Basil is easy to grow. If you are growing plants to put outside in the garden, here in Wisconsin you will want to start about now late February or early March). It is one of the first things I start along with parsley, peppers, eggplant and some early flowers like pansies and snaps. Wait a little while for the tomatoes or they will get too big too fast. (This is a gallery. Click one of the pictures to open it and click in the grey area to close)
Most places that sell garden seeds will have some kind of basil. Usually it is “sweet basil” which is just plain old regular green basil. It’s good and is a good fast, grower but there are so many other kinds. We will discuss the different varieties in detail in another blog, but do try lettuce leaf. Its leaves are twice the size of sweet basil. Try one of the many types of Thai basil. The flavor is a little more pronounced and the stems are purple. “Purple you say”; yes, if you like that try one of the varieties with purple leaves. They are very pretty and you won’t notice spotting as much. They make beautiful pink infused vinegar. Other varieties to try include lemon, lime, or one of the miniature types. I recommend a soil less seed starting mix as basil can be susceptible to fungal diseases.
You have some choices; the little expandable pellets, small pots with the soil less mix or, you can use a larger pot with a nice rich soil on the bottom and then a layer of the soil less mi on top. If you use small pots you will have to transplant them into bigger pots as they grow. Use a clean pot. I wash mine in the dish washer. Fungal diseases can live from year to year on your pots.
If the seed is fresh I usually put about 3 seeds in each pot. Space them out a little if you can. Put in a few more if they are older. If your soil is dry spray it with a mist bottle before you start. Bottom watering works best for seeds and really young seedlings and pre-misting the soil helps draw the water up better from the bottom. Bottom watering prevents the seed from being washed away and protects fragile young seedlings. Basil seeds do like to be covered a little bit. Either sprinkle them with a little more soil or poke them down with a tooth pick or something.
Be sure to label your seedlings. I like to use pencil. It doesn’t fade as much as markers.
Basil loves warmth and they don’t need light until they sprout. They do best if you cover them to keep the moisture in and then put them somewhere that they will get bottom heat. The sell matts especially for this but I find that the heated tile floor in the bathroom works great. The top of the frig or the heating coils that are used to melt snow from the roof are some other things that I have heard of.
The next step is important. Check them every day. Water as necessary, by filling the bottom tray. You want them to stay moist but not overly soggy. When you see green it is time to move them into the light.
Then you just let them grow. They need as much light as possible. If they don’t get enough light they will get tall and skinny and will have week stems. Either keep them in the brightest window with direct sunlight or use artificial light. Again, they sell set shelves that are set up especially for growing seedlings. You can however set up a growing station anywhere that you can hang lights. There are special bulbs for growing plants. They do help I think, but I have had good luck with standard shop lights. When using this method the lights should be lowered and raised as the plants grow so that the light is 2 to 6 inches above the plants. Don’t leave the lights on 24/7 though, plants have adapted to that period of darkness called “night” and some even bloom and or develop according to how many hours of light they get. I use a timer that turns the lights on and off at 12 hour intervals.
Some of my seedlings go out into the greenhouse early so that they can start to get used to the temperature fluctuations in preparation for moving outside but not the basil. Keep growing it in a nice warm spot. You will need to harden it off eventually to go outside but don’t even think of putting basil out until it is nice and warm. It’s the last thing we pant outside.
As the seedlings grow use a fan to circulate the air around your plants. This makes them stronger and helps ward of growth of fungus.
One more thing that makes basil different than how I grow most of the rest of my seedlings, don’t thin it. Tomatoes, peppers, Cole seedlings; all of these I would select as they grow, and keep the strongest seedling. Not basil, you can leave a little clump of them. Not tons of seedlings, but up to 5 in a pot and then later planted into the garden together is fine. This gives you more stems to harvest from and makes your plant(s) appear lusher. Basil doesn’t have a very dense root system so it doesn’t mind, but do give it some extra compost or other fertilizer when you plant it as it likes a nice rich soil.
Plant them out when there is absolutely no chance of frost. Water your plants regularly and harvest frequently. This helps them become bushier. When you harvest take the top few stem segments just above where two leaves are attached. When you do this to new stems will grow out of the leaf junctions. Don’t just pick the leaves.
Now I have to wait until harvest time to write about making pesto.