Many people wait for the weather to become warmer before planting their vegetable gardens. But you don’t have to. You can start your herb gardens indoors this year. When choosing what herbs to plant, the first thing to consider is which herbs grow effectively indoors. One great choice is basil.
Only a few herbs can be cultivated with success inside. This is generally either because there is insufficient light or the indoor temperature is unsuitable for that specific plant. Basil is a great choice since it is fairly flexible regarding sunshine. It may not perform as well inside as outdoors, but it can grow.
How to Grow Basil Indoors: What You Need
Ready to try out that green thumb? Here is everything you will need to gather before you can learn how to grow basil indoors.
When finding basil seeds, you want to consider the basil variety, the germination rate, space, and the environment in which the basil will be grown. Variety is key, and it starts with determining what kind of basil variety you will be growing. Will it be used as an ingredient, medicine, or edible seed? Genovese basil seed, for example, is a good choice if you want to make pesto recipes.
Another factor to consider when choosing basil seed is the germination rate. This is the rate at which the seed germinates and grows into a plant. You won’t find many basil seeds with less than an 80% germination rate. Some basil seeds have a germination rate as high as 95%.
So, if you want to grow seeds quickly and maximize your first batch, you want a higher germination rate. However, if you just want to take your time, then really any basil seed packet will do.
Next, consider the space you have. Where do you plan on planting your seeds? If you live in a smaller home and are growing your basil plants indoors, you want to find a good seed packet for indoor planting. The seed for outdoor planting typically comes in a larger packet.
When looking at the package, see how many plants you can expect to grow with the seeds you have. Basil plants can also grow to be up to 24 inches high, but there are some shorter varieties you can purchase if you are short on space and don’t have that two-foot leeway you need for growing your basil indoors.
Here are five varieties of basil you can easily grow at home:
Genovese Plantlings (Ocimum basilicum)
This is the classic sweet Italian basil you are probably already well aware of. This sweet basil is often used in homemade pestos and makes a great addition to pizza sauce and Caprese salads. This basil plant can grow to be two feet tall and one foot wide.
It has glossy deep green leaves and should be harvested often. Get rid of any flowers that appear. While they may be nice to look at, those flowers can cause your sweet basil to become bitter and can hurt the productivity of your plant.
Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Thai basil is used in many Southeast Asian dishes like pho and coconut curries. It has an almost anise-like flavor with green leaves and purple stems. It can grow to be between one and two feet tall. You want to harvest basil from this plant as soon as the flowers start appearing.
Mrs Burns Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Mrs Burns lemon basil has southwest roots. This basil plant is much hardier than other basil varieties and handles dry conditions quite well. This lemon basil offers a pop of citrus flavor that is good with roasted chicken or as a garnish for desserts. You can even add a few leaves of this lemon basil to a refreshing glass of lemonade.
Spicy Bush Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Spicy bush basil is good when you lack space for larger plants. When mature, these plants don’t grow wildly. They stay a compact plant that only tops out at approximately one foot in height. It offers a peppery flavor that complements fish dishes and pasta sauces. It is also a delicious addition to a Bloody Mary.
African Blue Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
African blue basil has green leaves with violet or purple-colored veins. Its flavor is reminiscent of clove and should be used in moderation. It is a good touch on salads and some desserts.
High-Quality Organic Soil
The first place to start is with the soil. You want to get high-quality organic soil because it is rich in nutrients. This means you won’t have to add fertilizer to the soil for at least six weeks. Your basil plant prefers a moist soil mixture as long as it is well-drained. So, make sure to use a pot with plenty of drainage holes so the basil plant doesn’t get waterlogged.
Another caveat to growing indoors is that pots are not ideal for growing basil, mainly because of drainage complications. Although basil needs to be watered regularly, it does not do well with standing water. Too much standing water could cause the plant to perish.
The best method to avoid the standing water problem is to ensure your container contains dirt that is good for drainage. Instead of using regular potting soil, find a rough potting mix at the nearby gardening store. Having excellent drainage usually means that your plant should be watered more often.
And that brings us to the container or pot you will use to grow your basil indoors. Potential fungal growth is definitely something to keep in mind. Again, you need a pot that allows for proper drainage and good airflow. A fabric pot would be ideal combined with the high-quality organic soil you have already picked out.
Some gardeners use artificial growing lights for growing herbs during the wintertime. With ever-changing technologies, grow lights have become increasingly more economical, meaning less heat output and less cost to operate.
Buying a compact fluorescent grow light for use over a modest indoor garden area is fairly inexpensive. It is approximately 4 times more energy efficient compared to a typical incandescent light bulb.
Furthermore, a total spectrum lamp can carry a plant through the vegetative and blooming stages without a problem. Most individuals should be able to grow basil even without artificial lighting, especially if they have a window facing south. Placing a plant in this window will allow basil to get the longest sunlight during winter.
If you have chosen to use fluorescent lighting, the basil should be under the lights for 12 hours a day, and the basil plant should be two to four inches from the light. Never allow the leaves of your basil plant to touch the light, or else the plant could burn.
Before growing basil inside, take into consideration the ambient room environment. Basil grows best in temperate environments. Keep the growing temperature as near to 72 degrees Fahrenheit as possible, at the very least.
Basil is resilient and reasonably easy to grow in the home if you employ these simple suggestions. Don’t put your basil plant in a drafty or cold area, like near an open window during the winter or close to the air conditioning unit during the warmer months. You also want to make sure there is some humidity. To do this, mist your plant regularly, especially if your home is dry.
Many times herbs grown indoors do not receive enough nutrients when grown indoors. The soil that a plant grows outside has the benefit of organic material making its way into the soil and breaking down into components that herbs can use as nutrients. This bioavailability does not exist with indoor plants.
Consider fertilizing your herbs about once a month using a synthetic fertilizer at reduced strength. This will help alleviate any issues with malnutrition when growing basil indoors.
If you use organic compost, your basil plant may not actually require the added nutrients a good fertilizer offers. However, if you notice that your plant isn’t growing as well as it should, feed the basil plant a weak liquid fertilizer at least once a month.
How to Grow Basil Indoors: The Steps to Follow
Now that you have gathered your supplies and know a bit more about the different varieties of basil you can grow indoors, let’s look at the steps to plant, grow, and harvest your basil.
Step One: Potting Mix and Basil Seed
Start by adding your potting mix to the container you have chosen to use for growing basil and pack it in firmly. Four to six-inch pots are a good size for indoor growing. Moisten the soil very lightly and sprinkle some basil seed onto the surface. Water the soil or mist it with a spray bottle.
Step Two: Place Basil Pot for Southern Exposure
When you are done planting your basil seed, move the pot to a window in a warm area of the home that offers adequate southern exposure. Stay clear of drafty windows or anywhere in the home the temperature may drop. As your basil plant starts growing, be sure to rotate the pots every once in a while. This keeps your plant from leaning in just one direction. Remember, plants tend to lean toward their light source.
If you have chosen to use grow lights, set a timer to ensure they are under the light for at least 12 hours per day. The light should be a few inches above the seedlings. As your plant grows, raise the light. If you begin to notice white spots on the leaves of your basil plant, you may have the lights too close.
Step Three: Moisten the Soil
You want to keep the soil moist but avoid overwatering your basil plant. The soil should not be heavily saturated. As the plant grows, you may notice some overcrowding. If this is the case, use a pair of scissors to thin the plant out. If there are extra seedlings, snip them at the soil line. Don’t throw them away, either! You can throw them in a salad.
Step Four: Watch and Enjoy
Now is the time for some patience as you watch your new potted basil plant grow. You can begin to smell the aroma of the basil about a month after planting, and in two months, you should have enough basil to start harvesting and making your favorite pesto recipe. To continue your harvest, you can plant a batch of new basil seeds every few weeks or so.
How to Harvest Basil
Once your basil plants are six to eight inches tall, you can start picking off the leaves and harvesting your basil. And since fresh basil is magic, you will see two new stems growing after you cut just one—as long as you don’t cut the stem too much.
You can remove entire stems when you want to harvest more than just a few basil leaves at a time. Cut the stems at around a ¼ of an inch above the node (where the leaves and side shoots appear). Never remove more than a third of the length of the plant’s height at a time, or you won’t be able to harvest new basil in a few weeks.
If you just want to harvest a few leaves at a time, pinch off the basil leaf at its base, where the leaf meets the stem. Start harvesting at the top of the basil plant because this is where more foliage is likely to fill in. When you harvest each basil leaf from the bottom, you will thin your plant out too much.
Pruning and Maintenance
Since basil is considered a hardy plant, it requires very little in the way of care and maintenance. Simply make sure the soil is draining well, it has good air circulation, is watered occasionally, and has plenty of light, and your basil plant will thrive and provide you with fresh basil for any basil recipe you have in mind.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2012 and has been completely updated.