Growing basil from seed is an easy way to add this herb to your garden.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a tender annual. It is very sensitive to frost and cold. Do not plant your basil outside until all danger of frost is gone.
In Virginia (Zone 6B) where I live, that means waiting to plant basil outside until around Mother’s Day or after May 15. I like to add a few days onto our “official” frost-free date to be absolutely sure I won’t lose my basil plants to cold.
About Basil – an Amazing Herb Plant
Most people are familiar with sweet basil, also called Italian or Genovese basil. This is the basil you find in the supermarket and the dried, crushed basil in the spice rack. It’s the basil used to season Caprese salad, a lively salad of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves. It’s the flavor most often associated with Italian cuisine and one that most people love.
Basil has a long, interesting history. Some cultures viewed basil as a good luck plant, others as a bad luck plant. In India, holy basil (Ocimum sanctum or Tulsi) is planted around sacred sites and temples. Its fragrance fills the air. The leaves are dried and used as a tea to counteract the effects of stress on the body as well as a tonic for colds, flu, anxiety, and many other uses.
Basil in Recipes
Most of us want to grow basil to use in our summer recipes. Genovese, or sweet basil, is the perfect summer basil and the variety that I start indoors here at Seven Oaks Farm to grow for seasoning.
I also grow cinnamon basil. Yes, it’s a basil plant, and yes, it really does taste like cinnamon! I dry the leaves and use it in potpourri and tea. There are also lime, licorice, and lemon scented basils. The flavor of basil mingles with the secondary flavor, which may not be to everyone’s taste.
There are also lime, licorice, and lemon scented basils. The flavor of basil mingles with the secondary flavor, which may not be to everyone’s taste.
Starting Basil from Seeds Is Easy
All basil plants can be started from seed. You can also purchase plants at your local nursery and garden center once the weather gets warm. Most garden centers stock sweet basil.
If you would like to grow holy basil, cinnamon basil, or any one of the 20 or so unique basil varieties readily available in catalogs, you need to buy the seeds and grow basil from seed.
Growing Basil from Seed
Park Seed has a great selection of basil seeds, including the flavored ones I mentioned earlier. Other places to find basil seeds include Strictly Medicinal Seeds, which is where I bought my tulsi (holy basil) seeds this year, Burpee, and many of the other seed companies online.
Basil needs full sunshine and a soil pH of about 6.0 to 7.0. Make sure the spot where you plan to plant your basil seeds receives plenty of sunlight.
Supplies you will need for growing basil from seed include:
- A package of basil seeds
- Seed starting soil
- Light source
- Containers for seeds, such as cell packs or a small pot
Directions for growing basil from seed:
- Start your basil seeds four to six weeks before you intend to plant them in the garden.
- Gather your supplies.
- Read the back of the seed package to confirm that the directions provided by the company match the directions I’m sharing here. Some varieties may have special requirements.
- Place the soil inside the cell packs or pots. Make sure that whatever container you have for seed starting has good drainage.
- Plant each basil seed inside a cell or a few in the container.
- Press seeds one-quarter inch into the soil. Pat soil over the seed.
- Keep seeds watered until they germinate.
- Basil needs warmth to germinate – temperatures around 70 degrees F are ideal. Use a seed heating mat if necessary to raise the temperature near your seeds. DO NOT try to make your own; these are special waterproof mats that you can use near plants.
- Basil seeds should germinate (sprout) in 5 to 10 days.
Caring for Your Basil Plants
Your basil seedlings will grow rapidly. When they have several sets of leaves, and you are sure that the weather is consistently warm (daytime temperatures in the 70s and nighttime temperatures no lower than 50 F), acclimate your plants to the outdoors. This is a process called ‘hardening off’ and it helps seedlings transition from the comfort of your home to the great outdoors.
Move the seedling trays outdoors during the day and inside at night. Keep them well-watered. Do this for about a week. Your seedlings should be ready to move to the garden after a week of slowly acclimating them to the outdoors.
Transplanting Basil Seedlings
Remove your seedlings from their container by gently – very gently! – turning the container over and tapping the sides and bottom. Grasp the plant by the leaves, not the stem. It’s not a big deal if you break a leaf, but if you break the stem you’re really hurting the poor plant and it has a lot to cope with once it’s in the ground.
Dig a hole wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the roots of the basil plant. Place the roots in the hole and gently push the soil back over the roots, tapping it with your palms. Water well and keep plants well-watered throughout the growing season.
No Need to Fertilize
Basil does NOT need fertilizer. Too much fertilizer can make basil lose its flavor. I don’t fertilize my plants at all.
I pinch off the flowers that form at the top for the first month or two, then I let my plants flower like crazy. Bees love the flowers and basil is so good for all the little pollinating insects.
Japanese beetles on basil are common. The beetles attack the leaves and chew holes through them. To control them, you’ll need to pick them off by hand and dunk them in soapy water to kill them.
When to Pick and Use the Leaves
You can start picking off leaves to use in your cooking when the plant reaches about six to 10 inches tall. Take only a few leaves or stems at first, giving the plant plenty of time to grow.
Before the summer ends, cut as many stems off of your plant as you like. Dry basil before a frost turns the leaves brown. You can use a dehydrator or place basil stems inside a paper bag. Stick the bag inside your car on the dashboard and park it in the sun for a day to dry the herbs to a nice crunch. As long as you don’t mind your car smelling like basil, it’s a great way to quickly dry basil!
More Seed Starting Resources
Learn how to grow herbs indoors with my online course, Easy Indoor Herb Gardening. Take it at your own pace. Five video lessons, plus downloadable textbook and more.
First published 2017 and updated January 2022 with new information, improved links and images.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.