Growing Basil

Ocimum basilicum




How to grow basil in the tropics

Thankfully growing basil is super easy in tropical climates. At least that's my experience. It's not what I expected since all other Mediterranean herbs struggle with our humid wet seasons (summers), but basil doesn't care.

Back in the days when I did not have a clue about how to grow ANYTHING, basil was the one thing that did grow. Without fail. All year round. Like a weed.

Once I learned more about growing different food plants, herbs and spices, I learned that basil is not strictly a Mediterranean herb. Most of us know and grow sweet basil as an essential ingredient for Italian dishes. However, many other basil varieties exist and they are just as essential in Asian cooking.

Well, and Asian climates with their steamy monsoonal summers are similar to ours. That's why basil is so happy in my garden.

Growing basil at home has many benefits.


Bees on basil flowers

Bees on basil flowers. Photos by Beeep and Chaval

Where can you grow basil?

You can grow basil just about anywhere, though not necessarily all year round.

Basil loves hot weather, lots of sunlight, lots of food (=rich soil), lots of water and lots of space for its roots.

Basil has a very vigorous root system. If you grow basil in the garden then the basil roots will go and find what the plant needs. So even if the soil is not so great, you can still grow basil. It also copes with little water and even grows in partial shade. However, it will have a much stronger flavour if grown in full sun.

Basil does not like water logging and will not survive frost. Established plants can handle cool spells, but it needs to be hot to get basil started.

You can germinate and grow basil seeds indoors, but because of the lack of sunlight during winter they will not grow into big, healthy plants. You best harvest them very early and germinate more. Or move to a warmer climate.

In a warm climate you can grow basil all year round, in any type of soil. It may not grow equally well in all soils, but it should grow.

Get started with growing basil

There are two ways to grow basil: from seed or from cuttings. Both work well and I use both all the time.

It's best to grow sweet basil from seed as an annual. (Sweet basil grows better in the dry season in the tropics and also likes Mediterranean climates.)

All other basil types are perennials. They are also called bush basil. Those basils are easier to grow from cuttings. (All the perennial basils do great in the true tropics all year round.)

Growing basil from seed

Photo by Pizzodisevo


Basil seedlings

Photo by Sa_ku_ra

Growing basil from seed: basil seed is very fine and can take weeks to germinate. If you throw it straight on the ground the weeds may smother it before it has a chance to grow, so you may want to start it in punnets or pots.

There isn't much of a science to it. Spread some seed very thinly and only cover with soil very lightly. Make sure the soil is neither too wet nor let it dry out. Plant your basil out when it's big enough to handle. Basil grows better and faster in the ground.

Growing basil from cuttings: just take a tip cutting off any plant at any time of the year. Cut off all the leaves except for the tiny ones that are emerging at the top and stick the thing in a pot. Keep it in partial shade and keep it moist. Basil cuttings root very quickly. Once the little basil plant is actively growing again you can plant it out.

(If you want to grow basil in containers use the biggest possible container.)

Growing and using basil.

You can start harvesting basil very early. In fact, you should. Basil should be picked constantly. You can harvest individual leaves, but the best way to harvest basil is to take off all the tips. Start doing this when your basil is about 15 cm high. It encourages more branching and more growth, but most importantly it prevents flowering.

That's right. Unfortunately, if you have only a few basil plants, you should prevent them from flowering for as long as possible. Once a basil plant goes to flower it puts all its energy into the blooms and seeds and does not produce any more leaves. And then it dies.

Harvest that basil now!

Photo by Cyancey

So, don't let it flower. If you need a lot of basil, for example for making pesto, you can just go at your bushes with a big pair of scissors and give them a good hair cut. That's the easiest way. If you need just a few shoots to flavour a curry you can pull off the tips with your fingers or any cutters. If there are some young flower buds in your harvest that's not a problem. They are edible and taste no different.

Basil growing tips

Most of our culinary herbs taste best when you treat them harshly. They lose flavour if you pamper them. Not basil. You can't feed basil too much. It will use everything you can throw at it and then ask for more. (Compost, compost tea, chook poo, fish fertiliser, mulch, anything...) Basil tastes best if well fed. If you want your basil to keep growing and producing leaves, keep feeding it.

As I already mentioned, basil is very aggressive about getting what it wants. It is also fast growing, so only plant it together with other vigorous plants that can hold their own against it. A well fed, mature sweet basil bush can easily measure three feet high and across.

Basil is indeed a good companion plant for tomatoes. The two have the same growing requirements, are both vigorous plants, and grow to about the same size. Plant seeds at the same time and the two should get along splendidly.

Also try growing basil under other fruiting plants that are prone to bug damage. It seems the strong scent either confuses the bugs or repels them.

If you have a reasonably sized garden then growing basil requires hardly any work at all once you get a few plants going. Yes, basil plants die once they flower, but they also produce seed which germinates again. There is always some basil somewhere.

The only problem with the self seeding is that the different basil varieties cross breed. To keep some pure plants just take cuttings every now and then.

Purple ruffles, Thai basil and lemon basil.

Purple ruffles, Thai basil and lemon basil. Photos by HabitatGirl, Sa_ku_ra and Zoyachubby.

Growing basil in my permaculture garden

I have several bushes of basil just outside my kitchen door. (As in any good permaculture design the herbs and spices that I use on a regular basis grow right at my kitchen door.) When I cook I only need to take a few steps to get fresh basil.

I regularly take one or two cuttings of the mature basil plants and plant them right there. It's not a scientific operation. I just pinch off a tip, pull off the leaves and stick it in the ground. I may throw some very loose, light mulch over it to protect it a bit. Most of those basil cuttings grow despite the rough treatment.

Once the old basil plant looks a bit sickly, and eventually it will, I cut it and mulch it in place. This way I always have a few young and productive plants of each basil species right there.

In the rest of my permaculture garden the basil roams wild. It cross breeds and self seeds and comes up everywhere, and it flowers and is full of bees and butterflies and is absolutely beautiful.

Basil growing in my permaculture garden.

Oh, and I get carried away and use basil flowers as cut flowers. The white and purple spikes are gorgeous and I love the scent.

If I see basil plants growing in an unsuitable place, I pull them up. If I want to grow a new patch of basil somewhere, be it for pest control purposes or to enjoy the scent or just for looks, then I cut some dry flower spikes of an old plant, rub them and crunch them up between my hands, and throw them over the soil where I want the basil to grow. That's it.

Growing basil isn't hard, is it?




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