Basil and Containers Go Together
Basil is one of the most popular herbs to grow for culinary use and you can easily grow basil in containers. After all, who can resist a batch of fresh pesto made from basil growing in one’s own yard!
As soon as the weather turns I begin growing basil in pots on my deck. I find that basil plants get bigger when I can keep an eye on them and it is easier to make a quick harvest. That gets us eating more basil in salads and savory dishes.
Gardening on the deck also keeps pests, like those pesky rabbits and grasshoppers, out of the plants.
Potting Up Basil Plants
The kind of pot you use doesn’t really matter, basil just needs at least 8 inches of depth to grow and the container needs proper drainage. At planting time, add organic fertilizer to the root.
It’s important to remember that this flavorful herb doesn’t like to have waterlogged roots. When basil has too much water, the plant will not produce the quantity of leaves that you want for that big, healthy harvest you’re after.
Choose a good potting soil, not heavy garden soil, and keep an eye on the plants. They will require water every other day when it’s below 100 degrees and once daily when the temperatures go higher.
The plants will benefit from a layer of mulch around them. An inch or two will do the trick. This will help keep the soil moist and extend the time between daily waterings. Once a month, mix up an organic fertilizer and give your plants a good soaking.
Last year I tried straw bale gardening and found that basil plants grow especially well in this manner. In fact, they were the healthiest of any basil plant I have ever grown!
If there is any hint of frost coming, bring your basil plants inside or cover them with sheets to keep the frost off the leaves. Use rocks or other easy to grab items to hold the sheet down. Frost will kill this tender plant FAST, so if you want to continue your harvest, don’t skip this step.
Pruning Is the Key to Growing Basil in Containers
The biggest trick to growing a bumper crop of basil is pruning it — always pinch it back to the next place where there are two leaves sprouting. This will cause the plant to grow into two more branches.
Start pruning when the plant gets about 6 inches tall. That will cause it to grow bushy instead of tall. Bushy = more leaves.
You can safely prune established basil plants two or three times a week during the peak growing season. This is preferably done in the evening if it is going to be really hot. Once you start pinching back regularly, you will get an eye for your plant and when it is ready for a pruning.
For an extended harvest, do not let the plant set flowers. This will send a signal for it to stop leaf production and work on seeds. If you are keeping up on your pinching regimen, the flowers should not be a problem.
Of course, do what you can to keep insects away. Occasionally, basil is bothered by aphids, slugs, or Japanese beetles. If pests are bugging your plants, try these natural pest remedies.
How Much Sun Does Basil Need to Grow?
Basil needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. Eight hours is even better. They thrive in the 80+ degree days of summer.
If you live in the north consider a sunny afternoon spot. Those who live in the south will find that their plants may even benefit from some afternoon shade when the extreme heat of summer sets in.
Why Do My Basil Plants Keep Dying?
Basil is a pretty resilient herb so you’ll need to be an absolute brown thumb to kill it. The chief problem that can lead to a stressed-out plant is under watering. Over watering can be an issue too as it can cause the roots to rot.
Fungal disease and pests are an issue too, while another reason your potted basil plant doesn’t fare that well is using tap water – I recommend switching to filtered water, as tap water in some areas is disastrous for both your health and plant life.
Troubleshooting a Wilted Basil Plant
If your basil plant has started wilting, water it ASAP but let the water drain as you don’t want its roots to rot from too much moisture. Also, make sure that you won’t water it in direct sunlight. Just move the container into a shady spot and leave it there for a couple of days until all the leaves have perked up.
A wilted basil will bounce back faster if you let it sit for a while in the shade. Once the plant’s leaves are no longer drooping make sure to remove any dead or dying leaves (they’ll take away vital energy you’ll want to direct to healthy leaves). Also, remove leaves that look relatively healthy but refuse to bounce back once the plant has had a good soak.
If the dead leaves are located on top, don’t shy away from pruning the top sets of leaves – don’t worry the plant will regenerate and grow even bushier afterwards.
Root Rot Is Another Common Problem
Another reason your basil plant might die is root rot. This is mainly caused by too much watering and/ or poor water drainage. If growing basil in containers make sure that after each irrigation all the water has drained properly.
And don’t water the basil every day. Try giving it a soak every few days and only when you notice that the top layer of the soil is dry.
Some people recommend frequent but shallow watering in order to keep soil moist but not soggy. If you’re using this method make sure that you water the plant deeply once a week to promote deep root growth. Keep in mind that growing basil in containers implies more frequent watering than growing the herb your garden.
Don’t let the soil become neither soggy nor bone dry. Sogginess will cause root rot almost instantly while keeping the soil bone dry will be stressing the plant needlessly and up its risk of root rot in the long run.
If you have the tendency of over watering your potted plants don’t use mulch. Mulch is best used in case of drought but if the soil is too soggy, the mulch will prevent water evaporation and will boost the risk of root rot exponentially.
Overcrowded Pots Are a BIG No-No
Overcrowded pots are a common issue with store-bought basil plants. Since most potted basil at the supermarket is fairly young, sellers tend to overcrowd the plants to make them look bushier and more mature. But overcrowding can suffocate the young plants, so you’ll need to divide them.
Also, never re-pot an overcrowded plant as is, as the young plants will start competing against one another for nutrients and your potted basil won’t fare that great.
Take the overcrowded plants out of the pot and split the root ball into two parts with your hands. Next pull out each individual plant gently in order not to damage their roots. Re-pot individual plants into toilet paper rolls filled with a mix of potting soil and compost.
Trim the top of each plant above the first major leaf node to prompt it to focus its energy on growing a strong root system. Once the plants are re-potted give them a good soak. Keep them on a windowsill or in a greenhouse for about 3 weeks until they’ve grown into healthy looking plants.
Now, it is the time to re-pot them into larger pots. If you plan on growing the plants in your garden, you’ll need to keep them one week outside for the elements to harden them off a bit.
But keep some place in mid-shade as direct sunlight might shock and kill them off. Also, if there are huge temperature differences between night and day, get them indoors at night. Here’s a handy visual tutorial on how to fix an overcrowded basil plant.
Fusarium Wilt: Basil’s Worst Nightmare
Fusarium wilt is a devastating fungal disease that you can do very little about. The fungi devastate the plant starting from its roots and kill it from the inside by interfering with the stem’s ability of conducting water. Once the plant’s water uptake is completely obstructed, it dies.
The disease can linger in the soil for up to 12 years and can target potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and the members of the mint family, including basil. The most affected type of basil by this disease is Sweet Basil (Ocimum bacilicum). The disease can affect basil plants through infected seeds or through soil where diseased plants grew and died.
In the case of Fusarium wilt the best medicine is prevention. Make sure that you pot only healthy plants (the first signs of the infection appear when the plant is six to twelve inches tall.) If the plant is diseased it, removed it from the root and burn it. Do not toss it in some remote place of your garden as the fungi might spread and ruin the soil there.
Some commercially available basil seeds have been tested for the fungus so check out the labels. There’s no treatment for the fungal disease. Crop rotation for up to 3 years with plants that are not targeted by the disease can help decontaminate the soil.
What Will You Do With Your Bumper Basil Crop?
Once you harvest your basil leaves, they will keep for about a week in the refrigerator. Here’s what I do to keep them fresh:
Wash the leaves in cold water and place them in a plastic zip bag with a bit of extra water. Store this bag in the produce section of the refrigerator and remove leaves as you need them.
This is also a great way to store leaves until you have enough for a big basil cooking project.
Here are just a few suggestions for using those wonderful basil leaves –
- Make fresh pesto (every night!); you could also make a larger batch of pesto and freeze it in an ice cube tray (it is as good as new when thawed)
- Crush the basil leaves and freeze them in ice cube trays with olive oil
- Use fresh leaves on salads and sandwiches
- Make basil syrup for tea, pop-cycles and as a drizzle on fresh fruit
- Make strawberry basil lemonade, yum!
- Make an infused oil, the process is similar to this post about calendula
- Make flavored vinegar
- Dehydrate your basil leaves and powder them for later use
Grow a bumper crop of basil by giving your plants proper soil, water, and by pinching the plants regularly. There is so much you can do with basil you’ll want to be eating it every night.
Related read: How to Preserve Your Basil Harvest – 4 Surefire Methods