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Everyone learning to grow basil wonders whether it’s a perennial or annual plant. What’s its lifespan? Does it survive winter? How much work is it going to be to have basil year round? Is basil a perennial plant?
Basil is grown as an annual plant in the garden. While some types are technically short-lived perennials in their tropical native climates, most culinary types (including sweet basil) generally do not survive light frost and are too tender to come back from the roots after winter. Basil plants are commonly hardy only to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 11 (see zones of major US cities).
- USDA lists Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) as both annual & perennial
- EOL lists Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) as having a perennial life cycle habit
- Giant Basil plant on YouTube, grown in climate that stays above freezing
- FuntaStick Ocimum grafted ‘Basil Tree’ (‘Long Foot’ Basil)
- Fun types of Basil from Epic Gardening on YouTube
So, what is it that makes basil an annual plant in the herb garden in all climate zones below USDA Zone 11? Read on to learn more about the lifecycle of basil and how to keep your basil supply ready year-round.
Basil Plants Do Not Come Back Every Year
Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual herb in the culinary herb garden. New seeds, plants, or cuttings need to be planted each spring. Basil plants grow from seeds in the spring, produce basil leaves in the summer, and eventually flower and grow seeds as fall approaches. Then they’re done as soon as the first frost arrives!
The lifespan of a basil plant is less than one year in any climate that experiences frost. Annual garden herbs like basil die with the first frost, roots and all. It won’t perk back up in spring after the winter freeze. It won’t come sprouting back up from the roots.
Since basil plants do not survive winter, basil can only be a year round outdoor plant in warm climates where temperatures do not go below freezing. In climates with frost during the winter, new basil seeds or plants need to be planted each spring. Basil is also re-seeded in frost-free climates, whether by a gardener or by self-seeding.
Growing New Basil Plants Each Year
Basil grows easily from seed. Young plants are also readily available, and can commonly be found in most grocery and hardware stores. For less-common varieties, ordering basil seeds is your best option.
Basil needs to be seeded or planted each year. It can also be re-seeded every few weeks during the growing season to ensure a continuous supply of young, flavourful basil. You can also re-plant cuttings to create a continuous crop of basil. Basil plants can then be harvested for their savoury leaves all summer.
Tomatoes are a great annual companion plant for basil. Neither basil nor tomato plants are long-lived, and they do well planted together (and eaten together!).
Young plants that haven’t grown flowers yet seem to produce the most basil leaves. Re-seeding every few weeks also lets the older plants flower and go to seed. Bees and other pollinators love basil flowers, so it’s really not a bad thing to let your basil continue through it’s lifespan and flower.
Basil plants complete their life cycle in the garden in one year. The plant starts as a seed (or cutting from another plant) in the spring. In the summertime, basil plants grow flowers which then produce next year’s seeds. The seeds grown in the fall can be saved and replanted, and will start to germinate and grow during the following spring.
The last harvest of outdoor basil plants should happen before the threat of frost is in the weather forecast. If you’re not quite ready to part with your basil plant, it can be moved indoors where it will be protected from harsh winter weather.
Growing Basil As A Year-Round Plant
Outdoor basil is not a year round plant unless your garden is located far from any danger of frost. Even if you live somewhere with a cold winter, basil can be grown year round indoors. Basil plants can also be grown outdoors in the summer and taken inside in the fall.
Basil grows fairly well indoors over winter, as it’s generally happy in a container. An indoor basil plant that gets lots of light and steady warm temperatures may last longer than an outdoor plant might. Here is a wonderful video about growing basil indoors:
Just remember that basil plants aren’t meant to live forever. Basil plants aren’t reliable perennials in the herb garden (like chives or thyme). They grow leaves, flowers, and then seeds….and then they’re done.
My dad once grew a single basil plant indoors for a year and a half. By the end it was just a tall, sad woody stem with honestly two little leaves on it. It was not a happy camper.
Indoor basil grows very well, however, as a microgreen. Growing my indoor basil as micro greens is now my favourite way to enjoy the herb during the winter. Here are instructions on how to grow your own basil microgreens.
If growing basil in the house is too much of a bother, basil can be saved in the summer to last through winter. Harvest the stems and strip the leaves from each stem. Spread the leaves in a single layer and let them dry out, or freeze (also in a single layer) and keep frozen in an airtight container.
Certain varieties of basil have been specifically cultivated as perennial plants in the warmest climates.
Will Basil Re-Seed Itself? Or, Is Basil A Self-Seeding Annual Almost Like a Perennial?
A vigourous basil plant can certainly reseed itself if left to flower. It’s natural annual lifecycle is to germinate, sprout, flower, and produce seeds. Basil seeds that fall into garden soil sometimes germinate without any help from a gardener. Basil is no more work than a perennial in these situations. While basil self-seeding is not reliable, you may find some tiny little basil plants in your garden next summer if your basil has gone to seed!
To help basil re-seed itself, gardeners can save seeds from their basil plants from year to year. Once the flowers on your healthiest plants go to seed and dry on their little spires, the seeds are ready to collect. Pluck off the dry seed pods and separate out the little black seeds (they look kind of like poppy seeds). Store in a dry, airtight location.
If saving your own basil seeds sounds like too much work, just wait and see if your basil happens to re-seed itself. If your basil does re-seed itself….great! Your basil isn’t any more work than a perennial plant. If not, it’s totally good to just buy new basil seeds when you need them. Lots of gardeners like to buy new seeds regularly anyways, just for some variation.
Gardeners can re-seed basil themselves simply by sprinkling seeds over the top of the potting soil. The seeds are so tiny that they don’t need to be pre-soaked or buried in the potting soil. Seeds germinate on the top of the potting soil with consistent moisture and light.
Questions Related To Basil Plant Lifespan
What conditions do basil plants like? Basil plants like bright, hot locations with plenty of moisture. Their roots are happiest with lots of nutrients and lots of room to grow. Basil does not like deep shade, water-logged soil, or frost. logging and will not survive frost.