Thursday, August 19, 2010


Let me apologize for my hiatus from the blog - I'm sorry! - and make excuses for it some other time. I need to get to the heart of a critical matter.

I cannot grow basil. I would love to grow basil. I need help.

I can barely get the stuff to germinate from seed. I have purchased lovely, thriving, pricey clumps of mature plants, only to watch them wither within days. Most recently, I bought 8 little ice-cube-tray plants, each with 4 adult leaves, and divided them among three pots. They showed promise, but two days ago I lost one of the plants, and now several others are starting to get black tips on their leaves, which I know all too well will proliferate towards the petiole, signaling certain demise.

What am I doing wrong? I Googled this and read about how even an idiot can grow basil. Is there some voodoo I should know about? How much and what "flavor" of sun does it need? Watering regime? Something special about the soil or pot? My plants aren't big enough to remove the apical meristem; I figure height vs. bushiness is a luxury I can't afford right now.

All advice about growing basil and comments about me being a dumbass are welcome. Alternatively, I will accept suggestions about how to preserve basil (and hopefully not always in pesto form), should I need to resort to buying the $5-for-a-giant-box-is-the-only-thing-available-at-the-grocery-store stuff.



Sparkling Squirrel said...

I've never had luck with it as a houseplant. I have had very good luck with it outside-- both from seeds and transplants and in pots and in the ground.
Basil likes full sun and can take true prairie full sun (all day) or half days. I'd watch it if were only the afternoon half, however.
It grows best with fairly high humidity, (although with well drained soil) however, high humidity does cause various fungal problems, which you seem to be experiencing.
I know this is not new information to you.
Hmmm. Plants too close together? Soil not draining well? Maybe it just has been bad luck.
As for preserving-- for short term treat it as a cut flower (putting stems in water) and it will stay nice quite a while. Drying works but I think one loses too much flavor. I freeze a lot of pesto, but I also freeze little ice cube trays of straight basil chopped with olive oil. I think this keeps the flavor much better and most things I use it for in winter could use a little oil (pasta sauces, soups).
Great to hear from you,

Beth said...

Oooh - I like the idea of freezing it with olive oil.

Irene said...

What SpSq said.

You didn't say if it's indoors or out. Indoors, it's probably not getting the sun it needs.

Outdoors, I've grown it in pots with standard potting soil in full sun. It doesn't like to get too dry - keeping the soil moist enough can be a challenge in hot weather. The bigger the pot, the less often it needs to be watered.

Irene said...

Oh, one more thing - on getting basil started. If you're starting it from seed, make sure the seed is fresh (not a packet that's sat on a shelf for 4 years), give it moisture and light, and a little bit of warmth. Regular potting soil should be ok for seed-starting as long as it's not overly fertilized, or you can buy a special seed-starting mix.

If you're buying basil plants to grow, buy small ones (the big ones probably got too stressed by transplanting trauma), water them well when you pot them - don't put them in a pot that's too small (no less than 8 inches in diameter I would say) because if it does well, it will get quite big.

Also, I've heard that powdery mildew is a problem for basil this summer - maybe that's what is killing your transplants.

Heather said...

Oh boy. I have them in small pots and did the gravel thing at the bottom of at least some of them. I forget. (Bad data curation.) It may be a sun thing, as these are indoors. I might try some outdoors, but I'm doing the natural-selection-xeriscape thing here in Nebraska. (That is, if it survives with minimal anthropogenic watering, then it can stay. If it dies, it will get replaced with something else. Bring on the black-eyed Susans and Mexican hats!)

Outdoors in the ground or in pots? Is it worth it now that we're in end-August?

I just want my tomato + fresh mozzarella + basil leaf salad.

More news of the mundane soon.

Thanks for the advice. Keep it coming!

Sparkling Squirrel said...

Stick your pots outside. No need for in the ground-- you can extend the season bringing your pot in (I've never successfully overwintered a potted basil-- they always succumb to white fly or lack of sun) and then you can move the pots around so they're where you will water them. Basil plants like it hot as long as they get plenty of water (mine has been outside in a pot for two weeks and seems to have doubled in volume with direct sun and temperatures at 100 most days).

What's surviving in your xeriscape?

Heather said...

Surviving the xeriscape -- I have a giant maple tree in the front yard, so that flower bed is 100% shaded all the time. This proves to be a challenge: all the dryness of the prairie with none of the sun. I have Rudbeckia and cardinal flower doing really well out there; I'm hoping they proliferate. Also surviving are a big sage, some Echinacea, a hosta, a little yellow Oxalis, a prairie orchid, some Asclepias, some columbine, and certainly a few other things that I'm not thinking of.

Out back, where it is mostly-to-always sunny, I scattered a hodgepodge of perennial seeds last year and let them duke it out. Landscaping be damned! Last year I had towering cosmos, but they did not return/reseed. But I got Mexican hat, Rudbeckia, Gaillaria (sp.?), something else that is Susan-ish or sunflower-ish, the tiniest of little pink things (not a composite, those things they sell in September at the grocery store (Chrysanthemum?), and various other success stories. And some ferns that came with the house. (Who knew???) I'm tempted to take the winners and and move them with some aesthetics in mind, but we'll see. I haven't even had the time or hands to weed this year.

Along the neighbors' fence, in my constant attempts to block/outcompete/kill their invasive onions, I have been trying to establish thick ground cover. Sedum is doing well and I'll plant more and continue encouraging the existing plants. Thymus (pseudoaruginosa, or something like that -- woolly thyme) is disappointing, although I had high hopes of a bed full of honey bee-friendly purple blooms. But the surprise winner that's been proliferating like a champ has been my ice plant. GO ICE PLANT! I will get more of those bad boys, for sure. And my clematis climbing along the chain-link fence are doing well. They may prefer cool roots, but I've been neglecting them and they're doing fine.

Another post soon about the "veggies" (mostly fruits) that I planted this year...

Heather said...

How to edit my last post currently is not clear to me. Missing is an end parenthesis separating the "little pink things" from the Chrysanthemum, which certainly IS a composite.

Sparkling Squirrel said...

I read your short message first and had to giggle about your parentheses propriety. Then I read your post and realized that said closed parenthesis would have clarified the sentence. Grammar is useful!
Tiniest of pink things like a pink (Dianthus) or something completely different?
It's "gallardia", you were close.
Among the things that they sell in stores in Sept., there are both mums and asters. Either could have been in your seed mix, but if you don't have any asters you should add them (someday-- after you grow extra hands or clone yourself).

Heather said...

I will add photos soon. I take way too many photos (mostly of Zoey) and have to keep dumping them onto an external hard drive from my laptop. One of these days (ha) I will organize them. They're not easily accessible right now, but I do have a photo (or 100) of the little pink things. The whole plant ranges from about 4 to 10 inches tall. It produces perfect (or perfect-ish) flowers that are a bright pinkish magenta. Not a Dianthus, for sure.

The Chrysanthemum came with the house and is doing well, if in an odd spot. I have asters in my wooden bucket that also gives rise to my mailbox. They are looking sad this year but may still perk up.