Tips for Growing Fussy Garden Basil

garden basil

Basil can be tricky. Like a lot of urban gardeners, we started our urban farm journey with garden basil. Most garden herbs, like rosemary, grow like weeds, thriving through drought and heat. But this fragile, fragrant herb is one fussy baby, so don’t feel bad if you have trouble growing it. We did too.

In fact, struggling with garden basil can make you think you’re a crappy gardener when the real problem isn’t you at all. Here’s why we have kind of a love/hate relationship with basil.

Garden basil should work, right?

Chef Iggy uses a lot of basil. It’s great on a Margarita pizza for our weekly pizza night. He does a fancy little basil leaf garnish on gnocchi. We like to sprinkle cut leaves on pasta dishes and tuck whole leaves into fresh rice noodle rolls.

The problem is that basil is expensive to buy at the grocery in those little plastic containers. It’s not always fresh. Once you get it home it doesn’t keep long in the refrigerator. It’s not like you can buy it every Friday and count on it still being usable by Wednesday. I don’t like paying a lot of money just to dump something in my compost bin.

Basil tastes best when it’s really fresh. It makes sense to plop some into a kitchen garden or patio container. Then it’s easy to grab a few leaves of garden basil any time for topping pizza or garnishing a pasta dish.

This all sounds good, but there’s only one problem. Garden basil can be kind of a drama queen.

Why it’s not you, it’s the basil

Sometimes basil is all happy and sassy, shooting up tall and popping out big dark green leaves. But for keeping basil happy, the margin for error on is pretty small. Basil likes sun, but not too much. It likes to be moist, but not wet. This herb likes warmth, but not heat.

Basil hates living indoors. Just try putting a cute little pot on the kitchen windowsill and watch the leaves turn yellow and fall off. Even outdoors, garden basil can randomly get brown spots on the stems, which then collapse and wilt. The leaves can get brown edges and spots. Why does this happen? Who knows?

Good luck growing garden basil from seed. When we’ve tried it the little sprouts pop up, but then they wilt and die. Probably we are giving it one spray of water too many, or putting it outside when the temperature is two degrees too cold. It’s anyone’s guess.

Also, don’t plant the cute little pots of basil you find in the grocery store. We’ve tried that too and they die almost as quickly as the seedlings. A gardening friend told us that the grocery plants aren’t hardened off, so they freak out when you move them outdoors. Whatever.

Here’s how to give it the love it needs

If you can get it right, basil will thrive. When it thrives, one tiny plant will give you fat, sassy leaves all summer long. Here’s what we’ve learned about how to keep this fussy baby happy:

  • Give it lots of water (basil is the first herb to wilt), but really good drainage. We plant ours in a container with gravel in the bottom. The basil pot sits on pot feet, so it’s raised about half an inch from the deck and can drain well.
  • Find the perfect spot. We moved our pot around for a few years until we found the place that had just enough sun, but not too much. Now, we never move that pot.
  • Pinch the little buds off before they bloom. Not only does blooming make the leaves taste a little bitter, but if you pinch off the flowers, the plant puts more energy into the tasty leaves.

Sadly, we haven’t found a way to get garden basil to winter over. It doesn’t like to be moved indoors, and there don’t seem to be enough covers to keep it happy in the cold. The only solution is to pull off all the leaves before the first frost. Keep an eye on the leaves, and if you start to see brown edges then it’s time to go. We make pints and pints of bright green pesto and store those in the freezer. They’re ready to pull out all winter long for a burst of of summer flavor. Thanks, fussy baby!

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