My SoCal Garden

Growing Basil

By Steve Thomas-Patel·
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Hardly needing an introduction, basil is an aromatic herb used extensively in nearly all of the world's cuisines from Italy to India and Africa to Thailand.

Basil is a must-grow herb. It is so essential to always have on hand for cooking. Basil can also help bring most pasta dishes to life. Or blend it up with some olive oil and a few other ingredients on hand for a quick pesto. Basil seems to play a role in just about every country's cuisine from Thailand to Africa to Italy. There are lots of different kinds of basil out there, with different colors and flavors.

Basil is so easy to get your hands on. It grows well from seed or from cuttings, so if you know someone who has it, just ask for a few cuttings and follow the instructions below on how to root it.

See the bottom of this post for some of my favorite basil recipes. Also, I recommend you pay special attention to the harvesting section of this post, there is quite a common mistake to avoid mentioned there!


The first choice you make when growing basil is which variety to grow. Or, if you are like me, you will grow multiple varieties. Here are descriptions of some of your many choices:

Sweet Basil

Sweet basil is the "default" basil, and if basil makes you think of italian food, it is probably the first thing you think of when you think of basil. Most other varieties are cultivars of sweet basil. It is said to have an "anise-y" aroma.

Genovese Basil (aka "Genoese Basil")

Interchangeable with sweet basil. Some would consider it the best version of sweet basil. It comes from the Italian city of Genoa. Pesto is also known as "Genoese Sauce" and is usually made with Genoese Basil.

Cinanmon Basil (aka "Mexican Spice Basil")

Sometimes other cultivars of basil can be referred to as "cinnamon basil", but true cinnamon basil contains methyl cinnamate, which has a taste of cinnamon and strawberries. It can be used in teas, cookies and other baked goods, as well as pastas and vinegars.

Purple Basil, Dark Opal Basil, Red Rubin Basil

These three varieties are cultivars of sweet basil. Instead of green leaves, they have red to purple leaves. They can be used to add a different color to a salad. The coloring can also be used by the food industry as an edible red dye.

Thai Basil

Another cultivar of sweet basil, has a distinctive anise taste and narrow, purple stems. It is used frequently in Thai cooking and is a dominant flavor in Drunken Noodle. It is also frequently used in other Southeast Asian cuisines such as Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian cuisines. The vietnamese name for Thai Basil translates to "Cinnamon Basil" which is one reason the two can be confused.

Lemon Basil

Lemon Basil is hybrid of Sweet Basil and American Basil (American Basil is actually from Africa). As the name implies, it has a citrus or lemony flavor. It is used often in Laos and north east India. It is the only basil frequently used in Indonesian cuisine.

Holy Basil (aka Tulsi)

A perennial species of basil, commonly used in Ayurveda (Indian Medicine), and in Hindu religious ceremonies (hence the name). It is also used in Chinese medicine. It has a sweet, lemony flavor.

Growing From Seed

Basil is a good plant to start from seed, indoors if you want to start early. It transplants well. You should start your seeds about 4-6 weeks before you intend to put them outside. Be wary of frost, basil is sensitive to cold. Keep it indoors until the soil temperatures are over 60 degrees. Lower temperature might not kill it, but will slow down it's growth for a while.

Seed packets usually come with a lot of seeds. They have a low germination rate, about 60%. So plant more than you need and keep the ones that thrive. Or set some outside early and save others as a backup plan in case the weather does something unexpected.

Propagating from Cuttings

If you already have some basil and you want to have more basil, you might be excited to learn basil propagates very easily from cuttings.

Take a Cutting

The first step in propagating is taking a cutting. Find a stem that doesn't have any flowering happening, and pick a spot just below a leaf node. With basil this might look like a spot with two leaves shooting off of it.

You are going to cut as close to that spot as possible. You should use sterilized, or at least clean, scissors for this to avoid introducing fungi and bacteria to a healthy plant.

Once you have your cutting you should remove all but a few of the small leaves from the top. Leaves require water and nutrition to maintain, which the cutting will have a hard time providing when it doesn't have roots.

Optionally, you may want to use rooting hormone. It's not at all necessary for basil, but won't hurt and may speed up root formation a little.

Growing the Roots

In my house, we usually use the water method. You simply take your cuttings and set them in water, like putting flowers in a vase. This is a simple technique because you can put them in there and usually forget about them for about a week and expect to find the stems now have roots.

The thing you need to be cautious of is that your water doesn't disappear on you, so just make sure to check on it every couple of days. It's not a bad idea to change the water at that point either, just to freshen it up and add some oxygen.

Once your plant has roots you can pot it, be gentle with it at first and if you are going to put it outside in the hot sun, makes sure to transition it slowly over a couple of weeks. When I first started doing this I lost a lot of plants because I didn't know to do this.

If you want to save yourself a step, you can skip the water and put the cutting directly into potting soil in a pot. It should still grow roots just as quickly. It is just a little more challenging to keep the plant watered correctly this way. Since your cutting doesn't have roots, it will die very quickly if the soil dries out.


Basil is a very forgiving plant. But it likes rich, well-draining soil. It does well in bright sunlight and heat. It is often grown right next to tomatoes.

Tomatoes and basil are perfect companions, in the garden as well as the kitchen. They prefer similar care as far as soil, water and sunlight are concerned and basil is helps repel some pests that might attack your tomatoes, such as aphids and whiteflies.

Basil is an expressive plant. It's leaves will readily tell you if there is a problem. They start to droop and curl very obviously when the plant is underwatered. The leaves will also quickly turn pale yellow and translucent if nutrients are low which causes chlorophyll productions to lag.

To prolong your basil harvest, always pinch of buds as soon as they form. Basil is an annual, it won't die away unless it experiences frost, but once it has flowered all it cares about is reproduction and it won't put any energy toward growth.


It's important to harvest basil correctly. If you look at a healthy, unharvested basil plant you will notice a few leaves near the bottom that are quite large, and they tend to get smaller toward the top.

The natural instinct for many of us is to grab the large leaves from the bottom and save the upper leaves for when they have grown out. Don't do this! The leaves at the bottom are the "solar" leaves. They collect the most sunlight and are necessary for a healthy plant. If you harvest these, your basil will become thin and spindly. It will become top heavy and flop over, or at least look like it is about to.

What you want to do is the exact opposite of that. You should harvest basil about once a week, and always clip the young, fresh leaves from the top. Don't be stingy when harvesting, since cutting the plant will stimulate growth. But never take more than a third of a stem to avoid overstressing the plant.

Clipping the tip of a stem will help the basil plant to bush out instead of growing tall. And whenever flowers begin to show, pinch them off immediately. If the plant is allowed to flower it will quickly lose its flavor.

Caprese Salad
Prep Time: 10 min

Named after the island of Capri, Caprese is a simple, classic Italian salad made up of tomatoes, mozarella, basil leaves and a simple dressing of oil and vinegar. Great for showing off the tomatoes and basil you've been growing in your garden.

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Copyright 2021 - Thomas-Patel