Basil is both aromatic and attractive in the home garden and a staple among cooking herbs. It’s inexpensive and easy to grow, and can be used fresh off the plant or preserved for future use. There are more than 160 varieties of basil. The most common are sweet and Italian basil and both grow well in the Midwest. Less common varieties include purple, lemon, cinnamon and licorice basil.
Beginning gardeners will enjoy the ease of growing basil. Plant it in a location with good drainage and at least 6 to 8 hours of sun. If direct-sowing outdoors, wait until late spring when all danger of frost has passed. Seeds require soil temperatures of 70 degrees to germinate.
Give basil a head start by planting seeds indoors in the spring. Sow the seeds about a half-inch apart and a quarter-inch deep. Keep the soil moist until the germination, which should occur within a week. When seedlings sprout their second pair of true leaves, transplant them to individual containers. Provide adequate light and water indoors until outside temperatures reach about 70 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night. Basil is a tender plant and won’t tolerate cool temperatures.
When deciding on a location in the garden for your new basil seedlings, check the seed package to determine how tall the plants will grow. Basil reaches heights of 12 to 30 inches depending on the cultivar. Its foliage is green or deep purple and blossoms are white, pink or lavender. Place them where their height and color will complement other elements in the garden.
Prepare the soil by adding organic material and tilling well, Don’t add fertilizer unless your soil is depleted. Fertilizer decreases the production of aromatic oil in basil. Place seedlings in holes about twice as big as the root ball of the plant, about a foot apart, and water well at the base only.
When the plants are about 6 inches tall, begin pruning them about every two weeks to encourage a round habit and healthy development. Simply snip the top few inches of each stem, saving the leaves for culinary use if desired. Pinch off blossoms as they appear to encourage continued leaf development.
Basil will be ready for harvest in 2 to 3 months. Cut stems a quarter inch above ground. It’s best to take no more than a third of the stems on a given plant. This will leave enough of the plant intact so it can continue growing. Preserve leaves by tying a small bunch of stems together with string and hanging the bunches upside down in a cool, shelter place. You can also dry them in the microwave oven on low power for up to three minutes.