Growing basil is a snap with our expert guide on how to grow herbs.
By Ann Wied
Waukesha County, Wisconsin
Many gardeners and cooks are discovering the joy in growing basil and other herbs in their own backyard. And why not? Whether you grow them in an herb garden, a flower bed, a veggie patch or containers near the back door, fresh herbs add a burst of flavor to any meal.
The easiest way to get started is to buy plants in spring from a local greenhouse, nursery or farmers market. Some popular choices are basil, chives, rosemary, thyme and flat-leaf Italian parsley. Mint works well, too, in containers—it has a tendency to spread quickly. Be sure to check growing requirements for each plant, though, as recommendations vary.
As long as there’s good drainage, herbs thrive in any soil suitable for growing vegetables—even in pots, window boxes or hanging baskets. Most require six to eight hours of direct sun. All-day sun is even better, since intense light enhances development of the oils that give the herb its flavor and fragrance.
Most herbs develop better flavor when kept on the dry side. Container-grown herbs, however, need frequent watering. Placing a container where there’s afternoon shade will prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. You shouldn’t need to apply fertilizer for most herbs, unless you want frequent, heavy harvests. For container gardens, use a quality potting mix that contains a slow-release, pellet-type fertilizer, or apply a water-soluble fertilizer just after planting.
Harvest and Storage
For highest oil content and maximum flavor, harvest herbs in midmorning, just after the dew has dried but before the sun becomes too hot. Avoid harvesting on rainy days, when lower oil content means less flavor.
Snip stems and leaves as needed throughout the growing season. Make a cut a few inches down the stem, just above a set of leaves, to promote new growth and a bushier plant. Never remove more than a third of the plant’s foliage at one time. Herbs taste best right after harvest. If you’re not using them immediately, protect the oil content by keeping them out of bright light.
Want to harvest flower heads? Pick the stems just before the flowers are fully opened. Seeds can be harvested late in the season, too, once the seed head fades from green to brown or gray.
To learn how to grow herbs then freeze them to savor all year, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation at nchfp.uga.edu, or check with your local extension office.
About our Expert: Ann Wied is consumer horticulture educator for the UW-Extension in Waukesha County, Wisconsin.