HOW TO GROW BASIL FOR FLORAL DESIGN
Basil is one of the summer workhorses in our operation. No other foliage we’ve tried has been so easy, so spectacular and so versatile. It goes great mixed with pretty much anything, holds up for a week in the vase, has that vertical form that is so hard to find, and of course the wonderful scent that is both exotic and yet comforting at the same time.
I had always included flowering basil in the jam-jar arrangements I would sometimes make growing up, cramming a fistful of flowers from the garden with no design sense or order. Herbs had always felt like a natural addition to floral arrangements for me ever since seeing Gayla Trail’s handful of mint in a bouquet on You Grow Girl back circa 2008, so the addition of basil to bouquets had always been a thought.
I then saw the gorgeous basil that Erin of Floret Flower Farm was growing - the appropriately named ‘Aromatto’ basil that was bred for cutting with lavender flowers and inky dark purple stems and fell in love.
We grew Aromatto that first year, and it was wonderful. We sold it in market bouquets for its fragrance, carted off buckets to local florists eager to use it in their wedding work, and also of course kept vases of it around the house, its spicy scent perfuming the air with that unmistakable scent.
If you’re not growing basil, then you’re missing out on a delightful crop that functions both as a flower as well as foliage. This should be one in every grower’s repertoire during the height of summer.
Selecting your variety
We’ve grown a ton of basil over the years, both for culinary as well as for ornamental purposes, but found that we really only use one for cut flower production, and that variety is ‘Dark Opal’. While we like a lot of the other varieties, basil doesn’t get super tall for us here - 2-3 feet max, and stays rather bushy. Other basils don’t get tall enough for us to justify growing them for cut flower production, but I can still recommend them for people who don’t live in the high desert 1 mile above sea level like ourselves!
‘Aromatto’ that I mentioned previously is a lovely variety that boasts hunter green fringed leaves streaked with purple and a gorgeous dark lavender flower spike.
I’m interested by a variety called “Pesto Perpetua’ that is a variegated basil with a white border that almost appears like a variegated pittosporum, but unfortunately only comes in plugs, so we’ll stick with Dark Opal for now.
Buy the correct seed
‘Dark Opal’ isn’t carried by Geo or Johnny’s, so we have been purchasing it from Outside Pride. Great germination (nearly 100%) and very affordable as well. You can purchase 'Aromatto' from Johnny's Select Seeds as well as Floret.
Basil is a pretty quick growing crop, taking around 2 months to reach maturity. Just remember that basil is a heat-loving annual, so if conditions are cool (say in April or May) then it may take longer than the 75 days estimated for it to get up and running.
Note also that you want your basil to be flowering before you cut it - preferably when the stem is starting to become woody. We’ll get into that later on.
Basil seeds pretty easily. We use the toothpick method to transfer the seed onto mini soil blocks. Keeping it warm and humid is important - we’re talking 100% humidity and 70+ F for consistent germination. Seeds should start sprouting in a few days, possibly longer if the temperature falls a bit cooler.
I usually wait until the basil gets a second set of true leaves before taking the humidity dome off to harden the seedlings off. This allows also for the seedlings to develop a good root system as well. I harden off the basil under a shaded overhang for about a 3-5 days so that it can develop a nice cuticle and gets used to indirect sun.
Planting out and harvesting
The basil is planted out at 6” intervals, buried up to their necks in the soil. Since we have drip, we’ll water in thoroughly for the first couple days, although you can also hand-water in. If it’s in the middle of July for us, we’ll also make a little floating row-cover tunnel using pipes and Agribon to create a bit of shade while the seedlings get established.
Using this system, we can have a 50 foot row of basil planted in a few days, ready to grow out in the summer heat. It’s pretty drought tolerant, handling our New Mexico sun and heat with little issue. ‘Dark Opal’ seems to branch naturally on its own, but we like to encourage earlier branching by pinching it back at around 6” back to the base.
Wait until the basil starts flowering at around the 2 month point - at that point, it should be ready to harvest. Make sure to cut the stem as close to the base of the plant as possible - even if it looks like you’re butchering it, it will send up new stems very quickly.
With basil, we always use Quick Dip to hydrate it. A tip learned from a fellow flower farmer Emily Calhoun, she told us that Quick Dip takes the guesswork out of hydrating basil. Quick Dip is a floral hydrating solution that can be found at your local wholesaler or on Amazon. A little cup or dish of Quick Dip allows us to cut, dip for one second, then plunge into a bucket of cold water. Let the basil rest overnight before arranging with it for maximum results. Having been harvested and conditioned this way, the basil will last quite a while - we’ve even found that it is the last item to go bad in some of our arrangements.
I will admit, we grow our basil a bit on the dry side which I’ve learned does help to prevent it from flopping. Since our basil grows a bit more slowly and compact, it allows the cells to build more lignin - the stuff that makes the stem more woody. And basil should be as woody as possible for maximum vase life.
Make sure that you harvest your basil when flowering, even if you’re not going to use it. Otherwise the flowers will go bad on the stem and it will start producing seed and drop its leaves and it’s no longer any good to use for arranging.
Well, I hope that helped encourage you to give basil a try this year! You really can't go wrong with it - it is so versatile and is just such a productive plant that I would be totally lost without it for summer arranging.