Growing Basil Indoors

Pots of Basil

Basil is a very aromatic, bushy annual that grows very well as a house plant. Basil is a staple in my indoor herb garden, and probably one of the best herbs for hydroponic sytems. Basil stems can be rooted in water and will often grow there happily without ever being transplanted into soil or soilless mix.

This is an example of what NOT to do: I planted way too many seeds in each pot:

Over-crowded basil plants
Over-crowded basil seedlings

Types of Basil Plants

Basil types range from dwarf varieties that grow only 6 to 8 inches in diameter to larger bushes reaching 2 ft. or more in height. Flavors vary depending upon the strength and character of the oil in the leaves. My favorite kind of basil is traditional sweet Italian basil called Genovese – very versatile in cooking. But I also like the strong flavor of Thai basil in some Asian soup recipes.

You can find a good variety of heirloom and organic basil seeds here.

Here are some popular varieties of basil growing in my indoor herb garden. (Note: the plants in the Aerogarden are bell pepper plants.)

Varieties of Basil
Varieties of basil growing in my kitchen herb garden

Plant tray, back row: Genovese (Sweet Italian) Basil, Lemon Basil, Basil Fino Verde

Front row: Basil Aroma, Greek Basil, Lime Basil, Basil ‘Spicy Globe’
In the background: Sweet mini baby bell peppers growing in an Aerogarden, and a tray of thunbergia plantlets.

  • Sweet basil (also called Basil Genovese, or sweet Italian basil) – this is the most popular, “common” variety of basil for Italian recipes, pesto sauce, etc. Indispensable to the kitchen garden
  • Lemon basil – a small-leaved variety, small plant variety, with a strong lemon scent and flavor. Excellent for adding flavor to salads, salad dressings, and teas
  • Greek basil – a very compact and bushy plant with tiny leaves. Fragrance is that of anise and clove, and an excellent addition to tomato-based dishes
  • Lime basil – a compact grower with small light green leaves scented like citrus lime and sweet basil
  • Aromatto basil (Basil ‘Aroma’) – has large, flat purple leaves and aromatic, spicy scented leaves. Grows tall (up to 18 in.)
  • Basil ‘Spicy Globe’ – A compact hybrid that grows in a small, perfect globe. Excellent for containers and (we hope) indoor plant stands

Purple basil (Thai basil) and cinnamon basil are also very popular varieties of basil for the kitchen herb garden.

How to Grow Basil Indoors

Basil seeds can be sown in pre-moistened peat plugs or Jiffy® pellets, or any moistened, well-drained seed-starting mix. Sow the seeds at room temperature (70-75F) about 1/8″ deep and one to two inches apart and place under lights or in a bright windowsill.chive seeds in a bright window or under lights.

If you have a dry environment you will have better results using a covered seed propagator. If your environment is cool or the indoor temperature drops significantly at night you would probably have better results using a heat mat – this will help germinate your basil seeds.

Basil seedlings
Basil seedlings in starter plugs

Harvesting Basil

You can start using leaves from your basil plant after the second set of “true” leaves emerges. (The first set of green leaves are the cotyledons, or embryonic leaves.) Once the second set of leaves emerge and are large enough for your use, pinch off those leaves above the node, which will cause the plant to branch out. Soon you will have a full, bushy plant and lots of lots of fresh basil.

Drying Basil / Freezing Basil

The best tasting basil is fresh basil. Dried basil and frozen basil just can’t compare to fresh basil leaves. But if you have a large harvest and want to preserve basil, freezing is recommended over drying since much of the flavor is lost in the drying process.

If you decide to dry your basil, pick the leaves just before the plant flowers. To freeze basil, coat each side of each leave with olive oil and layer the leaves flat between sheets of wax paper and freeze in a plastic freezer container. You can also store whole basil leaves in olive oil and use as needed.

If you pinch back the stems of your basil plants regularly they will grow offshoots and you can keep growing basil indoors all year. If you don’t pinch them back (or you forget and neglect them, like I do!) basil plants can get tall and leggy, and then flower and go to seed. Then I just start all over again. 🙂

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