How to keep basil over winter: Free class discusses growing tomatoes inside, too

Basil plant in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

The days are getting shorter and colder and soon we’ll be seeing snow in Western New York, but you can continue to grow food plants– inside!

In this article, Jak Kochems, horticulture consultant at Arbordale Nurseries and Landscaping in the Getzville area of Amherst, gives us tips on how to bring basil plants inside and care for them over the winter. If you haven’t already brought your basil plant inside, do it now– a freeze can kill your basil.

You can get more information on growing other food plants– even tomatoes– inside over the winter during a free class presented by Arbordale at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30 at Clearfield Library, 770 Hopkins Rd., Amherst. Register at the library or call 688-4955.

First we’ll look at how to care for a basil plant that you’ve been growing outside in a pot, then we’ll discuss basil that you’ve been growing in a garden bed.

“People love their basil plants and don’t want to give them up,” Kochems said. “They want to bring their basil inside.”

Basil in a planter

If you’ve been growing your basil all summer in a pot, it’s probably rootbound, Kochems said. The first thing you need to do is transplant it into a larger pot.

Next give it some organic fertilizer.

Then you have to decide where you are going to place your pot. During the winter, you need a south-facing window or grow lights. Even a westward-facing window won’t supply enough light to keep your basil plant healthy, he said.

basil plant in pot in Western New York
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

You can use a fluorescent light like a shop light in the basement, but you need to do two things, he said.

First, you need to keep the plant warm. If the basement is too cool, it will slow down the plant’s growth.

Second, you need to get the plant very close to the light– within inches. Setting your basil plant on a work bench under a fluorescent light set way up in the ceiling won’t work. When the light is too far away, the plant stretches and the length between nodes increases, he explained. The result is that your plant will grow long and leggy and have only a few leaves.

The plant should be no more than a foot away from the light. A fluorescent bulb gives off bright, blue light, but it doesn’t get hot, so you can have your plant just about touching the bulb, he noted. Arbordale sells a 24-watt tube that would be enough light for five or six herbs.

Basil in a garden bed

It’s already late in the year to dig up basil, Kochems said, and it’s not really easy to do.

It’s easier to grow basil from seed. You could let your basil plant grow flowers, like the plant in the second photo, and let the flowers go to seed. Then let nature run its course. See if new basil plants come up next year. He said his sister let her basil go to flower and half her garden was covered with basil.

If you still want to try digging up basil from a garden bed, preserve as much of the roots as possible, he said. There are lateral roots that grow along the top, so dig well away from the plant in a very large circle. Dig deep, too. When you have the whole plant and roots, gently brush the dirt off the roots and repot the plant.

For more information on growing herbs and vegetables inside over the winter, check out the free class.

by Connie Oswald Stofko

5 Comments on “How to keep basil over winter: Free class discusses growing tomatoes inside, too

  1. I see in your photo the basil is going to seed. I leave it flower in the garden because the insects love it, but never in the pots that I use for cooking. Does Jak suggest removing flowers to improve on taste or plant longevity?

  2. I regularly bring in herbs to winter in my south-facing window. I leave them
    in the same pots, just clean any bugs off and I leave them in our back
    hall for a few days to aclimate and see if any more insects are hitching
    a ride. They do very well and I have an assortment of fresh herbs all winter.
    Herbs like to be cut on a regular basis so even if I don’t use them all myself,
    I snip and give them away.

  3. Donna,

    It is best to keep any flowers from forming in the first place. As you see a flower budding, simply pinch the entire thing off. You may find that the herb is persistent. In this case, cut back below the flower, or even the entire stem if needed. Only allow them to finish flowering if you plan on harvesting seeds.

  4. Thanks Jak, it appears I have been doing it correctly. The bees seem to love all my herbs outdoors and when they flower, I just let the insects enjoy. Indoors I have my herbs for cooking that I keep going all year, so no need to bring them in from outside or to save the seeds. If I have an inside casualty, then I will get more seed from the outdoors plants.

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