Growing Basil in Winter
Benjamin Kilbride, Editorial Assistant at The Old Farmer’s Almanac
Add a little green to your life during the winter months by growing basil indoors!
How to Grow Basil Indoors
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow inside—it grows quickly, needs little care, and can be harvested several times.
Fill several pots or growing containers with potting soil. (Make sure the containers have holes in the bottom.) Plant basil seeds 1/4-inch deep, sprinkling a few extra seeds together in case some don’t sprout. If using large pots, plant the groups of seeds at least 3 inches apart. Water until the soil is completely soaked. After the seeds have sprouted, use scissors to cut all but one basil plant per group.
The soil for seedlings needs to stay consistently moist—anytime you see that the top of the soil is drying out, water the plants.
During the germination process when seeds begin to sprout, provide mild extra warmth—75° to 80°F should do it. After they’ve sprouted, place the seedlings under grow lights in an area that is slightly cooler, around 60° to 70°F.
To supplement the waning light of fall and winter, hang fluorescent or low-energy LED grow lights 3 to 4 inches above the plants. Make sure that the bulbs are not a kind that will heat up over time (such as incandescent), which can dry out or even burn the tender leaves. Set a regular cycle by turning on the lights in the morning when you wake up and turning them off when you have dinner (or use a timer): Plants grow better with a consistent day and night schedule.
To grow healthy and strong, basil needs air circulation. Moving air keeps mold from growing in the soil, while also forcing basil to develop thick stems that will support the plant’s own weight. Place a small fan near the basil plants when they are sprouts and turn it on to its lowest setting, just enough to make the leaves flutter slightly. Rotate the plants every few days to ensure that they don’t lean one way or the other. Turn the fan on and off on the same schedule as the lights, or connect it to the timer if you’re using one.
Over the winter, feed the plants a liquid fertilizer designed for leaf growth (follow directions on label for amount and frequency). Make sure that all of the plants have enough to drink—heating homes can make the air dry and sap soil of valuable moisture.
Pruning and Harvest
Regularly prune basil to make it grow thick and bushy. Use a clean pair of scissors to cut the stem of each basil plant just above a set of leaves—the plant will split at the cut point and keep growing. Continue to prune to encourage growth. Start harvesting basil plants once they have 6 or more leaves.
Once you’ve grown fresh basil, try turning it into pesto! Serve pesto on fresh pasta, spread on a halved baguette and broiled, or as a pizza topping.
3 cloves garlic
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup good-quality olive oil
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
In a blender or food processor, combine garlic, basil, nuts, salt, pepper, and half of the oil. Purée, and then slowly add remaining oil. If using immediately, stir in Parmesan; if not, freeze mixture in a sealable plastic bag, squeezing out any air. (Pesto turns brown when exposed to air.) Add Parmesan before serving.
Yield: 1 to 1-1/2 cups
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