Growing More Basil - Two Tips You Have to Know

Basil seedlings

For an herb that originated in Africa and Southeast Asia, basil has become a staple of Italian gardens and kitchens. While there are estimated to be 50 to 150 species of this favourite – the range is wide because of the debate over cross-breeds and hybrids – the basil most people are familiar with is called sweet or Genovese basil. This is the fragrant variety characterized by large, green leaves used fresh in sauces and salads or dried. On a personal note, dried basil does nothing for me the way fresh does. Other varieties you can find and use for cooking include Thai, lemon, purple and holy basil. 

Basil is an annual and thrives in sunny and hot conditions. Easy to start from seed indoors or outdoors, Summer must take hold for basil to take off. Soil and air temperatures above 20°C (70°F) are ideal – so don’t expect large harvests in Spring or Fall. Basil is a moisture loving plant so water it deeply to ensure lush, green leaves. It will do very well in containers or raised beds because it prefers well-drained soil. Watch for any signs of yellowing leaves – suggesting it is drying out or going to seed – neither of which is ideal for maximum flavour.

So, because you’re picking and consuming the leaves of the plant, how can you grow more, larger and flavourful foliage? Follow these two important growing steps this summer and you’ll be swimming in pesto.

Topping Basil Plants

It may sound counter-intuitive, but by removing (and enjoying) the tops of young basil plants you will force them to grow larger. Once the seedling has reached approx 6-8 inches tall, and has produced its first six leaves, prune to above the second set. This will result in the plant branching in two, giving you more leaves for harvest. To know exactly where to prune, look for a small set of shoots forming on either side of the main stem, and cut above them. You can repeat this process up each branch as another six to eight new leaves form. The more you do, the more your plants will continue producing leaves. See the before and after pictures below for what to look for and the results.

before pruning basil plant

after pruning basil plant

Clipping Flowers

After approximately 6-8 weeks, it is common to see flower buds forming at the top of the central, or oldest shoots. At first, these will be green, but very quickly they will turn white. Letting things go that far is a no-no, and I don’t mean “grandfather” in Italian. Not only will the plant slow down sending out new leaves, it will begin to sap energy from existing leaves to put into flowering. You’ll notice this because leaves will start to yellow. This means the natural oil and moisture content - which is all the flavour - will drop drastically. To prevent, or at least slow down this process, pinch off any flower heads as they form. Without flowers, the plant will stay greener and keep producing leaves for a little while longer. Clipping flowers will only help extend the life of your plant, so the earlier you do this, the better. Take this as a sign that it may be a good time to start seedling new plants. 

Bonus: Keeping Basil Fresh AND Starting New Plants

After following the two steps above, what are you going to do with all that basil? The best way to store fresh basil is the same as you would flowers: keep sprigs in a cup of water on your kitchen counter, out of direct sunlight. Change the water every couple of days and enjoy leaves as you need them. This method not only keeps leaves crisp, it can help you propagate new plants. If you haven’t used them all within 2 weeks you should see roots forming in the water. Transfer these rooting shoots to moist potting soil and start your basil growing process all over again. 

Now that you have basil mastered, how about some tomatoes to go with them? If you need help starting an urban veggie garden of your own, The Young Nonno is here. For designing and installing gardens of any size and style, you can shop online or schedule a free consultation today.

Buon giardinaggio!

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