Hands up if you’ve ever scored one of those supermarket basil plants to finish up your salad! Those fresh leaves are way yummier than dried basil, but it’s a pity most basil plants go belly up within a week or two. Luckily, propagating basil is very easy: by rooting cuttings in separate containers or even planting them outside in your herb garden, you’ll always have enough to make pesto.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about propagating basil in water or potting soil!
Propagating basil: How to take a cutting
Propagating basil is super easy, I promise. Here’s how you take a cutting:
- Use a pair of clean scissors (you can disinfect them with rubbing alcohol).
- Find a stem on your basil plant that’s at least about 4″ (10 cm) in length and has a few leaves.
- Cut the stem at your preferred point.
- Remove the bottom leaves from the stem so they won’t cause rot at a later stage after introducing the cutting in water or soil.
Once you’ve obtained your cutting, there are two options: propagating in water or directly into potting soil. The advantage of propagating in water is that you can see the roots growing in real time. The disadvantage is that, unless you’re planning on leaving your new plant in water, you’ll have to pot it up later.
Did you know? Propagating basil doesn’t harm the mother plant. In fact, it’s recommended to regularly top a happy basil plant. Pruning the tops stimulates bushy growth and helps prevent the plant from growing leggy.
Propagating basil in water
The only thing you need for propagating basil in water is a small container, like a shot glass. Fill the glass with water and place the cutting inside in such a way that the stem is submerged, but the leaves aren’t.
Place the glass in a spot in your home that’s nice and warm but doesn’t get full sun. Most basil cuttings will develop a nice root system within two weeks or so, although some may need up to four. It all takes a bit longer during the winter months especially.
You can pot up your new basil plant once it has rooted well (see below for instructions), but you can also choose to leave it in water. If you go for hydroponic growing, find a spot that gets as much sun as possible, change the water weekly and don’t forget to regularly add a drop of liquid plant food.
Propagating basil in potting soil
Of course, you can also opt for propagating basil directly in potting soil.
A good soil mix for basil retains some moisture, but does allow excess water to drain. A mixture of rich potting soil and perlite, for example, would probably work well. Make sure the planter you use has drainage holes to avoid standing water. Normal plastic nursery pots should be perfect.
Place 2-3 cuttings per planter in the soil mixture and wet it well. Make sure the soil stays lightly moist to stimulate root formation.
Put the pots in a light and warm location without direct sun. It’s a bit more difficult to see if a propagation attempt has been successful when you root in soil because you won’t be able to see the roots, but once you see new leaves appear on the cutting, you’ll know all is well.
Did you know? Once your basil cutting has rooted, you can also opt to place it outside, either in a planter or in your herb garden. After all, these plants like loads of light, and it’s often just too dark indoors. Do make sure to water plenty, as plants dry out quicker outdoors. You’ll see your basil grow much more explosively this way, which of course means: lots of caprese salads!
How to care for a basil plant
Once you’ve successfully propagated your basil plant, you’ll obviously want to know how to make sure it thrives.
The most important thing to remember once your basil cutting has rooted is that established basil plants love a lot of light. That means at least 6 hours of direct sun, preferably more.
Indoors, providing this amount of sun can be challenging. This is why a lot of indoor basil plants end up looking stretched and leggy after a while. In order to avoid this, you could opt to supplement the natural lighting with an extra grow light.
As with light, it’s important to keep the water flowing freely. Keep a basil plant’s soil lightly moist: if it dries out, it’ll droop its leaves rather dramatically.
A basil plant will recover by itself and return to its normal foliage state after watering, but if you leave it to dry out too often it might end up struggling to bounce back more and more. This can eventually lead to the plant dying off.
On the other hand, make sure the potting soil doesn’t stay soaked either, as this can cause rot. During the summer months, you’ll usually end up watering your basil plant once a day or once every other day, although the exact frequency depends on the lighting.
If your basil plant is growing well, like during summer, it’ll appreciate some fertilizer on a regular basis.
You can add a diluted liquid fertilizer for herbs every two weeks or so. Avoid any fertilizer that stimulates the formation of flowers, as we’re after foliage growth here.
Tip: I’ve learned from experience that small-leaved basil cultivars tend to be a bit easier to care for than the normal variety. They don’t dry out as fast and just don’t appear to be as fussy! One good example would be ‘Piccolino’ basil.
You’ll probably end up automatically pruning your basil plant on a regular basis whenever you make salads or pasta. As mentioned earlier, this is no problem for the plant: topping it regularly ensures bushy growth. As such, even if you don’t need its leaves for a while, it’s a good idea to still prune now and then.
If your basil flowers, you’ll usually want to remove the flowers. Blooming diverts energy away from foliage growth, thereby inhibiting it, and it can also affect the leaf flavor negatively. That is, unless you’d like to harvest some basil seed, of course!
You can use basil seeds to sow your next crop (you can find instructions in the guide to growing basil from seed) or you can actually eat them. In India, basil seeds are known as sabja; you can use them like chia seeds, for pudding or drinks like smoothies.
Basil naturally occurs in tropical regions and as such, despises cold. If you grow your basil in a planter outdoors, be sure to bring it inside around fall if you’re in a cooler climate. Also make sure the plant is not on a chilly windowsill.
If you can’t bring your basil indoors and things will get chilly, use the instructions for propagating basil to take cuttings in fall. The mother plant will sadly die off, but this way, you can overwinter the cuttings indoors and start over in fall. Using this method, you’ll never have to live without fresh basil!
Tip: You can find even more basil care information in the full guide to basil care.