Growing Thai basil in my kitchen herb garden

I think I have sufficiently established that I possess very little skill when it comes to the culinary arts. That said, I do enjoy infusing whatever rudimentary meals I cook with a generous amount of flavor. One lovely flavor trifecta that always hits the spot for me is chili peppers, fish sauce, and Thai basil — and as of late, I’ve been trying my hand at growing that last component. 

As a child, I never really thought of what Thai basil tasted like – it was simply a given presence in a majority of dishes that I had growing up Vietnamese. Its herbal, ever so slightly spicy taste made its way into spring rolls my dad wrapped on warm summer days, banh cuon rice sheets during family parties at my grandparents’ house, and piles of garnish at the pho restaurant my parents frequented every weekend. (Okay, maybe I’ve grumbled about its earthy taste at some point, but people grow up!) 

Thai basil bird's eye view shot

Now that I live in the Valley, I can’t find it readily available since we don’t have too many east or southeast Asian markets in my neck of the woods. But edible plants and seeds are always bounteous this time of year, and I readily found a Bonnie’s Thai basil plant from a nearby Grocery Outlet last month. The plant I picked up was relatively lush and full, coming in a plastic cup the size of a grande drink at Starbucks. 

When I went through a one-pot pasta phase (another recipe I have Martha Stewart to thank for), I grew sweet basil a few times – I’d either let my plants go to flower in the heat or let them get too pot bound to the point where their roots couldn’t absorb water properly. Even though I’ve never kept basil alive for more than a few months at a time, it’s objectively a low-maintenance kitchen herb! It really just wants light and water — the thing that I never gave it was ample space.

Close up of Thai basil leaves

Thai basil characteristics: Sweet basil vs. Thai basil

Sweet basil is just what its name suggests: sweet and somewhat mild. (But still so, so delicious with pasta.) Thai basil has a more anise-y, spicy flavor that marries beautifully with fish sauce, and you can toss it into rice and noodle dishes. The foliage also looks a little different. Sweet basil features broad leaves with a vibrant green color. Thai basil features narrower, darker leaves with slightly serrated edges and deep purple stems. 

Thai basil in a white coffee mug

How to grow Thai basil indoors

Here’s how I’ve been keeping my Thai basil plant alive: 

  • Light: 6-8 hours of direct sun a day. I keep my plant by a window with southwestern exposure, so it gets a lot of light. I actually draw down the sheer curtains every afternoon because it gets almost unbearably bright around 3. 
  • Water: 1 inch of water every week. For my container plant, that looks like a drenching every 3 to 4 days. If you have your plant out in the garden, that might look more like every week. 
  • Temperature: 70 to 90 degrees. This is exactly my indoor temperature range in zone 9b  — since Thai basil is more heat and cold tender than sweet basil, I’ll likely need to move my plant further away from the window when a heat spell arrives. 
  • Soil: Well-draining, slightly acidic soil. It looks like my plant is in some sort of all-purpose potting mix that’s a bit heavier on peat and coir than perlite, which is perfect for water retention. If my plant manages to make it to late fall, I might throw in some perlite. 
  • Fertilizer: Since basil isn’t a heavy feeder, I don’t plan on feeding it any time soon. Maybe I’ll add a bit of compost later in the season. 
  • Pruning: I’ve been enjoying my Thai basil lately, and pruning it for my dishes is also great for encouraging bushier growth. All you need to do is snip right above a node, ideally when your herb is at least 6 inches tall. 

Thai basil with lettuce and poached fish and rice

I haven’t repotted my plant yet, but it’s been doing well in its nursery pot this past month. (Albeit, growing a little slowly.) Right now, I’m using a large mug as a cachepot, but I’ll probably repot my plant this weekend to give the roots more breathing room. 

The other day, I poached white fish (very dank-smelling but still surprisingly delicious) and ate it with Thai basil, chili peppers, and a copious amount of fish sauce, as one does! If my plant continues growing, I’ll share more delicious and basic Thai basil recipes here.  


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