To many gardeners, the bright green leaves of a homegrown basil plant most resemble money in the bank. Fresh basil enhances a wide variety of dishes and cuisines, from grilled fish to plum compote, from spaghetti to lemon ice. Basil is easy to grow and comes in an increasing number of varieties. Even new gardeners will find a basil plant an asset worth cultivating.
Start basil seeds in potting soil indoors in 4-inch pots four weeks before the last frost date in your area. Plant three or four seeds in damp soil and provide abundant daylight or artificial grow-lights after seeds sprout. In chilly windows, basil seeds may sprout best if provided with a seed-warming mat.
Thin growing seedlings to one per pot once seedlings have acquired at least two real leaves in addition to the original pair of sprouting leaves. Keep seedlings watered and provided with light indoors until outdoor soil temperatures warm into the 50s (usually several weeks after your last frost date). Move seedling pots outside to a sheltered area for three to five days to allow seedlings to adjust to their new environment before planting.
Begin with nursery-grown basil seedlings as an alternative. Transplant six-pack seedlings to 4 inch pots and proceed as in steps 1 and 2.
Choose a full-sun location in your garden if possible. Full sun is usually defined as six or more hours of direct sun per day. Plants receiving less direct sunlight are likely to be smaller and less bushy than those provided with abundant heat and light. If your warmest, sunniest garden spot is on a patio, plant basil in large (8 inch diameter or larger) pots.
Enrich planting soil with compost or other soil amendments. Basil needs well-drained soil and, as an annual herb, plenty of nutrients that compost will provide. Dig in up to one-third the soil volume in compost to provide rich soil with good drainage.
Place basil plants 1 foot to 18 inches apart. Water regularly. For bushy plants, pinch back branch ends by one-half to 1 inch to encourage branching. Pinch off early flower buds to encourage additional growth. As basil blooms, growth slows and leaves become bitter.
Harvest basil by picking leaves as needed. At season's end, pull out the whole plant before frost, pick off leaves and chop, dry or freeze them.