How to grow basil – with expert tips from Monty Don

Love fresh pasta dishes? Learn how to grow basil for that authentic Italian flavour

How to grow basil
(Image credit: Getty)

Learn how to grow basil, and a world of culinary opportunities opens up. Basil immediately livens up tomato-based pasta sauces, as well as being the key ingredient in pesto. Its strong flavour is unlike any other herb – and, fortunately, basil is quite easy to grow. 

Bear in mind that this herb likes sun – ideally, at least six hours of it. On the other hand, it dislikes hot midday sun, so will do best in a east- or west-facing garden. 

Find more garden ideas at our dedicated page.

  • Herb gardens: a beginner's guide to planting, growing and harvesting herbs

How to grow basil

If you want your basil by early summer, it's best to start it off indoors. If sowing directly where you are harvesting, you'll have to wait until at least late May. Basil prefers a warm spot and don't like being directly in the midday sun, especially if they're on a south-facing windowsill where extra heat is directed on to them.

Method:

1. Start the seeds in a seedling tray. Keep warm and moist – you can do this by covering the tray with cling film or a sandwich/freezer bag. They'll germinate quickly, but don't transplant them if the weather's cold unless you can commit to covering them to protect them. Basil will also propagate from cuttings: find a 10cm cutting that hasn't flowered, put it in water and roots will emerge within about a week. It can be transplanted into a pot indoors or outside as soon as there's a healthy bunch of roots. 

2. Once seedlings begin to emerge, remove the cover and continue watering regularly. When the plants begin to form leaves, transplant each plant into a small pot of about 7.5cm diameter. Basil loves well-drained, moist soil with a neutral pH. To make life easier, plant basil alongside tomatoes and parsley, which prefer similar conditions (plus you can harvest them all together to make a lovely salad or pasta sauce!).

3. When plants are robust and bushy, and when all risk of cold weather has passed, transplant the plants into a large, deep pot of about 20cm diameter. If you're planting out more than one plant, put them around 30cm apart. Position in a sunny spot in your patio or garden, or on a warm windowsill. 

4. To keep the basil plant bushy, regularly snip off stems just above where two large leaves meet. And keep an eye on flowers – pinching them off before flowers form will encourage more leaves to appear. You can, by the way, eat basil flowers, but we think the leaves are tastier so time is better spent encouraging them to grow. When picking the leaves, don't pick more than about two-thirds of the plant to allow it to regrow.

5. Only water basil when the soil is dry – avoid getting the leaves wet, too. Water in the morning, as basil dislikes wet soil at night. 

Try our basil-growing cheat

Want an easy shortcut to growing basil? Here’s a top tip from Real Homes Global Editor in Chief, Lucy Searle.

Buy some potted basil plants from the supermarket – they’re usually around £1 – and, when you get them home, repot them in a larger pot (around 10 to 15cm wide), spreading out the plant carefully in the compost as you go. Water well and care for it for a week or so before you start harvesting (it will look a bit sad to begin with). Then the plant will start to really thrive in the bigger pot and become tougher, tastier and more fragrant and you’ll have cut and keep leaves all year. It can live in the garden in summer but when it gets cold, put it on a warm, sunny windowsill and keep well watered.

And once you’ve grown your own basil, you can use it to make this red pepper pesto.

Monty Don’s tips for growing basil

Monty Don gave his advice on growing basil in BBC Gardeners’ World magazine, and we’re sharing his top tips. 

1. Bear in mind that basil isn’t a Mediterranean herb, says Monty. It actually comes from tropical Asia. Its preference, therefore, is for heat and some moisture, too.

2. As a culinary pairing, Monty thinks basil and tomatoes are fabulous. But not only do they work perfectly together on the plate, they also make great planting companions, he says. Grow them together if you can.

3. The other benefit of growing the two together? If you’re getting the tomato watering right, then you’ll be giving the basil the amount it likes, too, says Monty.

4. Here’s a vital piece of advice from Monty: basil needs generous space to grow well. When you’re planting he advises a space of 23cm between the plants. That way, he explains, the basil will grow vigorously (hurrah) and taste better (double hurrah).

5. Monty starts basil out in the greenhouse, but don’t worry if you don’t have one. He advises that a hot windowsill is all you need.