Grow Your Own Way

How to Grow Basil, Summer’s Favorite Herb

For an endless supply to cook and garnish with.

May  3, 2022
Photo by Getty Images

You can Grow Your Own Way. All spring and summer, we’re playing in the vegetable garden; join us for step-by-step guides, highly recommended tools, backyard tours, juicy-ripe recipes, and then some. Let’s get our hands dirty.

One of the common goals of new and experienced gardeners alike is to grow an endless supply of herbs for cooking. Basil often finds itself high on that list because who doesn’t love the idea of plucking fragrant, beautifully cupped leaves and scattering them atop a homemade pizza or happy-hour cocktail?

I’ll admit I’ve had some real fist-in-the-air struggles with basil in the past. I was forcing it to grow in places that I wanted it to grow…and in turn, it showed me it was not pleased. It wasn’t until after a few rounds of experimenting with container gardening and succession sowing that I was able to figure out a reliable, full-season production of gorgeous tender greens (and purples!). And thankfully, it’s not that hard.

Consider this your crash course in how to grow basil. By following a few of these tips, you’ll see how simple it really can be to grow any herb, but especially delicious, use-everywhere basil.

Some Like it Hot

Basil is quite effortless when given the right conditions, the first of which is warm weather. More specifically, warm soil (ideally 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit), which encourages germination and steady growth. Start seeds or transplant starts in a location that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun each day in well-draining soil—I’ve had my best luck growing in large containers where I can keep soil healthy and consistently watered. Bonus points if you can place basil in an area that you check on often, like outside the kitchen or patio door.

Seed vs. Nursery Starts

Seeds can be started indoors as early as six weeks before the last frost, or sowed directly outdoors in your location of choice. Common problems when starting from seed are either planting too deeply or too closely together. Sow seeds no more than 1/4-inch deep—and once sprouts have 2-3 leaves each, thin the plants down to 10 to 12 inches apart. I know thinning is painful, but at least you can toss these microgreens into a sandwich.

If you’re looking for basil on the quick, nursery plants are an excellent way to go. In fact, I like to do a combination of nursery starts and seed sowing in the same container to have a continuous source of plants to harvest from throughout the spring and summer season. When shopping for plants, look for an abundance of healthy green leaves (no yellowing or brown spotting) and, if possible, choose one with little to no flowering.

For bushier plants—regardless whether you started from seed or start—pinch back several sets of leaves from the top of the plant, leaving behind at least two sets of leaves on each stem. This will encourage additional branching (aka: less leggy plants, and more leaves for you to harvest throughout the season).

Watering & Fertilizing

Moisture is your friend: Basil likes it best with consistent watering and very little drying-out between drinks. Like most garden plants, try to avoid any overhead watering that will splash soil onto leaves, which will steer you clear of (most) future pest or disease issues.

Mulching is a great way to retain moisture during the hottest months; experiment with compost or garden straw, but keep either from touching your plant's stem. I prefer to use compost as a top-dressing mulch since that doubles as a fertilizer and soil-health enhancer, but you could also use a 5-10-5 fertilizer sparingly. Basil really doesn’t need the extra care, so don’t stress too much about it.

The Not-So-Goods

Japanese beetles, slugs, and aphids are your top three suspects when it comes to bugs on basil. Hand-removal of pests is preferred over pesticides (as gross as that might seem), so keep an eye out for early nibbles or changes in leaf color to stop pests before they spread. I like to use a strong jet of water to knock those bugs right off.

Bacterial leaf spot, or basil shoot blight, is a major uh-oh when it comes to pathogens. With appropriate watering (i.e. never soaking the plant’s leaves or splashing soil onto the stems), removal of deceased or damaged leaves, and consistent harvesting to increase airflow, you’ll keep the plant happy and strong.


The beautiful thing about herbs is that the more you harvest, the more you get…when done right. Always work from the top of the plant downwards, pinching off above a set of two leaves to stimulate new growth. If you want to lengthen the plant’s production of leaves, simply snip off any flower buds to push energy back into the plant rather than allowing it to go to seed. In other words, don't be shy about plucking your goods.

Extra Credit

There are two gardening techniques that I like to incorporate when growing basil, and they’re both easy, and will give you a longer, more productive growing season:

Succession sowing

This is the practice of sowing seeds several times over the course of the season to fill the gap between the first harvest and subsequent regrowth. I like to sprinkle in new seeds every two weeks to keep new plants germinating.

Companion planting

Did you know that certain plant pals work together to resist pests and make your food more delicious? Try planting basil alongside marigolds to deter pests, borage to attract more beneficial bees, chamomile chives or oregano to enhance aromatics, and tomatoes to increase their yields as well as flavor.

Basil Varieties To Add To Your Mix

It’s estimated that there are more than 150 species of basil cultivars and hybrids out there. Here are four unique, yet easy-to-find varieties to add flair to your next basil harvest:

Cardinal Basil

Grown more for its beautiful blooms than its leaves, these giant purple pom-poms are so beautiful you’ll find yourself wanting to harvest them for a vase instead of dinner. Well, the cinnamon-clove flavor and hints of anise are pretty irresistible as well.

Dark Opal Basil

These dark purple-hued leaves are a beautiful addition to your basil bouquet. I love succession sowing these in between other Italian sweet basil varieties for a steady supply of herbs; its unique, sweet-savory, and earthy flavor is a great addition to the more common basil varieties.

Holy Basil

A highly regarded medicinal herb also known as tulsi, this basil is most commonly dried and used for tea, but is also a delightful addition to Thai cooking.

African Blue Basil

This particular variety is a staple in my garden; I have several large clusters of these and love the minty herbaceous flavor that the leaves add to my salads and caprese. A perennial herb that the bees go crazy for, it grows back year after year even with hard pruning. Don’t forget to let them flower so they can attract pollinators.

What type of basil do you grow? Any tips or tricks? Let us know in the comments!
Photo by Design: Angelyn Cabrales

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Writer, Photographer & Certified Horticulturist


Sharon May 14, 2022
Thanks! Excellent article and very timely. I buy my basil plants at Trader Joe's every year to make my annual stash of pesto and freeze it in containers. It's brightened up many a winter's day, tossed with angel hair pasta, a spoon of cream & parmesan. I use a second plant to pluck the fresh leaves for months. Once, I even made a lovely, bright green basil liqueur by steeping the leaves (and flowers) in gin, sweetened with a simple syrup. Delicious!
Mara May 10, 2022
I love SWEET basil. It really does make dishes sweeter & when I add it to my tomato sauce, I do not need to add any sugar or carrots to help cut the acid. Plus, if you have a surplus, chop/mince & freeze in ice cube trays 1 T at a time & you have it all winter. Oh, and it's great for pesto--and YES, you can freeze pesto too!! #summergoals
Carol F. May 6, 2022
I often trim my basil during the summer and root some of the cuttings. Then plant those rooted cuttings back into mother pot or neighbors pots. Keeps me and others in basil for summer. Trying Proven Winners Amazel Basil this year. Supposedly leaves dont get bitter when plant flowers. Will see.
Fred R. May 6, 2022
Just keep pinching off the tops….that’s why you’re growing it, right.
Smaug May 6, 2022
To pinch off the tops? No, not really, I grow it for the leaves. Which tend to go off, both in flavor and size, once the plant goes into the flowering phase.
Fred R. May 6, 2022
By “pinching off the tops” I mean that gives you a couple of usable leaves, plus you induce branching. My pot of a hundred or so plants never gets over 3-5 inches of plant height…like mowing a lawn. Never see a flower.
Janet M. May 12, 2022
Not only will pinching off the tops keep the plant branching out and getting bigger, it will delay bolting--flowers try to form at those same tops I remove. Smaller tender leaves that may not be showy are part of my constant harvest habit--if you consistently break off big leaves from other parts of the plant, it will get "leggy." I don't harvest as much or frequently as Fred R., so my plants reach a bushy 12-14 inches, but often enough that I won't see a flower all summer. I live in NC, and don't have much luck growing from seed, but a couple of nursery plants transplanted to 10" pots will thrive from April through frost. I always bring them into my sun porch at the first frost warning, but they rarely survive past December.
Smaug May 12, 2022
Like most annual plants the internal chemistry changes radically when the plant enters its blooming phase- pinching won't stop the flavor from going off.
Fred R. May 12, 2022
Smaug May 12, 2022
This is basic botany, backed up by 50 odd years of experience.
Fred R. May 12, 2022
Interesting; I was a biologist/botanist for 40 years and don’t recall that bit of plant physiology. References?
Smaug May 12, 2022
You really don't recall that plants' physiology changes when they go into their reproductive phase? Well, if you can't taste the difference no need to worry about it.
Fred R. May 12, 2022
Ahhh, not having an answer, Smaug quietly exits Stage Left. Nice.
Smaug May 13, 2022
Was there a question? High school biology was almost 60 years ago and they didn't let us keep the book. I don't recall where I learned that whistle is spelled with an "h" either, but many years of paying attention to the world around me has borne it out. If you don't believe that going into a reproductive state involves basic changes to the metabolism, it's not limited to plants- try asking your wife about it.
Picholine May 16, 2022
Yikes…cranky today…it’s about Basil …I grow indoors and out all year. Pinch back and use begets more. Rooting a stem in water begets more . Simple!
We live in western Massachusetts. We start w/ basil plants from nursery plants & grow them in pots. They grow great for a while. Then in the middle of the season the plants start to decline. We water them regularly. The pots are located in a sunny spot along our driveway. By the end of the season, most of the basil has died; the leaves curl up. What are we doing wrong? Should they be in a shadier part of the day? Is it too hot?
Smaug May 6, 2022
Many possibilities- basil is an annual plant, and if it's in flower it will finish its lifespan and die. It could be too hot- afternoon sun can be rough on potted plants; even if there's water in the soil they can reach a point where they're losing it faster than they can take it up. I always go for afternoon shade with basil, but triple digit temperatures are common here. It's possible that the drainage holes have become clogged and the plants are drowning, or that tree roots have grown up through drainage holes and are strangling them- you'd know when you pick up the pot. Basil is generally pretty free of diseases, but there are a couple that can cause trouble. Pests once again are not a huge problem with basil, but if you have a serious infestation of either sucking or chewing insects it would be pretty obvious.
Fred R. May 6, 2022
Growing in a “10 gallon” pot, our basil thrives throughout the summer here in Tucson. No shade.
Smaug May 6, 2022
Interesting, I would think it would bolt pretty quickly once it gets hot. Do you do anything to prevent it?
Peggy May 5, 2022
This was a really helpful article. I live in Florida and am on my 3rd basil plant this year! It sounds like my plants have been getting basil shoot blight. Wish me luck with plant #4!
Kristin G. May 5, 2022
I believe in you (and Plant #4) Peggy! You’ve got this.
Smaug May 5, 2022
I suppose it's possible, or it could be fusarium (a fungus disease)- both are soil borne. I've been growing basil for many years and regularly splash water all over them (I usually water with a water wand); I've never had a single problem from it, but if you have infected soil there's no cure- probably your best bet would be a container with sterilized soil.
FS May 5, 2022
Why doesn't the article mention the unusually flavored basils like lemon or lime basil? Both are delicious and just as easy to grow as the plain variety.
There are interesting textures to explore, too: lettuce leaf basil which can be used for wraps and the cute globe shaped Greek basil.
Kristin G. May 5, 2022
I agree, so many amazing basils to discover and explore flavor and use of! Unfortunately we only have so many words we can focus on the actual growing of basil for this one...we could easily do an entire article just on the different varieties. Thank you for sharing a few of your favorites!
FS May 5, 2022
Great idea: you really should do another article on different varieties! :)
M May 3, 2022
1- Always dry some leaves. They are heaps more fragrant, fresh, and tasty than dried basil from the store.
2- Flowers aren't the end of the world. They are delicious with cheese, dressings, cocktails, and other recipes and foods. When dried, they are extremely fragrant and tasty for well over a year.
Kristin G. May 3, 2022
Hi there! I couldn't agree more about dried herbs and flowers being an amazing punch of flavor - I have been dehydrating lots of spring chives this season and will definitely give basil a try. Thank you!
Smaug May 4, 2022
There are a lot of ways to preserve basil, from indoor growing to preserving in bowls of salt; most don't consider drying a viable option. I usually freeze some, but I'm tending more and more to simply treat basil and tomatoes as seasonal (long seasons here) and do other things in winter. I do usually freer some tomatoes for sauces; miles better than any canned tomatoes.
Smaug May 4, 2022
"...freeze some tomatoes..."
M May 4, 2022
My pleasure! Literally. When your basil gets all spindly, let it flower a whole bunch, cut them off. Take some and mix them well into a feta or chevre before using that in your cheese recipe of choice. If you like cocktails, infuse some into gin. Let the rest dry. I use them often in eggs, salads, pastas. My absolute favourite "preserved" food I make. The tiny leaves just under the flowers also tend to be quite potent.
M May 4, 2022
Their loss then. It's an excellent way to preserve some basil, especially when you have to trim from small amounts from an indoor plant when you don't have any basil meals on the docket.
Smaug May 4, 2022
Tastes do vary; it's your dinner. If you like the flavor that's all that matters. No denying that flowering basil is powerfully flavored- a lot of people find it unpleasantly rank. As far as drying it, it doesn't cost much to try (I have). Once again, if you find the flavor acceptable that's all that matters.
Sharon May 14, 2022
I'm with you there! I always dry some leaves, also. They are TEN times more vibrant and flavorful than anything you can buy in a store. I have gas ovens and the pilot light alone gives off the perfect amount of heat to gently dry all of my herbs overnight. Fresh basil flowers are lovely & delicious in salads!
Fred R. May 3, 2022
From 20 years annually growing basil in a large pot here in Tucson, rather than using starts or any transplanting, just distribute a packet of seeds over the surface and rake them in with your fingertips. You will have a full pot of basil down the line.
Kristin G. May 3, 2022
You are so right Fred! Some of my most impressive basil pots have been just a casual hand thrown mix of seeds, there are so many ways to go about growing this herb.
Fred R. May 3, 2022
Maybe I’m cheating….my pot are maybe 5 gallons, and the seed doesn’t know it’s not in the garden. Best to all.
Sharon May 14, 2022
Yep. Mother Nature does NOT like to grow in rows!
Smaug May 3, 2022
Actually not a bad article. I've never had the least trouble with splashing water on basil, but it's pretty dry here in basil season. I grow it in containers (2 gal. is a good size) and fertilize with plenty of nitrogen, which promotes leaf growth- the plant is past it's peak for flavor once it starts it's flowering cycle- I usually do 3-4 crops a year. I think 1/4 inch is much too deep for basil seeds, I usually just sprinkle them on the surface; many basil seeds are coated with a sort of gel that helps keep them moist. They're quite easy to sprout, but seedlings grow somewhat deliberately until they have a couple of sets of true leaves. I live in a quite mild area, but African blue basil often fails to survive the winters here without protection- any frost at all will do it in.
Domer1030 May 5, 2022
Have store healthy basil - carefully divided into 5 - potted soil, careful watering, indoors with 6-7 hrs in lamp
For one month, stays the same ???
Smaug May 5, 2022
H'm- should be doing something, but that's not nearly enough light time, should be at LEAST 14 hours. Basil is always very deliberate until it develops a couple of sets of leaves, and the roots won't grow in cool soil; probably your plants are having trouble recovering from being transplanted.