Introduction to Growing Basil:
Basil is popular among herb growers because of how easy basil is to grow, and how versatile it is as a culinary herb. Sweet basil is by far the most common type of basil found in most home gardens. Basil belongs to the mint family and is native to parts of the South Pacific and southern Asia. Basil is grown as most herbs are, requiring a lot of sunlight, preferably 6 hours or more a day, and the soil must be well drained. When starting basil plants, you want to shoot for a soil pH level between 6.0 and 7.5, this is the ideal growing range.
The simplest method of growing basil is to simply sow the seeds right into the spot in the garden that you want to grow them. You will need to first make sure that all threat of frost has passed however. Sow your basil seeds evenly throughout the area and then cover them over with just a quarter inch of moist soil. For the first 2 weeks, keep the soil moist and pull up any weeds that creep into your planting area. You should begin to see germination near the end of the first week.
Growing Basil from Seedlings:
As you are starting basil plants, the seedlings will begin to develop several pairs of leaves. At this point you will want to thin them out so they do not crowd one another out. Carefully separate the tender seedlings and move them to new locations. Basil plants should be spaced roughly 12 inches apart to allow for full maturity. You can also surround the new plants with a few inches of mulch, compost, straw, or other similar material that will help prevent weeds and will also retain moisture in between watering.
Another excellent suggestion when growing basil, or any other type of herb, is to use potting soil in the hole during planting. These days there are a wide range of potting soils to choose from, and even those with additives to help hold moisture and nutrients. Mixing potting soil in with your existing soil will give the new seedling an easier time of developing roots, and will supplement the old soil with life giving nutrients.
If you are looking to get a jump on the season for starting basil plants, you can consider starting your seeds indoors a month or two before the typical last frost. This will give you a head start and is especially helpful for many slower growing plants. How often to water your new plants really varies from one region to another, depending on the amount of rainfall you receive. The general rule of thumb is one good deep watering per week with average rainfall.
However if your area is in a dry spell, you may need to water your plants every couple of days to prevent them from drying out. If you start to see the leaves sagging and wilting from the heat, then they do not have enough moisture to support them and you need to water them immediately. Starting basil plants is not much different than growing any other type of plant, in order to succeed you must give the plants the necessary growing conditions.
Growing Basil for Cooking:
If you are going to use fertilizers, you should use them sparingly when starting basil plants. Fertilize no more frequently than once a month, and no more than twice in a given season.
If you are growing basil for culinary use, you will find it important to harvest the leaves early to retain the most flavor. If your uses require taking complete stems, try to make your cuts directly above a set of leaves, as this will encourage new growth from the point at which the cut was made. You will want to prune your basil plants often to prevent them from flowering and seeding. Once basil flowers, it tends to become a very woody plant, and the leaves will begin to take on a more bitter flavor. It is not uncommon for basil stems to be used for ornamental purposes as the flowers can get quite pretty. If you find midway through the growing season that you have harvested more than enough leaves for your use, you can consider letting the plant flower, to use in mixed bouquets.
Growing Basil over Winter:
Starting basil plants can be a rewarding experience, but unfortunately it is a very tender annual and will not survive the winters of most regions. You may choose to dig up your basil plants and move them to containers inside, but this will only extend their life for so long. You will need to provide them with large amounts of artificial light, at least 10 hours or more per day. As well as proper growing temperatures, and both of these can get quite costly.
As with all annuals, even when grown indoors, they will eventually flower and die. While you are growing basil outdoors, make sure you have harvested enough leaves to dry and preserve to get you through the cold winter months. At the end of the growing season, you can also allow your plants to form seeds, and harvest those for planting the following year.
If you take good care while growing basil plants, chances are you are going to find yourself with far more leaves than you can use reasonably. So you will be faced with a decision on how to preserve them for future use. The most conventional way is to simply hang bunches of stems and leaves in a warm, dry area that gets plenty of air flow. You may want to consider bagging the bunches, or putting some kind of fabric underneath them to catch falling leaves.
Growing Basil for Freezing:
Freezing basil can also be a useful way of preserving it. This method tends to offer results more like picking fresh leaves. Just put whole leaves into a freezer bag and set them in your freezer. One ingenious method of freezing is to chop the leaves up, and mix a 1/4 cup of leaves with 2 teaspoons of oil. You can drop the blend onto wax paper, freeze them, and then transfer the frozen clumps into containers. This allows you to put them directly into a frying pan with just the right amount of oil for starting most dishes!
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