Basil: Sweetness Wrapped Up In A Plant!

Your guide to planting, caring for, and harvesting basil.

If candy came in the form of a plant, basil would undoubtedly be the one!

Most everyone is familiar with the lovely aroma and cozy taste of basil-infused dishes.

This aromatic herb not only graces hundreds of foods, but it has a significant role in the medicinal world.

Join us as we introduce you to Ocimum basilicum and take a peek at some intriguing uses for this plant.

If you’re curious about how to grow sweet basil, we gotcha covered!

Let’s take a look!

What Is Basil?

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a well known aromatic herb. What is sweet basil used for?

The leaves are used in cooking and essential oils. It’s one of the most popular herbs used around the world to add a distinctive flavor to food. 

Basil is native to India, as well as tropical regions of Asia and Africa. Gardeners throughout the world know how to grow sweet basil in containers and small herb gardens.

The history behind basil is fascinating!

Referred to as ancient Greece’s ‘royal herb,’ basil’s beginnings date back over 5,000 years ago. Various countries have interesting folklore regarding basil.

  • Israel – basil promotes strength during fasting.
  • Italy – basil represents ‘love.’
  • Greece – basil represented ‘hate’ in ancient times.
  • Africa – basil protects someone from scorpions.

Basil is also revered among religions. Hindus believe basil came from Vishnu (a god.)

Orthodox churches in Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, and Romania consider basil holy because it grew around the tomb of Christ. 

These churches use basil in holy water and place vessels of basil near their altars.

When not being used for religious purposes, the dead in India have basil placed in their mouths so they’ll reach their God.

Basil Taxonomy

Family Lamiaceae (mint family)
Genus                      Ocimum L. (basil)

‘okimon’: Greek meaning ‘aromatic herb
SpeciesOcimum basilicum L. (sweet basil)

Epithet ‘Ocimum’’ – royal, prince-like

Attributes and Characteristics Of Basil

Commonly Known AsBasil, Sweet Basil
Zones                     2-11
TypeAnnual/Perennial
Uses-Container or small garden planting
-Companion planting with tomatoes
-Medicinal
-Essential Oils
-Edible: used to flavor foods and beverages
-Religious: holy water, burials, altar blessing
-Insect repellant
-Oral and dental products
HabitatWarm, Tropical
Growth Rate      Rapid
TypeAnnual/Perennial
Ease of Care/Maintenance-Sun: Full sun
-Water: Medium
-Soil: rich, well-drained soils pH 6.0 to 7.0
-Disease: PepMV, Fusarium wilt, leaf spot, gray mold, root rot, downy mildew
-Pests: Japanese beetles
-Pruning required due to growth rate
Size-Height: 1 ½ – 2 ft.
-Spread: 1 ½ – 2 ft.
Leaves: -Lettuce-like
-1” wide, 2” long
-Summer: green
-Ovate, toothed, petiolate
Flowers: -Color: white, pale purple
-Inflorescences, racemes
Growth HabitForb/Herb

What are the benefits of sweet basil?

Sweet basil is best known for its uses in the culinary industry. Dishes gain their distinct flavor and aroma by adding this aromatic herb.

The medicinal properties found in sweet basil make this super-herb one of the leading herbs used in essential oils, holistic medicine, and herbal treatments.

Garden Landscape

  • Provides a source of organic herbs.
  • Easy to grow in containers or a small garden situation.
  • Repels insects.
  • Companion plant for tomatoes.

Culinary

  • Provides an endless way to add flavor to foods, beverages, and more!
  • Pesto
  • Sauces
  • Condiments
  • Liqueurs
  • Pizza
  • Fish
  • Substitute for oregano

Pharmacological

  • Used in traditional and Eastern medicine as well as Ayurveda.
  • Used as an ingredient in amoxicillin and flumequine.
  • Used for:
    • Antioxidant
    • Antibacterial
    • Antiviral
    • Antimicrobial
    • Anti-inflammatory
    • Antifungal
    • Immune booster

Herbal

  • Essential oils to treat numerous ailments
    • Depression
    • Stress
    • Anxiety
    • Infection
    • Colds
    • inflammation
  • Tea infusions
  • Cosmetics

Culinary Uses of Sweet Basil

Flavor Profile

Professionally trained chefs are quick to tell you that sweet basil teases the palate with hints of mint, cloves, thyme, cinnamon, and anise. Its finishing notes are peppery like curry.

All of these flavors wrapped up into this beautiful herb compliments so many dishes!

Cooking

Basil is mainly used in Italian and Mediterranean dishes but is also widely used around the world to flavor olive oil, sauces, meats, and salads.

When adding basil to dishes, it’s essential to add it at the end of cooking.

Heat breaks down the flavor of basil by converting it from sweet to bitter.

Beverages

You’d be surprised to find out basil seeds are used in juices, milks, and other beverages! It sounds rather strange. It’s slowly catching on here in the U.S., but in India and Asia, basil seed beverages are like Coke is to us!

When basil seeds are added to liquid, they take on a tapioca-like appearance, consistency, and texture.

The plumped up seeds taste herby and lemony.

Once you get past the slimy texture, the seeds are packed with health benefits! Because of the gelatinous consistency and high fiber content, basil seed drinks help in weight loss.

Dried vs. Fresh

Having fresh herbs ready to pick for cooking is the main reason gardeners plant sweet basil.

However, fresh isn’t always best when it comes to flavoring food. Whether fresh or dried, your sweet basil can always be dried for future use.

Dried Sweet Basil

  • In the drying process, oils are trapped in the herb during dehydration.
  • Flavor: more intense and concentrated 
  • Add to dishes at the beginning of cooking.

Fresh Sweet Basil

  • Fresh herbs are hydrated with water which tend to weaken the flavor.
  • Flavor: subtle with a more herbaceous taste
  • Add to dishes at the end of cooking.

Growing Sweet Basil

Sweet basil is relatively easy to grow, making it an excellent plant for beginners. Growing basil in pots, small herb gardens on as a companion plant in a large garden are options.

The key to learning how to grow sweet basil is based on several things.

Hardiness Zones

Sweet basil does best if grown outdoors during the warmer months. Although it will grow in Zones 2-11, it prefers hot climates.

For those in the northern regions of the U.S., you can plant sweet basil outdoors, but you may have better luck by planting in a greenhouse or under glass. 

  • Hardiness zones for sweet basil: 2-11
  • Tolerant Temperatures: above 50 degrees (F)

Propagating Sweet Basil

There are several ways to get a start with your sweet basil plants. If you have the patience, it takes to start from seeds, and we say go for it!

However, for the sheer sake of convenience, starter plants are often a good choice. Your local garden nursery or online retailers carry starter plants. 

Lastly, if you have a sweet basil cutting, you can root one and then plant it.

How fast does basil grow? It is considered a fast-growing herb!

Seeds

Growing basil from seed is rather easy.

  • Sow 4-6 weeks BEFORE your last frost.
    • Place potting soil in each seedling tray.
    • Use your finger and make an indent in the soil of each pod.
    • Place a few seeds (up to 3) in each indentation.
    • Gently cover seeds with potting soil.
    • Carefully water the entire tray (without flooding.)
    • Place the tray in a sunny area or under plant lights. You should see your seeds come to life in about 1 ½ weeks.
    • Water every ten days.
  • Plant one week outdoors AFTER your last frost (see “Planting Outdoors” further down.)

Starter Plants

Whether you have purchased starter plants or have your rooted cutting, it’s important that if you plant outdoors, you wait one week after your last frost. 

Cuttings

If you or a friend have a sweet basil plant, you can learn how to grow basil from cuttings

  • Locate a twig that is 3-4” long. It’s important that this twig hasn’t flowered.
  • Make your cut below the lowest leaf.
  • Remove any leaves on the twig 2” above the end of the cutting.
  • Place in a jar, small vase, or glass filled with water.
  • Place the container with the cutting in a sunny place such as a windowsill.
  • Roots begin to grow after several weeks.
  • Once your root growth is at least 2”, you can transplant the cutting into a container or outdoors in a garden. Remember, don’t plant outdoors until one week after the last frost.

Planting Basil Outdoors

Where does sweet basil grow best outdoors? It requires full sun, so an area with exposure to at least 6 hours of sun is best.

  • Avoid planting outdoors until the soil is warm (70 degrees F.) Sweet basil requires warm soil and warm weather to survive. If the night time temps in your area are below 50 degrees (F,) delay planting until you have warm days and warm nights.
  • If you plan to use your basil in cooking, the soil it’s planted in must be clean and free from chemical treatments or pollutants.

Sunlight

Sweet basil thrives best in full sun. It can grow in partial shade but won’t be as robust. These plants require 6-8 hours of full sun.

Soil

Having fertile soil is a must for sweet basil. If you plant your basil in an outdoor garden, be sure to work in 2-4” of compost into the ground. 

  • Don’t plant in soil that’s clay or compacted soil. 
  • Be sure the soil is well-draining.
  • Avoid planting in an area where standing water or flood is a problem.

Nearby Competing Plants

Sweet basil should never be planted near certain plants. Competing plants don’t take kindly to sharing their space with others and will silently kill.

Keep sweet basil away from: 

  • Rue
  • Rosemary
  • Mint
  • Sage

Companion Planting

Sweet basil can be planted alongside many other plants!

Asparagus

Borage

Beans

Beets

Broccoli

Brussel Sprouts

Cabbage

Chamomile

Chives

Eggplant

Marjoram

Peppers

Potatoes

Oregano

Tomato

Spacing

  • Plant your sweet basil 1 ft. apart and ¼” deep.
  • If you live in an arid climate, place mulch around the basil to trap moisture.
  • Water your freshly planted sweet basil thoroughly (no flooding.)

Indoor Container Planting 

  • Container Size: 
    • 4-6” for individual plants, 
    • 5-gallon for multi-plants
  • Soil
    • Potting Soil
  • Placement
    • Sunny area in the house with at least 6 hours of sunlight or under a grow light with a setting of 14 hours of light.
  • Water
    • Keep soil moist but not saturated (water as needed.)

Basil Maintenance

Once your sweet basil plants have established themselves, you will be able to enjoy a snip or two of a few twigs to cook with! 

Pruning and Trimming

  • Once you notice your plant has at least 6-8 leaves, you’ll want to begin pruning to encourage growth.
    • Locate the second set of leaves. You’ll prune the leaves/stem above those second leaves.
  • The center shoot should be pinched off around six weeks. This prevents flowering.

Watering

  • Keep the soil moist by watering as needed.
  • Water the base of the plant, never overhead.
  • Water your plants in the morning only.

Fertilizing

Use caution when fertilizing your sweet basil. The leaves can quickly burn if they come in contact with fertilizer. 

  • Small dosing every six weeks.
  • Water-soluble or granular

Diseases and Pests

Management of disease and pests in sweet basil is best done through preventative measures. Pesticides and various treatments render the plant inedible.

Prevent Problems

  • Never use overhead watering because disease easily happens when leaves are moist. Moisture also attracts pests.
  • Keep plant debris and decaying matter cleaned up around the plant. Remove any dead parts remaining on the plant.
  • Encourage birds around the area. They’ll feed on the insects and pests that invade gardens.
  • Water your plants in the morning only to allow moisture to be absorbed by the sun.

Harvesting Sweet Basil 

  • Leaves can be snipped once the plant is about 8” tall.
  • Leaves are at their best for picking in the morning.
  • Store leaves in the freezer (up to 6 months) for quick access when cooking.
  • Sweet basil can also be dried.
    • Place leaves on a drying tray and place it in a well-ventilated area until completely dry.
    • Chop dried leaves and place them into an airtight container.
    • The lifespan of dried herbs is one year.

Grow, Eat, Repeat

Sweet basil will always be one of the most widely used herbs in cooking and medicine.

There’s nothing tastier than picking and eating that first leaf.

Your hard work pays off with the reward of earth’s candy wrapped up in the leaves of sweet basil!

Happy gardening!

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