Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Garden Journal 5/4/11: Bad Luck with Basil and Some Basil Growing Tips

Love basil? You'll find links to all of my previous basil posts, as well as my favorite basil recipes, at the end of this post.

Things are looking pretty bad in the basil department.

Realization of the Day:
It's starting to feel like somebody up there doesn't want me making any pesto this year—which sounds better than saying I'm an idiot with a pathetic memory.

Bad things happen to good gardeners; that's just the nature of gardening. But this is starting to get annoying. Three basil strikes by the fourth of May—and basil is one of my few never fail crops. I mean never fail. Basil always does well in my garden. Until now.
More below. . .

Sometime in late March or early April (you'd think I could have at least jotted the date down on the seed packet), on a whim, I direct seeded some Genovese basil seeds in a few square feet of empty space in the greenhouse. While I've had plenty of volunteer basil come up out in the garden in the past, I've always started my basil seeds indoors in containers and then transplanted them into the ground once the weather was plenty warm.

Years ago I read about a couple who moved to the country and started a small market garden business and CSA (basically they sold vegetables and herbs to their former office workers still stuck in the big city—how convenient is that?), and one of their most successful crops was basil. And even though everybody laughed at them, they spent $1,400 on a greenhouse just for growing basil in the summer, because even though basil generally does well out in the heat and full sun, their greenhouse basil was bigger, healthier, and tastier than what they'd been growing in direct sunlight.

I also once read about a gardener who splurged on a two acre shade cloth structure that covered her entire garden. I was instantly jealous.

So anyway, I decided I'd get a jump on my basil planting by direct seeding (which also saved me some work) and see if my basil would in fact do better in the greenhouse. It was early, but I figured the seedlings could easily be protected from any cold snaps. The sun warmed up the soil, and my seeds sprouted in just a few days.

But while I was busy in the barn with all the new bouncing babies (35 lambs born in 28 days, including three sets of triplets) an army of those destructive and ravenous roly poly bugs—I believe the more technical term for them is sow bugs—who love the cool, moist, protected paradise of my greenhouse (especially in the darkness under all the densely growing Swiss chard plants), munched down every speck of my itty bitty, full of promise basil sprouts.

It seems I'd forgotten to liberally douse everything in the greenhouse, including the soil where I seeded the basil, with food grade diatomaceous earth, which, I finally discovered a few years ago, will kill and/or repel those little suckers, along with all sorts of other bad bugs. (Diatomaceous earth is amazing, totally organic stuff that has numerous uses. We buy it in 50-pound bags and even feed it to our animals as a natural wormer.)

Basil strike one.

Then a couple of weeks ago I bought two 4-packs of purple basil plants and two 4-packs of green basil plants from the seasonal Mennonite greenhouse down the road. The few plants I've purchased from them in previous years did okay, although the majority of their seedlings come from a commercial supplier. Pickings are slim way out in the country unless you start your own seeds, which is what I usually do.

A few days later the all the purple basil plants, which had been living in the greenhouse, came down with what I can only assume was some disease; the tops of the plants wilted and fell off at the stem. A few of the stems looked sort of greyish and fuzzy, almost as if they were moldy. It wasn't from lack of water, and it wasn't from too much water, because the lower leaves didn't wilt.

This is  my 17th year growing basil in Missouri, most of the time with containers of seedlings in the greenhouse, and I've never seen that happen. Apart from a few nibbles by various insects—and quite a few nibbles two years ago when we were overrun by Japanese beetles—I can't remember my basil ever being being attacked by pests or disease, although this is only the third time I've bought basil plants.

Basil strike two.

Since some of the 8 green basil plants were starting to succumb as well, I figured I'd go ahead and put them in the ground in case being in good soil might somehow help.

I like to fill each of my 4'x8' raised beds with a variety of plants whenever possible, and according to my favorite gardening book, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, good companions for basil are peppers and tomatoes. (Bad companion plants for basil are beans, cabbage, and cucumber, so try to avoid planting these together.) For years I've tucked basil plants in between my pepper and tomato plants, where they will also supposedly act as a natural insect repellent.

A 4'x8' raised bed isn't an ideal size for growing tomato plants (one of these days I'll make a 50-foot long, two or three foot wide bed for my tomatoes), so I tend to cram 6 plants into each one, with two plants sort of side by side, the next one in the middle, then repeating with the remaining three, staggered so as to leave as much room between them as possible.

I marked out where I would put the tomato plants in this bed and then tucked the basil seedlings in the larger spaces around the edges. Putting them in the center of the bed is a bad idea, as they tend to get buried by tomato foliage.

Except for a few big leaves dropping off, the transplanted basil seedlings appeared to be doing okay. They definitely weren't getting worse.

I knew it was probably going to frost last night, despite being 18 days after our 'official' last frost date. And I knew that the floating row cover (I love this stuff) I'd put over the basil plants the last few nights when it got down to 38° probably wouldn't be enough protection. Basil is not cold tolerant and will suffer damage—and even death—well before the temperature drops down to freezing.

And I knew that, if it got cold enough and damp enough, that the old cotton bedsheet I covered the basil plants with instead of the row cover would damage the leaves it was touching—only last night I forgot that part.

Basil strike three!

The plants probably would have fared better if I'd laid the sheet over the floatin row cover, which is what I often do. But keeping either sheets or floating row covers from coming into direct contact with your plants (which often poses no problem) is a better, easy option. Simply find something a little taller than the plants that you can lay covering over: small metal hoops for making 'grow tunnels,' a couple of large wire tomato cages laying on their sides, a few short bamboo stakes, etc.

You definitely don't need a permanent mini greenhouse structure like these (you'll find basic construction info in the comments section), although they were easy to build, didn't cost much, and come in very handy for both cold and heat/sun protection (read about how and why to shade your plants here), though mine are too short to grow things like tomatoes in them.

Since they still have a little green left, I'm going to leave these pathetic plants in the ground and see if they happen to survive. In the meantime, I still have another packet of basil seeds left, which I'm going to start in containers, and I'll probably see if I can find basil plants for sale somewhere else. There apparently aren't a lot of pesto eaters in rural Missouri.

Wish me luck—or at least a better memory.

The good news is that I didn't damage all my tomato and pepper seedlings as well, but only because I haven't had a chance to get them in the ground yet, and because I did remember to bring the two flats of plants into the house last night.

Are you growing any basil this year? How's it going so far? Any growing tips or favorite ways to enjoy it?

Other basil posts:

Farmgirl Fare recipes that call for basil:
Purple Basil Pesto and the Easiest White Bean Dip/Spread Recipe Ever (this is my favorite lower fat, fuller flavor pesto recipe that calls for roasted almonds and fresh tomatoes and works with green basil, too)
Simple Fresh Tomato Pizza Sauce (no blanching required)

Still hungry? You'll find links to all of my sweet and savory Less Fuss, More Flavor recipes in the Farmgirl Fare Recipe Index.

©, where when it comes to growing basil, striking out is not an option.


  1. I also put mine out a little prematurely and paid for it- they look exactly like your last picture. I'll just start over from seed again. It's nice to know I'm not alone!

  2. So sorry about those basil plants. Mine in Arkansas are suffering from a wilt. What's up with this year? Everything else is doing great including the tomatoes and calendula that share the bed with the basil. Wishing for a good pesto year anyway!

  3. You know I had struggled for years to grow Basil in sunny Oakland, CA. Then I discovered by accident that they like part shade here. It makes no sense to me, but since that time, all my basil grows in pots on my back porch where they get no morning sun and tons of afternoon sun. Happy plants. it seems that it is a trickier plant to grow than it should be.

  4. Does diatomaceous earth work on Aphids?

  5. Eeek! Basil is the only warm-weather crop that's out in my garden so far, and it's getting down to 36 tonight in VA. Time to go cover them up. I had figured as long as it didn't get quite to freezing they'd be fine, but after reading your post, better safe than sorry.

  6. Great post! I'm having a hard basil year myself and am looking for help!

  7. Have you heard about the outbreaks of basil downy mildew last year? It is all over the US. Good luck with your next set of plants. My seedlings are doing horrible, and are less than an inch high after 1 month inside. I just don't get it. And not one of my peppers germinated, but all my tomatoes did...

  8. I am growing basil but bot from seed and in a much different climate (sunny & warm Arizona). It is flourishing but I can't say it would do the same if I had tried from seed. All the best luck to you. I wish I had some tips but this is my first time planting a garden. :)

  9. Sorry about your basil. I hate sow bugs also. My raised beds are compost rich which I guess they love...almost as much as they love young, tasty seedlings. Sluggo Plus works but is kind of expensive to keep using over and over.

    I'm patiently waiting your promised post of diatomaceous earth. :-)

  10. I bought lettuce leaf basil 10 days ago and have not planted it out yet. So glad. We are having really cold nights, too, for this time year. Guess that's all across the country. Just weird. My tomatoes, in the GH, are about half the height of normal, and the peppers are tiny still. I have decided to wait, wait, wait until the weather really settles due to this report and others I have read about.
    As for the basil I bought....added it to a salad last night. So good and tastes like summer.
    Susan...yours will probably be alright, but do seed more. I think this is just going to be a very late year, but hopefully, be a summer that extends into a long warm fall.
    Oh, and the only basil I seeded has been Asian Queen. One out of 6 has appeared.

  11. I adore pesto!! Basil (and a couple of other herbs) is about the only thing I plant ('cuz my thumb isn't very green!). So far it is much too cold to plant anything - this has been a very cold, wet spring. We aren't really sure about planting until around Memorial Day!!

    Last year I planted basil in the ground and it didn't do very well at all. The leaves looked like something was eating away at them. I talked to someone at the farmer's market and they suggested I move the basil into a container, up off the ground. I did that and the basil did much better - looked great, grew all summer and I got several batches of pesto out of it.

    Gardening is fun but it certainly is frustrating too!

  12. I bet those plants will be just fine. I've had plenty of various kinds of plants in the past look almost dead, with just one or two healthy leaves, and they always come back.

    I probably shouldn't admit that I've almost killed many plants in the past--bad for my image as a master gardener. :-)

    I'm waiting on getting basil seedlings. I usually buy some, but this year I'm hoping to get some from the FFA kids when they have extras. I gave them all my extra tomato seedlings for their plant sale, so I've been getting a lot of seedlings in exchange. Nice.

  13. Good luck with getting your basil growing! I have had such poor basil crops in England that I decided not to grow it this year...but your determination has motivated me to try again! Will definitely refer to your posts for some tips.
    Garden Mum Claire

  14. I, too, love the diversity of DE (food-grade Diat. Earth) and keep it on hand, always. If you're a chicken owner, like Farmgirl & me, you know its value. Basically, it is ground-up sea fossils. For insects who eat the DE (which looks/feels like corn starch on your hands), it is like ingesting shards of glass. Rips their insides up. It's a chicken dewormer, & it also knocks down strong smells in the coops. We put some in our chicken feed and scattered around in coop/laying areas. However, I did not know you could use in the garden. Makes total sense to me, though. Thanks for the info.!

    I'm into good gardening tips like this DE one, so will also pass these on: put powdered milk (or oyster shell, another chicken owner on-hand item) in with your tomatoes when you plant; around the roots. Adds calcium to your plants, avoided blossom end rot. And for fruit trees, just spray with 3 teaspoons of clorox per every gallon of tap water. Organic spray that keeps insects down, without chemicals.

  15. I checked my basil today after reading this post last night and mine, too, doesn't look that great. I have yellow leaves on bottom & black spots on several leaves. I read to apply Potassium Bicarbonate; gets rid of lots of fungi/mold (happens when humidity is high or from improper watering) and is still an organic solution. Just bought mine on Amazon.

  16. Hi Everybody,
    Thanks for all these great comments. My apologies for going MIA. :)

    I hadn't heard about the downy mildew outbreak on basil but am definitely going to check it out. I only ended up with one (thankfully huge) basil plant in the garden last year, and it came from a friend as a seedling. It's definitely riskier bringing commercially grown plants into the garden.

    I saw a few varieties of tomato seedlings I really wanted to try at the nursery where I bought these tomato plants, but they were obviously already diseased.

    These green basil plants are succumbing to the same things the purple ones did - part way up the plants, the stems are just shriveling up, turning brown, and dropping off the whole top of the plant. It's really frustrating.

    Hey Joe!
    Great to hear from you. I've never used diatomaceous earth on aphids, but I would definitely give it a try. It works on so many pests, and the worst that will happen is nothing. I'd water the plants, douse the plants liberally all over with d.e., and try not to water for at least a day if you can.

    Mary W,
    Sow bugs definitely love compost rich soil. There are zillions of them living in my compost bins. Ick.

    I have so many half written garden blog posts - including the one on d.e. - it's ridiculous! Thanks for your patience. :)

    Tracy B.,
    Thanks for all the helpful info. Another great way to give your tomato plants a boost is to put three or four eggshells (crushed with your hands) into the planting hole.

    That's another half finished post I'm hoping to get up soon (while it's still relevant, LOL) - what all I put in the holes when I plant tomatoes!

    Tracy B.,
    I'm not familiar with potassium bicarbonate (available here from, but will check it out. Thanks for the organic tip!

  17. I have had NO luck with Basil this year in my hoop house. Started several varieties from seed indoors under the lights and then transplanted them and then they just...withered and died.
    I just read about the DE (which I give to my chickens in their feed) and I can't believe I didn't think of that sooner.
    I use a flour sifter that I picked up at Goodwill to sift it down around plants and into the soil. Works like a charm and I'm gonna go do that tonight.
    BTW - tomato plants got that withered thing, too. Looks like they are soggy, but I water them just as before. I think all the rain we are getting is wrecking my plants!!!!!

  18. And now I will be adding Diatomaceous earth to my shopping list. Because we've used it to flea the dog, but somehow never to de-cootie the vegetables. And those effing pill bugs are everywhere trying to eat things that don't belong to them. Jerks.

  19. I am growing four kinds of basil from seed in my garden, it grows well. But I live in Australia in a climate where you can pretty much grow anything at any season. I grow my basil in containers so if it gets really cold in winter or there's bad weather coming I can bring the plants inside until it passes.
    I have been having trouble with pesky bugs so I am going to go find out if this diatomaceous earth is available in Australia. Sounds wonderful.
    All the best for your basil growing

  20. This year I'm trying to grow basil from saved seeds from 2010's plants as well as from store bought seeds. With things like basil I've learned to not put all my eggs in one basket and will direct sow and use containers as well. Basil seems to be, to me at least, a MUST for a garden- just like tomatoes.

    I've read somewhere that basil and tomatoes as companion plants enhance their flavors by growing next to each other... or something like that. Probably the strong scent of the herb is to thank for its pest control quality.

    Good luck, I'm hoping to see a future post from your garden showing thriving basil bushes!

  21. Same thing happened to mine! I'm in the CoMo area and think it's the crazy weather. Past years it's been a lot easier!

  22. Ok you've just recruited a new obsessed fan. Love your work. Amazing life. Keep posting more pictures. I just ripped up my basil. They rolled over and died during the first month of winter :( I cannot wait till Spring. I am all ready for it.


March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

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