Basil is a gardener’s dream plant. In fact, the more you cut this useful little herb, the more it grows! It also comes in a host of varieties, one of which is the tulsi plant (Ocimum sanctum).
Tulsi is a purple-tinted plant with a distinct peppery aroma. It’s also known as “holy basil” or “sacred basil.” Believed able to purify and ward off misfortune, tulsi is often used in religious ceremonies, particularly in India where the herb originates. Even today, you’ll find these plants growing in Indian temples and courtyards.
In addition to flavouring meals and herbal teas, tulsi’s long, oval leaves are rich in essential oils. This means that they’re used in many herbal remedies to provide soothing relief from sore throats, fevers, and insect bites.
For all the benefits that this herb can bring, it’s a surprisingly easy plant to grow. Here’s everything that you need to know about adding tulsi to your own garden.
Different Types of Tulsi
There are over 100 different tulsi plant varieties. We don’t have the time or the space to go over all of them, so instead I’ll just highlight some of the more commonly grown varieties.
Vana Tulsi (Ocimum gratissimum)
Considered by many to be the best tasting and most beneficial member of the tulsi family, vana tulsi leavesare dark at the base but lighten further up the plant. This variety is lemony in flavor, which sets it apart from the rest of the peppery-tasting family.
Vana tulsi seeds can be difficult to find, but its unusual taste and distinctive appearance make it well worth the effort.
Rama Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
Also known as “Bright Tulsi” or “Green Leaf Tulsi”, this variety boasts broad, light green leaves and purple flowers. Rama tulsi is an aromatic variety, smelling strongly of cloves. This aroma intensifies upon crushing the leaves. Despite this, it’s mellower in flavor than other varieties. Many people use Rama Tulsi leaves to make an after-meal tea, which aids digestion.
Krishna Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Commonly grown in many parts of India, the peppery Krishna Tulsi or “Purple Leaf Tulsi” boasts distinctive dark purple leaves and a pungent aroma. This striking variety grows more slowly than other holy basil plants. This slow growth helps to intensify the plant’s spicy flavors.
I like to use these leaves to make a warm, spicy tea. Many people use these leaves to make homeopathic remedies to cure infections and irritations.
How to Plant Tulsi
Tulsi, like most other types of basil, is a relatively easy plant to grow. Both like rich soil, good drainage, regular watering and lots of light.
Depending on the variety, tulsi is rated zone 10 or 11. It grows as a shrub in warmer areas, but is an annual in cooler zones: it will die upon contact with frost.
The easiest way to propagate a tulsi plant is to take a cutting from a healthy mother plant.
Take cuttings in the spring or summer months: these should be a few inches long, with a couple of leaves.
Plant the cutting in a small pot containing moist, fresh potting soil. Some people like to dip the cut ends into a rooting hormone before planting, but this isn’t necessary.
Place the pot in a warm, light spot, away from direct sunlight. In fact, a kitchen work surface is an ideal location. Water the cuttings regularly so that the soil doesn’t dry out, and you should see new shoots in a 4 to 6 weeks.
Sowing Tulsi Seeds
You can sow the seeds straight into the ground from late spring onwards, when the temperature averages 70ºF.
If you want to sow your seeds earlier than this, start them off indoors. Do this either in a greenhouse, or on a sunny windowsill. This will allow you to sow the seeds 6 to 12 weeks before the last frost.
Dampen the soil and firmly press the tulsi seeds onto the soil. If you’re sowing the seeds into pots or seed trays, make sure that you use a good, general purpose compost.
Gently sprinkle a thin layer of compost or soil over the seeds, and water with a spray mist bottle. Don’t use a watering can, as the water flow will be too vigorous and could wash the seeds away.
If you’ve sown the seeds outside, cover them with a cloche. Not only will this prevent the weather and animals from disturbing the seeds, but it will also trap the heat, helping the germination process. If you’ve sown the seeds indoors, you can place the pots in a propagation chamber to give them a head start.
Keep the soil moist. After 2 weeks you should start to notice young seedlings emerging.
When your seedlings have grown two or three sets of true leaves they can be carefully transplanted into individual pots. If the temperatures are mild enough they can be planted outside.
Once the seedlings are large enough you will be able to transfer them into individual pots.
If you intend on growing your holy basil in pots, you’ll need to occasionally repot the plants. While some people like to repot theirs every spring, others allow the plant to remain in its container until it outgrows it, or becomes pot bound.
Whenever you repot a plant you should use a clean plant pot that is just slightly larger than the one that your plant is currently in. Planting a seedling in an overly large pot may cause it to go into shock, resulting in leaf drop and possible death.
Remove the plant from its old pot or seed tray. The roots of more established plants may become tightly bound together, in a “root ball.” If this is the case, gently tease them free.
Next, put some fresh potting mix or all-purpose compost into the pot. When the plant is placed inside, the top of its roots should sit just below the lip of the pot.
When you’ve positioned your tulsi plant in the centre of the pot, add more compost or potting mix. Don’t add so much that the soil becomes compacted. Leave some space at the top of the pot to allow for watering.
After planting, water the plant and return it to its usual spot.
Don’t plant Tulsi out until the last frost has passed.
Whether it’s being planted directly into the ground or in outdoor pots, make sure the plants sare hardened off first. This will help them to acclimatize to their new location.
If you are planting in the ground, bear in mind all basils prefer fertile soil. Dig the soil well before planting:this will encourage air circulation through the soil. Digging well-rotted organic compost or manure into the soil about a month before planting will also help air circulation.
Dig a hole that’s slightly larger and deeper than the pot that it currently sits in. Remove the plant from the pot. Gently brush any soil from the roots, being careful not to damage the root system.
Place the plant in the hole, with the root tops just below the soil level. Fill the hole with good, general purpose compost. Water well. Leave a space of 18 inches between plants if you’re planting more than one.
Caring for a Tulsi Plant
Tulsi thrives best in loamy or fertile soil. Good drainage is essential for healthy plants, and soil with a pH level of 6 to 7.5 is best.
When your seedlings are 3 inches tall, spread coarse mason sand to a depth of 2 inches over the soil around the plants. This sand mulch reduces weeds, controls moisture, and moderates temperature fluctuations.
Your tulsi plant will require regular watering. If you’re unsure when to water, wait until the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch. They require less water during the winter months when plant growth slows or ceases.
Try to avoid getting water on the leaves, as damp leaves can be a breeding ground for mold and disease. This may become difficult as the plant grows bushier. I’ve found that watering early in the morning allows the leaves time to dry off in the sun before the temperatures cool.
Position and Temperature
Tulsi thrives in full sun, and ideally likes to receive 4 to 6 hours of sunlight every day. It can, however, grow in partial shade.
As we’ve already discussed, these plants are hardy up to zones 10 or 11, depending on the variety. This herb thrives best in areas where temperatures rarely plummet below 50ºF.
Tulsi can be grown outside all year around in areas that never see a frost. Alternatively, you can grow it outside in the summer, and bring it indoors when the temperature plummets. As it isn’t a large plant, tulsi can also be grown as a year-round houseplant.
To keep your tulsi plant lush and healthy, you’ll need to feed it on a regular basis. A balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer contains all the nutrients the plant needs, but most general-purpose plant feeds will also be fine.
Feed your holy basil plant once every two weeks. Using a liquid or water-soluble fertilizer means that you can easily incorporated it into your watering routine.
Replace the top two inches of soil around the plant with fresh compost every six months. This will help the soil to remain rich and fertile. The best time to do this is early in the spring, when the growing season begins, and in the early autumn as the plant enters its dormant stage.
Pruning and Weeding
Prune your tulsi plant regularly to help control its size. When pruning, try to remove no more than half of the growth of the stem. Pinch the tops of the plants when they’ve formed between four and six pairs of leaves. This will encourage the plant to become bushy, instead of growing weak and leggy.
You can also remove the flower buds as soon as they appear. Preventing flowering and seed production in this way encourages the plant to grow more lush and full.
Finally, remember to remove any wilted or discolored leaves, to encourage new foliage growth.
Common Tulsi Plant Problems and How to Solve Them
These are generally easy plants to grow, but they can occasionally come under attack from disease or infestation. Spotting the signs of disease or infestation early means that it can be easily treated.
Pests usually target tulsi plants that are growing in poor or unsuitable conditions. If your plant is frequently coming under attack, consider a change of location.
If you don’t want to use a chemical pesticide, many people find neem oil a good alternative. I’ve found that a simple solution of dishwashing detergent mixed into warm water and applied to the leaves can cure many infestations.
Don’t worry if you have to repeat the treatment a few times before completely ridding the plant of the infestation, as this is fairly common. Just be sure to cover both sides of the leaf when applying.
Discoloured or Wilting Leaves
This may be a sign that your plant isn’t receiving enough light. A simple change of location can alleviate this.
Alternatively it could be a sign of overwatering. If you fear that this is the case, cease watering for a couple of weeks, until the soil is dry to the touch. When you resume watering, give the plant less than you normally would.
Cold Weather Protection
Unless you live in a warm climate, your tulsi will need protection during the winter months. Once the leaves have all died back, cover with a cloche, plastic bucket, or tarp. A clear cover will allow light to enter and will also trap heat, keeping the plant roots warm.
In colder climates move the tulsi into a greenhouse, shed, or your home.
This is normally a symptom of too little light or water. Relocate your plant or increase your watering slightly. Prune away any brittle leaves.
Tulsi leaves can develop mold in damp environments. Wipe the leaves with a soft, clean cloth to remove it.
This herb does well with a number of different plants.
- Citronella (Pelargonium citrosum) and lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus). This combination is popular for patio or poolside pots and borders because it helps to repel flies and other irritating pests.
- Rosemary thrives when planted alongside tulsi. Tuscan, a blue variety, and pine-scented rosemary can be particularly pleasing to the eye. Choose from plants with a twining, creeping, or upright growth habit.
- Tulsi planted near your potato crop can ward off the destructive potato beetle.
- Tomatoes, peppers and asparagus can be healthier, and in the case of tomatoes and peppers more fruitful, if planted alongside holy basil plants. It can also repel tomato hornworm and aphids and mosquitos.
- Chives and other aromatic or strong flavoured herbs such as mint or cilantro will help to keep aphids away from your plants.
- Oregano also benefits from being grown near tulsi.
Plants to Avoid
- Broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflowers all dislike being in close proximity to all members of the Basil family.
- Cucumbers are tricky plants to grow at the best of times. They struggle when planted with aromatic herbs such as tulsi and rosemary.
How to Harvest Tulsi
Harvesting your tulsi regularly, in small amounts, to encourage continuous growth.
When to Harvest
It can be harvested when it reaches 1ft in height, which may be as soon as 40 days after germination. If you don’t mind waiting, however, the leaves are at their strongest just as the plant starts to bud.
When it comes to harvesting, less is best. Small, sporadic harvests encourage continued growth and won’t decimate the plant. You can harvest your basil at any time, but harvesting in the morning when the temperature is cooler means that the leaves are less likely to wilt.
To harvest leaves, use small garden shears or sharp scissors. Harvest from the top of the plant and work your way down. Cut either a few leaves or a whole branch, depending on how much you need. Handle the leaves carefully. These leaves can bruise easily, which can damage the scent or flavor.
Harvest your Tulsi leaves only when you need them. Once harvested, the leaves can fade quickly, so only take what you need. You can always cut more if you need extra.
Tulsi leaves can be dried and stored, like any other basil type. To dry it, harvest entire branches, rather than individual leaves. Cut the branches at stem level, if this is the last harvest of the growing season.
Bind the branches together and hang them up to air dry in a warm room. When the leaves are dry, remove them from the stems and store them in an airtight container or sealable bag. This will keep them fresh for up to 1 year.
Alternatively, tulsi can be frozen. This method is far more effective at preserving both color and the flavor.
Harvesting Tulsi Seeds
Like any other basil, tulsi seeds form in the spent flower head.
The easiest way to harvest the seeds is to carefully cut the spent flower heads off the plant and put them somewhere warm and dry for a few days. You can then crush the heads and collect the seeds. Stored properly in a sealable jar, these seeds can be kept for up to 5 years. Label your jars with the seed name, and harvest.
Tulsi is an attractive, aromatic addition to any garden. It has a range of uses from herbal teas to culinary ingredient and pest deterrent, and is well worth growing in your space.