3. If you want to make a higher yield or have a more subtle flavor, you can supplement this recipe with spinach leaves or Swiss chard leaves.
4. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to one week. Enjoy!