Last updated on April 9th, 2021
Every year just before the end of King Winter’s reign, I start a small container garden. Herbs are christened the same names year after year, including Parsley Paisley and Basil Basil (BAH-zel BAY-zel). And each year most of the herbs don’t make it longer than a few weeks.
2020 being no different (aside from the whole global-pandemic mayhem going on), I picked up a small pot of organic basil at the co-op, determined to help this little plant thrive. The instructions said to water from below, so Basil Basil’s pot was tenderly placed in a bowl that was then frequently filled with fresh water. He didn’t seem happy in the kitchen, so he relocated to a sunny window during the day and back to the counter for warmth at night. Like years prior his pot was filled with tall skinny stems, which eventually began to brown near the soil. To save my little plant pet I needed to learn how to care for him. I trimmed all the cuttings I could save, set them in jars of water, and sought advice on how to care for basil.
It turns out the pot of basil from the co-op was not actually one plant, but several small basil plants in one pot, that are meant to last only a few weeks. However, if treated like a starter kit, the plants may be separated and popped into their own pots with new soil. If potted herbs are not available basil can be propagated from cuttings at home.
Selecting Basil Cuttings
Growing new basil plants from cuttings creates clones of the original plant, so start with the healthiest greenest basil available: trim cuttings from an established plant, or find the best looking package of fresh basil in the produce section. Be sure it hasn’t flowered, and trim a three- to four-inch (8-10 cm) section below a leaf node (a bit longer is ok if that’s where the next node lies).
Strip the leaves from the bottom two inches (5 cm) of the cutting, and set aside to cook with later. Place each stem in a small jar or cup of fresh room-temperature water with the leaves over the rim to hold the weight of the plant. Multiple cuttings will fit in one jar, depending on the size, but their roots may need to be detangled before planting. They may wilt at first, but at least some will bounce back. Place the jars in a spot that gets bright indirect sunlight. Basil wants to stay warm, so if it is chilly at night (below 40°F, or 4-5°C) remove them from the window. Change the water daily, and clip any leaves while it’s rooting. In one or two weeks small roots will grow, and after week three or four it will be time to plant.
Place food-safe potting soil in a well-draining pot. Dig a hole and gently place in the roots. Cover the roots with more soil, and then water the small plants. If they are sharing a pot, be sure to space them six- to twelve-inches (15-31cm) apart. Keep the new plantings in bright indirect sunlight for the first week or so.
Caring for Basil Inside
Basil Basil has come this far, now its time to keep him alive.
Basil loves the sun: After a week of indirect light, basil would like to call the sunniest place available home.
Basil enjoys heat: Like with the cuttings, move the pot away from the window when temperatures dip below 40°F (4-5°C).
Basil prefers to sip water: Water a little every day, rather than a full watering once a week.
Basil lives to be pruned: The more basil is pruned, the bigger and healthier it will grow. Harvest from the top at a node, leaving the bigger leaves at the bottom to collect sunlight. Likewise, never remove more than a third of the leaves at one time. Trim flower when they bud or the plant’s energy will be focused on reproduction rather than foliage growth.
Moving Basil Outside
Basil needs indirect light while the young plant establishes roots in the soil, so place it in a shady spot at first. Be sure to keep it well watered. After a week of shade it can be planted in the sunniest part of the garden with good drainage, or keep it in a container outside.