Encyclopedia of Houseplants

How to Grow Basil and Kickstart Your Own Kitchen Herb Garden

updated May 19, 2020
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Windowsills are basically made for DIY herb gardens, and if you haven’t created your own yet, this is your sign. The list of plants you can include in your mini indoor garden is lengthy. You can cultivate mint for things like teas and mojitos, grow chives for added flavor, and harvest your own cilantro for salsas and pickling. Another one of the most versatile herbs is basil, and if its number of uses aren’t reason enough, its ease of growing will convince you to add it to your roster of herbs. 

Basil opens up doors to many different things, and it’s best known for its culinary uses. You can make pesto, garnish pizza, flavor pho and soups, or boost the taste of other savory dishes. But, many of its other handy purposes tend to fly under the radar—like using it for bath soaks, adding it to essential oils, and steeping it for tea. Regardless of what you decide to use your basil for, it’s an easy herb to grow that takes little effort but provides plenty of benefits.

What kind of environment does basil need?

In essence, basil would most likely be a fan of tropical vacations. This fragrant herb loves plenty of sun, really dislikes cold, drafty areas, and appreciates constantly moist soil. A south-facing kitchen window is a great place for your herb—it’ll get plenty of light and will also be at the epicenter of all your culinary endeavors.

While conditions remain the same for both indoor and outdoor planting, be aware of how much the temperature drops at night if you decide to cultivate your basil outside. Cold fronts and basil don’t mix well, and you want to ensure it stays safe for long periods of chilly weather. If you live in an area prone to droughts or a lot of harsh, hot sunlight, make sure you’re watering your basil frequently and providing it some form of shade for a small part of the day. 

How to plant basil

For repotting and harvesting basil from a plant that’s fully grown, follow these steps:

  • Select a spot for your basil that gets enough light. Make sure to buy soil that works well with herbs and a planter that provides good drainage.
  • Get your planter ready by filling it a quarter of the way with soil.
  • Remove the basil from the plastic container it came in and use your hands to gently break up the roots and dirt caked onto the roots.
  • Gently place your basil into the planter and start filling in dirt around it. Make sure the plants first leaves are level with the top of the pot and that it’s not sitting too far down into the planter. 
  • Give your plant some water and allow it to adjust to its new home.

To grow basil from seeds, take these steps to ensure your basil is planted properly and thrives:

  • Select a planter for your seeds. The choice is really up to you when it comes to their new environment. You can plant a few seeds in small pots, spread them out in upcycled egg cartons, or buy an herb-specific planter. 
  • Once you’ve picked your planter, fill it nearly all the way with soil. Then, use your finger to poke holes about an inch and a half deep. Scatter your seeds throughout, then cover up the holes with the soil.
  • Water your seeds and leave them in an area that gets direct sunlight for 6+ hours a day, or purchase an LED grow light to ensure they’re getting the perfect amount each day.
  • Once your basil starts really growing, you can use scissors to thin the plant out if overcrowding occurs. You’ll also want to start pinching the top leaves to encourage bushier plants.
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

How to care for basil

Basil likes moist soil and should be watered as soon as its soil gets dry. Because basil doesn’t fare well in chilly conditions, room temperature to lukewarm water is best for the plant. Although it loves water, soil that drains well is still essential, as well as direct sunlight that it can soak up for six to eight hours a day. 

When you start to see flowers, or your basil starts getting to be taller, you can begin pinching the top leaves with your fingers and pruning the flowers. This encourages your plant to grow bushier, rather than taller,  and directs your plant to grow leaves rather than blooms.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

How to propagate basil

If you’re propagating from cuttings, you’ll need access to a healthy, foliage-producing basil plant or even cuttings you got from the store or a neighbor’s plant. You’ll also want to have a pair of scissors or a knife, cups of water, and soil for this process. Once you’ve got your supplies, follow these steps:

  • Take your scissors or knife and cut off four to five-inch long stems. You should cut these pieces off right at a node (where a leaf and stem meet).
  • Collect however many cuttings you’d like, then remove all the leaves off from the bottom two inches of your cutting. It’ll look a bit bare, but this’ll prevent leaves from molding or rotting in the water.
  • Place your cuttings into the cups of water—you can place two or three in each cup—and set them in an area where they can get plenty of light without getting burnt. Change out the water every day so the water doesn’t become stagnant and harm your plants, too. 
  • Once your plants start to grow roots, which may take a week or more, monitor them until the roots are a couple of inches long; this can take another week or two. Once they’ve reached this length, you can successfully transfer them into planters with potting soil.
  • You can also propagate basil cuttings directly into soil. Follow the same steps, but rather than placing them into cups of water, you can plant them directly into soil. If you use this method, it’s best to buy a root hormone to dip their ends into before planting as this will really encourage roots to form.

How to harvest basil

Harvesting basil is a piece of cake! All you need to do is pinch or cut off however many leaves you need from the top. Collecting from the top is similar to what pinching does for the plant; it encourages it to grow more laterally rather than taller.