Who can resist the aroma and taste of freshly picked basil?
In all my years of growing herbs the question that I am asked most often is ‘How do you grow basil?’ So, as spring has finally made an appearance, I think it is appropriate for me to start my long threatened blog with a post on the subject of growing this beautiful summer herb.
You would not be alone if you think that Basil is difficult to grow. It is. At least here in Ireland, as it hates our cold, damp and generally miserable climate. In fact, basil and I have a lot in common.
Basil originated in the Middle East and Asia, and it has been widely cultivated in the Mediterranean. Although it is a perennial plant in these regions, we must treat it as an annual, when growing it in colder climates.
However, it really is worth putting in a little extra effort to grow your own. When it has been raised from seed, in Irish conditions, basil can gradually acclimatise and it has a much better chance of survival than plants that have been imported, or propagated using artifical heat and light. As an organic and eco-conscious grower, I use neither myself, although I do have the advantage of having a couple of unheated polytunnels. If you have a conservatory or porch that would be even better, but a sunny windowsill will suffice.
I usually wait until about the middle of April to sow my basil seed and I then make another sowing around the end of May. If you are using a heated propagator, you can sow in March, but you need to keep the tender seedlings well protected from the cold.
Fill a pot or plug tray with a fine seed grade compost. As a certified organic grower, I recommend using an organic compost if possible. I also use certified organic seeds. Water the pot or tray from below by standing it in a container of water and allow it to drain well. Sow the seed sparingly on the surface of the compost. If you are using plug trays or modules, sow three or four seeds in each cell. Cover the seeds with a layer of sieved compost or with some fine vermiculite. The general rule is that you cover the seed with its own depth of compost. Dampen the surface of the compost or vermiculite with a mist sprayer. Cover the pot or tray and put it in a warm place.
Seeds need warmth and moisture to germinate. The ideal temperature for germination of most seeds is between 15 to 20 degrees C. Basil takes about a week to ten days in ideal conditions. Check for signs of germination every few days. If the compost appears to be drying out, keep it moistened by using a hand-mister, so you don’t dislodge the seeds.
At the first sign of germination, move the pot into the light, but protect it from strong sunlight. Keep the surface of the compost barely moist, again using a hand-mister to avoid damaging the delicate seedlings. Do not over-water. When the seedlings have two well-developed true leaves they are ready for potting on.
Carefully remove the block of seedlings from the pot by squeezing it on the outside and gently easing them out. Divide the plants into groups of three or four that are already clumped together. Try to avoid touching the roots. Pot on into small pots (I use 8cm square pots), preferably using an organic potting compost. Keep the young plants out of direct sunlight until they are established and you can see new growth. If the weather is cold, protect them with horticultural fleece at night. When you see the roots of the plant protruding from the base of the pot, it is time to pot it on again into a larger pot with fresh compost. I usually put a few into terracotta pots to bring in to the kitchen windowsill.
Basil needs to be kept in a warm, wind-free and sunny position. However it also needs some ventilation. Ideally position it beside a window that can be opened on warm days, or put it outside if the day is nice and sunny, and bring it back inside at night. If it is not given adequate warmth and ventilation, it can be attacked by aphids (greenfly or whitefly). The best way to deal with these is to remove them by hand or wash them off, as soon as they appear. They will multiply rapidly if they are not dealt with immediately.
A lot of people have told me that they are great at killing basil. Over-watering is usually the main reason. Only water basil when the compost has almost dried out completely. The easiest way to judge this is by feeling the weight of the pot. Although the surface compost may look dry, it can still be very moist lower down and basil hates to have it’s roots sitting in cold damp compost. For this reason, it is best to water sparingly in the morning, so the roots will have dried out before the temperature drops overnight. If the weather is very sunny, it may need to be watered every morning, but if the weather is cold and dull, it may not need water for three or four days.
Correct harvesting will prolong and improve the life of your basil plant. If you just pick individual leaves from the stem, the plant will put all it’s energy into producing flower and seed, rather than new leaf growth.
Wait until your plant is at least 15cm tall, and then cut the growing tip just above a leaf joint, ie. where the two leaves below join the stem. This will encourage your plant to bush out, as two new growing tips will replace the one you have cut. Three or four plants should be enough if you want to add basil to salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes, tomatoes of course, and much more, during the summer months. If you wish to make pesto or preserve basil for the winter, you will obviously need a lot more.
The best way to learn is from experience. If you don’t succeed the first time, try again. You will eventually get it right.
Happy basil growing!
I hope this, my very first blog post, has been useful and informative. Any feedback, good or bad, would be greatly appreciated.