Basil is one of those lush, aromatic plants that add spice and flavor to not only your kitchen but your garden! The basil you see typically growing in the garden is considered sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum L.), but the Ocimum genus contains around fifty different species known for their culinary, medicinal, or ornamental qualities!
Basil is super easy to grow, and it loves the heat. But what if your garden is a little on the shady side? Will this spicy annual thrive without full sun?
In this article, we examine the ideal amount of sunlight exposure for basil, and if your it will grow to its fullest potential while being grown in the shade.
Will Basil Grow in Shade?
Yes… and no. It is recommended that basil is not grown in full shade (less than 1 hour of direct sunlight per day). Partial sun or partial shade means that the plant receives 2 to 6 hours of sunlight per day. Partial sun usually implies the plant likes more heat or is okay with more sun, while partial shade means the plant prefers cooler temperatures or less sun.
For basil, partial sun (3-6 hours of sunlight) is better than full shade, but the best spot for basil in your garden is in full sun (at least 6 hours of sunlight per day). In very hot, dry areas, it may be better for basil to be in partial sun to reduce wilting. This doesn’t mean you can’t experiment! Try growing basil in different spots in your garden to see what works best for you.
There are seven different elements that are important to consider when growing basil. These items are seasonality, location, soil, pinching, moisture, mulching, and fertilizing. Let’s look at each in a bit more detail.
Unlike other perennial vegetables that return each year, Basil is a tender herbaceous annual in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. ‘Annual’ means the plant completes its life cycle in one year, meaning it will start from a seed, then flower, and produce seed within one year. ‘Herbaceous’ implies that the stems are not woody.
‘Tender’ indicates that this plant is frost sensitive (though sweet basil is hardy to USDA Zone 10). You can get a jumpstart in the garden by starting seeds inside, but otherwise, you must wait until after your last frost in order to plant out in the garden. There are some places, like the Mediterranean region, that basil can be grown as a short-lived perennial.
Basil is mostly grown in climates with temperatures from 45 to 80 degrees F. Most commercial production of basil in the U.S. takes place in the southern and southwestern states. The climate is favorable for a heat-loving plant in those locations.
Basil prefers well-draining soil. Well-draining soils are typically light soils with high amounts of sand or silt. Heavier soils (or soils with large amounts of clay) can be remediated by additions of organic matter (i.e. compost or well-rotted manure) to improve drainage qualities.
Basil loves water. A steady supply of water throughout the growing season is critical due to this plant being prone to water stress. Water the soil beneath the plant leaves rather than over the top of the leaves to reduce the prevalence of diseases.
Mulching can help reduce water stress, as it reduces water evaporation from the soil surface. As long as the plants receive ample moisture, mulching may not be necessary. Another benefit to mulching, however, is that it can help suppress weed growth.
To encourage lateral growth, the basil plants can be pinched when they are approximately 6 inches in height. Pinching is accomplished by snipping off the top portion of a plant just above a set of leaves. This causes the lateral buds to grow new branches, producing a shorter and leafier plant.
To fertilize basil, use a well-balanced fertilizer that has equal parts nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). To accomplish this, you may try applying a mixture of fish emulsion and seaweed extract, or you can choose a synthetic fertilizer like 10-10-10. After the first harvest, applying a fertilizer with higher nitrogen (like blood meal) can be applied to promote regrowth of the plant.
Quick Tips For Growing Basil
To grow basil, you will start your basil from seeds, whether inside or in the garden. Only bury the seeds about ¼” for optimal germination. Make sure your soil or seed-starting mix is moist until germination.
Basil can also be propagated by cuttings, but for the first-time grower, it may be much easier to start from seed. If you’d like to try to grow from a cutting, snip the plant just above a leaf node (where the leaves attach), then pull off the lower leaves of your cutting, placing the stem in moist soilless media (seed-starting mix, perlite, vermiculite, or potting mix).
Cover the plant with clear cling wrap or something similar (try cutting off the top of a water bottle!) to keep in humidity and then place the plant in a shaded, warm location until roots start to form on your cutting.
Commercially, basil is planted 6 inches apart in rows that are 24 to 36 inches apart. In raised bed systems, basil is typically grown at a spacing of 12 inches by 12 inches. Spacing will depend on your garden and your use of basil. In my garden, I like to plant my basil in rows that are 4 feet wide with a spacing of 9 inches by 9 inches. This has worked out well for my purposes, but you can plant as close as 5 to 6 inches apart!
Tips For Harvesting Basil
Harvest timing may be different based on what you’re using your basil for. If you are planning to use your basil leaves fresh or dried, you will harvest from the plant before it begins to flower. You can cut the entire plant or cut off individual leaves. Some gardeners will cut the stem 4 to 5 inches from the ground to allow for regrowth. Commercial producers that are growing basil for essential oil production will harvest the basil plant when it has begun to flower.
Harvest basil leaves that are above the bottom 2 to 4 sets of leaves. After harvesting, wash the leaves thoroughly and only use the highest quality leaves for your purposes. You can store the leaves in your refrigerator for fresh use or dry the leaves to use later as a dried spice. Make sure to store the dried leaves in an airtight container after they have fully dried.
Common Basil Uses
Use basil in salads, on pizza, in sauces, in soups, or as a garnish. Basil is one of the main ingredients in pesto sauces.
Another great use of basil is in flower arrangements! Wait until the first few flowers have begun to open on the flower head, then cut the stem and strip off the lower leaves. Let the stems rest in water for a couple of hours before putting together your flower arrangement (this is because basil can wilt easily if not hydrated properly). Use a variety like cinnamon, ‘Purple Ruffles’, or ‘Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil to add lovely scent and color to your table! The stems last more than a week in a vase.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is my basil wilting?
Your basil is probably wilting because you are not giving it enough water! While basil does love heat and sun, it also loves a steady supply of moisture. If you’re only relying on rainfall to water your garden, this can become a problem when the summer heat really kicks into full gear. Watering your plants in the morning around the base of the plant and not over the full plant will reduce disease prevalence.
Why are my basil leaves getting black spots on them?
Black spots on the leaves could indicate several things, including different bacterial and fungal diseases. Black spots can also pop up on basil leaves when the plant gets too cold (below 55 degrees F), so make sure to harvest as many leaves as possible before your first possible frost!
I’ve found black spots from cold to be a problem when I use basil in floral arrangements. If the stems are in the floral cooler for a prolonged period of time, the leaves will get black spots on them. I pick off bad leaves and will still use the stem in a floral arrangement if the rest of the leaves are okay. However, if you are using basil for culinary or medicinal purposes, make sure to dispose of any leaves or plants that look diseased or that, in general, are of poor quality. Better safe than sorry.
What if my garden receives dappled sunlight all day? Can I still plant basil?
Basil prefers at least 6 hours of sunlight each day, but it can be grown in partial sun as long as your area receives enough heat during the growing season (temperatures well above 60 degrees F) and you are watering regularly.
From seed to harvest time can take approximately 4 to 5 weeks, but if you are trying to grow in less than optimal conditions, then expect your growing window to be a little bit longer before you can harvest. Try watching the patterns of the sun throughout the day in your garden to determine if the area you want to plant your basil in is going to receive at least 3 hours of direct sunlight.
Can basil be grown in shade? The answer can seem a little murky, but for the most part, it is best to plant basil in full sun to partial sun. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to grow it in a shadier area if you are in a warm region!
Basil is a great candidate for container gardening, so maybe try planting your basil in a pot that you can move around your garden if needed. Whatever your situation, this delicious and flavorful herb is a wonderful addition to the garden and the kitchen, so it is worth trying to grow!