How to Grow Basil

For years I have planted one or two basil plants in my herb garden, or thrown basil seeds in the ground with little success.  When I plan to harvest my basil, there is not enough to make pesto, or they are just not thriving – and my seeds just plain don’t sprout outside.  The basil plant that I buy at the supermarket tends to be scraggly and disappointing.

Lately I’ve become the master of basil (the mistress?).  The most important things for me in growing basil is growing enough.  It’s fine to have one of those piddly little plants from the grocery store in my kitchen window – but how can I make a batch of pesto with one plant?

Basil – Photo by Magda Ehlers on

The most important thing about growing basil for me is growing enough!

It’s just not as complicated as I thought to grow basil. I just have to learn to be gentle with the plant, grow enough, water it regularly, give it a good amount of sun – and trim it regularly. I have put together a bunch of frequently asked questions about basil.

How to grow basil indoor year-round

To create my basil plants – I either place cuttings of stems of my basil plants in water to create more – or start seeds from scratch in a seed starting tray.

How to grow basil from seed

I have had the most success with starting basil seeds indoors in a seed starting tray, with a clear plastic cover, using sterile seed starting soil.  It will grow in flower pots and plain garden dirt – but honestly, starting the seeds in  a proper seed starting tray with sterile soil is 100% successful for me, as opposed to 30% successful with the make-do plantings.  When I plant a package of basil seeds in a covered tray in sterile soil – I don’t have diseases or pests or mold in the soil, and the clear cover helps the seeds to germinate and keep moist until they get to the point that they can be transplanted.  One package of seeds in one tray has had awesome results for me.

Basil (centre - purple and green sprouts) among peppers and melons in a seed starting tray
Basil (centre – purple and green sprouts) among peppers and melons in a seed starting tray

Basil seeds will also sprout outdoors direct sowed in the garden when the temperatures are warm, but you will have the most success with indoor seed starting in trays. 

When the plants develop their second set of leaves, transplant them to flower pots – but these little seedlings LOVE to be kept moist.  I spray them at least every other day with water.  When I forget for a few days – the poor things wilt or die! 

When the plants have thicker stems I do plant them outside in my garden, but again I have to make sure they are well watered and check them daily to make sure they are not sun-damaged in their first week or so.  Seedlings exposed to too much sun will result in wilting or leaf discoloration.  I often plant them under larger tomato plants to give the basil some shade.

Does basil like shade or sun?

Mature basil likes 6-8 hours of full sun, but seedlings need some shade in order to get established.

What is the best way to grow basil?

I grow basil from a seed starting tray, or from cuttings in water.  Both work really well.

How to water basil

Basil likes to remain moist and will wilt or die if it dries out, especially in the sun.  It likes a full watering at least once per week, but I water every other day with a light spray all over to make sure the soil remains moist.  In the heat of summer, water daily.

Does basil come back every year?

Basil may be considered a perennial plant in zone 10 or 11, but it is definitely not a perennial in my yard.  The plant will not survive winter frost and will not grow back from the roots after winter.  It may however be brought or grown indoors and grow all year.

How do you pick basil so it keeps growing?

Cut basil stems from the top, leaving at least one pair of leaves on the stem.  It’s OK to cut up about half of the top of the plant.  Cutting the top will encourage the plant to sprout more stems. 

If you are not ready to use the cuttings you can place them in water to propagate new plants.

Is basil easy to grow?

Yes it is! It wasn’t always for me. I had limited success with sowing the seeds outside, and I neglected my plants by not keeping them moist! I also didn’t trim my basil regularly to keep it from getting scraggly! The stems also break easily – so be careful not to bruise those delicious plants. In general though – plant it in a seed tray, or take cuttings and put them in water – and you will have success. Basil likes to be watered regularly and enjoys full sun and warm weather when mature. 

My scraggly supermarket basil
My scraggly supermarket basil

How long does it take to grow basil

I had tiny seedlings within one week planted from seed in an indoor seed starting tray, and one cutting of basil in water produced a good set of roots for transplanting within two weeks.

How to grow basil from cuttings.   (how to grow basil without seeds)

Basil is easy to grow from cuttings.  Take a cutting of the top of a stem of basil – leaving at least one set of leaves intact on the remaining stem. On the cutting, keep the top leaves intact, and remove the lower leaves.  Place the stem in water so that the place where the lower leaves were removed is fully immersed in water.  It is best to use unchlorinated water (but my heavily chlorinated water still worked!) In about 2 weeks I had a wonderful set of roots, which were ready for planting in a flower pot.  Just remember to change the rooting water for fresh water regularly.

Basil roots
Basil roots

How to grow basil in water

Basil roots so easily from cuttings that it can stay permanently in water.  Once the plant has rooted, it will need to sit in a window with 4-6 hours of sun daily, and will need to be fertilized every three to four weeks.  A pre-made liquid fertilizer or a mixture of 1 gram of 20 20 20 fertilizer to one litre of water will help the basil to survive in water.

Basil cutting in water
Basil cutting in water

Basil companion planting – What to plant with Basil

Companion planting is a traditional method of gardening which places plants of different species that complement each other – nearby – to attract or deter pests, improve ground cover or shade or to enhance the soil’s nutrition and to naturally increase growth of plants.

I have read that basil should be planted next to asparagus – as it discourages the asparagus beetle. This will work in some climates, however in my garden – the asparagus rises in April and early May – well before I am able to plant my basil outside (late May), as it is not cold hardy.

I plant borage, tomatoes and peppers planted together with basil. The chemical compounds in basil and borage repel tomato hornworms which help the tomatoes and peppers.  Chives and oregano improve the flavour of basil and chives also repel aphids.  I tend to enjoy combining all of these things in my cooking anyway – so they are lovely planted together!

Photo by monicore on

Basil should not be planted next to high water content plants like cucumber (they are 95% water) as they apparently affect cucumber’s flavour and inhibit cucumber’s growth.

Sage and basil do not like to be together – basil likes more water than sage and tends to be crowded out by bossy sage (at least in my garden!)

What are Sweet Basil and Basil Genovese?

They are the same.  They are the plant you will see most often in stores.

Photo by monicore on

Why does the plant I buy from the grocery store die?

That grocery store plant likely grew in a greenhouse and is not ready for the great outdoors.  Basil stems also break and are sensitive to the touch.  Gradually introduce the grocery store basil to the outdoors, or grow it indoors.  Trim the basil to leave stems with at least one set of leaves, and use the basil or place the cuttings in water to propagate.  Basil plants from the garden centre will likely be more successful outdoors!

Grocery store garden centre basil
Grocery store garden centre basil

I hope these basil tips are helpful! I am just back from two weeks away at the cottage to pick up my basil plants. In my absence they have had too much sun and are a little sun bleached – but no worries – I planted lots and these ones will get better once I start paying attention to them! Have a pesto summer.

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6 thoughts on “How to Grow Basil

  1. Oh wow, thank you for all these tips on how to grow basil! I have struggled now for long to grow my basil … and basically buy a basil pot from the stores once a month! But hopefully, with your help, I would be able to have green and healthy basil leaves soon 😊.

  2. I never have any luck with it outside. I grab plants from the nursery and they rarely produce enough to put in a salad. Shall see how your tips work. I do water daily as we have so much sun and wind here.

    1. Hope you are having better luck with it this time around. It just seems like to get enough basil – I have to start with a LOT of it, so the seed starting worked well for me this time around.

  3. Thank you for this informative post. I decided to bite the bullet and got a grocery store plant. Fingers crossed on how long it will last. Hopefully with your tips will last longer than a box of basil leaves.😃

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