My Approach to Sowing Basil

A couple of weeks ago I spoke about the basil varieties that I'll be growing, namely Profumo di Genovese, Dolly, Lemon, Thai and the Botanical Interests Custom Blend.  When it comes to growing basil in my area, you don't technically have to start seeds indoors.  If I sow directly in mid-late May, which is a couple of weeks after our last frost date, I could start harvesting by the end of July.  But we all want our harvests earlier, don't we?  And that means that I'm starting my basil indoors about 5 weeks before our last frost date.

12 day old basil seedlings

We use a lot of basil so I always grow a few dozen plants.  Since I need so many, last year I tried growing it in groupings using larger 4"x2" cells, instead of individually in 6-cell packs.  What I found was that growing them this way was just as successful & took up a lot less space under the grow lights, which is the main consideration.

I split each cell into two using some sort of divider (a popsicle stick, in this case), then sow one variety on each side.  For half the cell, I'll sow fairly heavily - 15-30 seeds (depending on how old the seeds are) - then thin down to 10.  I lay the seeds down, one by one, instead of sprinkling them on so that I can get a bit of space between each one - this makes thinning a whole lot easier.  Then I simply cover with a thin layer of soil & a sprinkling of vermiculite.

Basil just starting to emerge, about 4 days after seeding

This may seem like a ton of seedlings for such a small spot and it is, but it helps with my goal of growing enough to fill one side of my tomato bed without giving up too much grow light space.  Which brings me to the one caveat using this method - you can't start your basil too early.  I'm giving them about a 5 week head start which is plenty of time.  Too much more than that and they would probably start to suffer in such cramped quarters.  This is only my 2nd year growing basil this way, however, so we'll see how it goes - I'm still considering it an experiment at this stage.

Since we LOVE lemon basil, it gets about 3/4 of the space
with the Custom Blend making up the rest

I came to the realization that I could grow basil much more compactly a couple of years ago.  At that point, I was using 6-cell packs & didn't notice much of a difference between plants that grew one to a cell vs those that had 3 or 4 seedlings which I didn't bother to thin out.  This was especially apparent once they were transplanted outside - smaller seedlings quickly caught up to the larger ones and in a few weeks time you would be hard pressed to tell which was which.

I must have sprinkled a seed or two from the custom mix
in the lemon basil side as a rogue burgundy seedling appeared amongst the sea of green.

The only basil that I sow separately is Thai basil.  I surface sowed this one as at some point I had read that it requires light to germinate.  I only need a handful of Thai basil plants so it gets sown in a small 4-cell pack.

You can just barely see the bits of green as they start to germinate

Surface sowing Thai basil is one of those things that I've always done - with great results - and not questioned.  It would be  nice, however, to simply sow all of the basil the same way.  Most sowing instructions out there for Thai basil use the standard sowing method, so I may do a bit of a test next year to see if surface sowing is actually necessary.

Thai basil - Thinned to 4 per cell

And lastly, since we are talking basil, I want to give a shout out to Mother Nature's handy work.  Take a look at this monster that came up in my patch of New Zealand spinach last year:

That's right - this is ONE basil plant!

This guy simply showed up on it's own, self-seeding from the basil planting I had there the previous year.

The basil harvest from that one plant

Gotta love a surprise, no-effort harvest!


  1. This is very interesting. We love fresh basil but I've given up trying to start it from seed. Also I find that basil in hot afternoon sun tends to get completely fried and in our garden it actually does better in light or part shade.

  2. We may experiment and try different sowing methods, but Mother Nature definitely knows best. Fingers crossed you get another self sown plant this year.

  3. I love basil and usually end up direct sowing seeds or, in a pinch, buying a small plant. I also find self-seeded plants on occasion, which has me thinking that I should throw some seed into the mulch-covered area under my Magnolia tree just to see what happens.

  4. That is a lot of basil! I used to grow it in my previous sunny garden. Now we get quite a bit from our CSA veggie share. I hang it to dry, and I use some of it fresh, too. I think basil and cilantro are my favorite spices for food. You're making me hungry. ;-)

  5. Do you freeze basil? I do so I have it in winter too.


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