How to grow a bounty of basil

Plant these six basil varieties together for delicious harvest all summer. Get our basil growing guide and planting plan
Jim McCausland

Basil and tomatoes go together, especially in summer salads and on bruschetta. That's why we often plant them side by side in Sunset's test garden. (It helps that both plants also thrive in full sun and rich soil.)

But when we wanted to grow several varieties of basil for different recipe uses, we grouped them together in a 3½-foot square bed and loved the charming result. Combining different heights and colors gave the planting a richly textured look in the middle of our vegetable garden. And we harvested leaves all summer.

For contrast and scale, we planted six kinds of basil. 'Genovese', 'Lemon', 'Lettuce Leaf', purple leaf, and 'Thai' fill most of the bed; each grows about 2 feet tall. Mini Greek (which grows to 1 ft. tall) fills in along the bed's edges. (See how to make the perfect raised bed.)

Plant seedlings in rich, well-composted soil after the danger of frost has passed. Apply controlled-release fertilizer to the soil at planting time, and liquid fertilizers twice during the growing season. Water regularly and pinch off flower buds as they appear. Basil leaves are at their culinary best when harvested young.

Planting plan

Nurseries sell seeds and seedlings of standard basil; a few sell several types. Two seed sources for unusual basils are Nichols Garden Nursery (800/422-3985) and Renee's Garden. Space basil plants 10 to 12 inches apart. When they reach 6 inches, pinch back tops to maintain bushiness.

A. Mini Greek. Tiny leaves; flavor and fragrance vary, but tend toward spicy.

B. 'Thai'. Red stems; blue-green leaves have an anise-basil flavor. This basil is good in stir-fries.

C. Purple leaf. Burgundy- to plum-colored foliage has a spicy flavor. These types are worth growing for their ornamental value alone.

D. 'Lemon'. Small, light green leaves have a lovely lemon-basil scent. Wonderful for pasta, savory shortbread, or sorbets.

E. 'Lettuce Leaf'. Large green leaves have licorice and cinnamon flavors.

F. 'Genovese'. Large, smooth green leaves. This is the classic basil for making pesto.

More: How to grow veggies