Time to Grow Basil

First day of spring is time to plant your basil here in the Southwest. Well, most of the Southwest. Those of you in the mountains will have to start yours indoors.

Cover image is a selection of three different varieties, courtesy Renee’s Garden Seeds.

Basil is Not Native – but That’s Okay

Originally native to India, basil is now grown around the globe wherever (and whenever) it is warm enough.  Basil prefers warm days and nights, sunshine for hours on end, and nice warm soils for the seeds to start growing.  Father Kino is credited with helping get this tasty herb to our area of the world.

Why grow some? Basil is a real taste treat!  It can be used in Italian cooking, fresh in green salads, and so many other ways.  It even has a reputation as a medicinal herb.

Kitchen shears are handy! This basil is a supermarket variety with large leaves. It was planted as a “spring transitional” and harvested entirely before the heat of summer.

Basil does grow well in the Southwest, but it has some specific preferences if it is to thrive.  And I have seen the native cactus bees visiting the flowers, so it does feed native pollinators.

Growing Basil

How to Start

You can start your basil from seed, buy seedlings at your local nursery, or even purchase a plant at the grocery store.  This last is not ideal however, since supermarkets usually carry varieties that prefers ample humidity.

Smaller leaves or purple leaves help specific varieties of basil thrive here.


A rich, well-drained loamy soil that is high in organic matter is great for this herb.

Sandy soils drain too quickly and clay soils become waterlogged and don’t hold oxygen well.    Either case makes for unhappy plants.

Ideal soil pH is 6.2 to 7.0.    Most desert soil is around 8.0.    Add ample organic matter or grow your basil in large containers with potting soil. Some varieties, like will tolerate soils with a pH of 7.2.

Pots on the patio is one easy way of giving basil the soil it likes. Plus – it’s easier to harvest if the pots are on a table.


Basil does best with 8 hours of light per day, but we are blessed with more than that in summer!    Ideally provide noon or afternoon shade.    The east side of a home is a good place.


Temperature range for basil is between 55 to 95 degrees F.    If you provide some afternoon shade you reduce any potential heat-stress on the plant.    Basil can’t take freezing.    Thus many of us must replant our basil every spring.    If you grow it in large pots, you could move it to a sheltered site for winter.

End of summer – time to harvest the basil and make room for winter greens. Easy to dry the excess.


There’s a reason basil isn’t a xeriscape plant.    Provide ample moisture for healthy and flavorful, not bitter, basil.   But note – if you come home in the evening and it is all wilty – it might not need water!  It might just be conserving water against the drying sunlight.  The time to panic is when it is wilty in the morning.


Basil does best with high levels of nitrogen mixed with all the other major and minor nutrients.    Our desert soils lack only nitrogen.    Adding ample organic matter or growing basil in containers generally solves this.

Siam Queen Basil, a 1998 All-America Selections Winner. Photo courtesy all-americaselections.org

Variety is the Spice of Life!

There are over 150 varieties* of basil to select from.  This is a good thing – because you may need to try several different varieties until you find the one that does well for you in your yard and with your style of plant care.

Remember that the Southwest is region of low humidity, so basil with small leaves will survive better than a large leaved variety.

For more yummy leaves and less flowers, you will need to “pinch” your plants. Topic for another post. Or, leave the flowers for the pollinators.

For my tendency towards minimal care gardening, I grow the variety called ‘Mrs. Burns Famous Lemon Basil’ an heirloom variety from Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson Arizona.

Plant Nerd Shares Some Basil Varieties

soule-garden-successMost commercially available basils are cultivars of sweet basil.    With over 150 cultivars available and more new ones every year, it’s hard to keep up with them all.    For the Southwest, go with these basils with smaller leaves (need less water) and purple leaf colors (less likely to sunburn).


sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)
cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Cinnamon')
lettuce-leaf basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Crispum')
dark opal basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Dark Opal')
purple basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Purpurescens')
Rubin basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Rubin')
globe basil, dwarf basil, French basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Minimum')
Queen of Siam basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum)
African blue basil (Ocimum basilicum X Ocimum kilimandscharicum)
camphor basil, African basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum)
lemon basil (Ocimum americanum)
hoary basil, frosted basil (Ocimum canum)
holy basil (was Ocimum sanctum, now considered Ocimum canum)

About 100 NEW copies left!

soule-kino-southwestThe last few copies of this out-of-print award winning Southwestern book are now for sale. Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today   The review says:

“Award-winning garden writer Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule has pulled together a fascinating book on the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and some of the plants that he brought to Southern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, and area called the Pimeria Alta.”

A steal at only $20!  This link is to our sales site. The profits from the sale go to the local Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.  We hope you will help support this great Southwest non-profit!

Legal Notes

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule // Gardening With Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.


The authors of this website have researched the edibility of the materials we discuss, however, humans vary in their ability to tolerate different foods, drinks, and herbs. Individuals consuming flowers, plants, animals or derivatives mentioned in this blog do so entirely at their own risk. The authors on this site cannot be held responsible for any adverse reaction. In case of doubt please consult your medical practitioner.

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