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How to Grow Basil (5 Methods!)

Ah, basil! The topping of a Margherita pizza, the base to pasta slathered in pesto, and the intensity behind Thai coconut curry. What’s not to love? Grow this fresh and bold herb for yourself to really make your cooking taste that much better. Here’s how to grow basil at home!

Big Bowl of Basil

If I asked you to name a herb, I bet you basil would be one of the first words that pop into your head. People absolutely love basil, and it’s quickly become a staple in Western cuisine in the past few decades.

When you go to the grocery store, you’ll likely see sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, for sale. While it is the most popular basil nowadays, it’s far from the only type out there. Thai basil and holy basil are some other favourites.

The basil found at the grocery store may only be a few bucks, but with that same amount of money, you could buy a packet of seeds for endless, big bushes of basil. Plus, the stuff you grow yourself will taste infinitely better and sweeter. I promise you!

So without further adieu, here’s how to grow basil yourself using five different methods.

Jump ahead to…

basil cutting in pot
It’s easy to grow basil in five different ways, one of which is by propagating cuttings.

Expert Tips for Growing Basil

  • Sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, is the most common culinary basil found in the grocery store.
  • You can easily grow basil by dividing an existing basil plant from the grocery store or by taking cuttings of it and placing it in water.
  • Basil can be grown from seed as well. It’s best to start it indoors using a heat mat, then transplant it outside once the threat of frost has passed.
  • Basil likes heat, so be sure to place it somewhere where it gets 6-8 hours of full sunlight daily.
  • While growing, pinch the top parts of the basil off whenever you harvest to encourage a bushier shape.
Woman pulling a clump of basil out from the garden
Separate existing basil plants for bigger, healthier growth.

History of Basil

Basil is a herbaceous plant that belongs to the mint family. In most parts of the world, it grows as an annual because it’s not frost tolerant. It originates from India and Africa but is now found globally.

In Indian culture, basil is a spiritual symbol that was used in spiritual offerings and as a household medicine. Holy basil, also known as Tulsi, was sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu, hence the name. In ancient Indian texts, the plant was written as a snakebite and scorpion sting treatment.

In Greece, basil represented mourning and was a part of funeral rituals. It remains a large part of Mediterranean cuisine, especially known for topping pizzas and as the base for pesto.

Basil can be found in the lowland regions of India through Bangladesh and Thailand to southern China. It’s also a key player in Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, particularly Thai basil.

Check out this post to learn more about basil’s fascinating history.

basil on cutting board
One single stem of basil can be propagated into a new plant.

Health Benefits of Basil

Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other holistic practices use basil for its health benefits. The most notable type of basil used for health is holy basil (Ocimum sanctum and O. gratissimum). However, some herbalists say that common sweet basil has similar medicinal effects.

Holy basil works as a nervine, stimulating the body but then bringing a sense of calm. They may seem contradictory, but it works well together. The basil moves any blocked energy and dispels sluggishness, bringing a feeling of calm. This is also why it can help with depression.

Holy basil also works as a warming and cooling agent. It’s known to help with respiratory ailments thanks to being antiviral, antibacterial, diaphoretic, and a decongestant.

In Indian, holy basil is commonly used to help with indigestion and vomiting, helping to stimulate appetite and digestion.

In Western herbalism, it is used as an adaptogen, which is used to help the body’s stress response and the negative effects that come from stress.

It’s also shown promise in aiding in liver health, fighting cancer, and reducing blood sugar for those with diabetes.

basil in container
Most studies surrounding basil center around extracts, so you may not get these health benefits from sprinkling the herb or making tea alone.

How to Grow Basil

If you buy basil in the store, it tends to be smaller plants that taste a little bit bitter and isn’t as sweet as garden-fresh basil. That’s because there are a whole bunch of plants crowded into those pots! You can bring them home to plant in your garden, and it will be much happier and sweeter.

But why?

Because basil will grow to be quite large in the garden.

Grocery store herbs are in tiny pots, or worse, cut from the roots and placed in a plastic clamshell package.

The herb pots are the ones I will often pick up when I see them because they house many small plants that are grown from seeds and can be transplanted into the garden or a pot at home.

Dividing a basil plant to give the stems more room for growth.
Basil can be an excellent companion plant and help veggies like tomatoes thrive.

Dividing Grocery Store Basil Plants

Give your basil plants more space to grow by separating them. Here’s how.

  1. Grab the bunch of plants and pull them out to expose the root ball.
  2. Gently tease apart the roots for each of the plants.
  3. When you pull a plant out of the cluster with a nice, healthy root system, plant it in your garden.
  4. You may harvest your basil as you need it throughout the season. It will have the most flavour before it flowers.

By following this process, you’ll grow amazing basil that you can use all summer long and then preserve it to use over the cold months too.

Woman holding a basil pot in a garden bed
See how many single basil plants have been jam-packed in this pot?

How to Grow Basil From Cuttings

Another one of the easiest ways to grow basil is from cuttings. You can take these cuttings from an existing basil plant, whether that’s the one you picked up from the grocery store or a clipping from your neighbour’s front yard.

To make a cutting, snip the basil stem, ensuring it has at least four sets of leaves. Remove the bottom two sets of leaves, and then place it in a glass of water. Let the glass sit in a sunny spot.

When the roots are visible, it’s ready to be transferred into the soil.

basil cutting in jar of water
When the roots are at least 1 cm long, you can transplant it to soil.

How to Grow Basil from Seeds

Of course, you can also grow basil from seed. People like to grow basil from seed since you have many more varieties to choose from and can grow a ton of basil at once (for those of you who love pesto!). Growing it this way is also much cheaper, as one packet of seeds will go a long way.

Most of us who experience some kind of winter want to grow the seeds indoors. You can do this using a sunny windowsill, a grow light set up, or a heat mat if you’ve got one.

Start off by using a seed-starting soil mix and your container of choice. I tend to make my own with soil blocks or just reuse plastic cells.

Moisten the soil before adding it to your seed starting container of choice. Plant 2-3 seeds per cell. Top it off with a clear dome (any clear plastic container works) to help it germinate.

Basil likes heat, so make sure it’s getting some. Consider placing a fan nearby it on low as well to prevent damping off.

As they grow, thin them out. You can transplant them outside once the threat of frost has passed. Harden them off for a few days by placing the seedling containers outside before planting them in the ground or in a new container.

basil in container
Container choice can make a big difference in how your herbs grow.

Direct Sowing Basil Seeds

You can also sow basil seeds directly in the ground. But since basil likes heat, only those in zone 6 or higher should attempt this. Even then, it should be in late spring or early summer, at least two weeks after the last frost. The soil temperature should be about 70°F.

Basil is an excellent companion plant, doing exceptionally well alongside tomatoes and peppers.

How to Grow Basil Indoors

If you want basil year-round, you can grow it inside as well. I will say it’s a little trickier than other herbs to grow indoors since it likes to be in the ground where it gets lots of sun and get big. So rule number one, keep it somewhere extra sunny.

Make sure you plant it in a container with drainage holes to avoid soaking the roots. Pinch it to promote it getting bushier. And when it gets too leggy, simply cut off a few sprigs and start the basil from cuttings all over again.

I would highly recommend having a little countertop garden for your herbs, as this ensures it’s easily accessible when you’re cooking, and it gets enough light from the grow lights to actually make it indoors.

I grew this Purple Ruffles basil inside right at my window.

Ideal Conditions for Growing Basil

  • Sun: as sun lovers, basil needs 6-8 hours a day of full sun. In hot climates, you may need to shelter your basil from the hot afternoon heat. However, basil likes heat, so don’t put it out too early in the season when the nights can still get cold.
  • Water: give your basil a moderate amount of water. It isn’t super thirsty but isn’t drought tolerant, either.
  • Soil: basil likes well-drained soil so it doesn’t have wet feet. Before planting, add some compost to improve the soil.
  • Fertilizer: I don’t typically fertilize any plants that grow in my beds, as the surrounding soil already has enough nutrients. The compost you routinely add will also make a big difference. But if you grow basil in containers, you’ll need to fertilize every other week during the growing season.
basil in water
Harvest too much basil? Place it in a glass of water; it should keep well for a couple of days…until it starts growing roots!

Harvesting Basil

The key to getting a big, round basil plant is to pinch it often. This means you take off the top leaders. AKA, you’re harvesting as you go! Don’t pluck the leaves; instead, remove the whole stem.

Avoid letting the basil flower, as it won’t taste as good once it does. However, if you can spare a basil or two, the bees do love the flowers.

Basil is best fresh, but you can use it in plenty of ways. Here are 16 ideas to use up your basil!

And when you have a lot left and the season is nearing an end, you can dry the basil throughout the winter in your cooking.

basil for recipes
After you harvest a stem, remove the individual leaves.

Frequently Asked Questions About Basil

How long does it take basil to grow?

Seeds take 5-10 days to sprout. Then, they’re ready for transplant after 4-6 weeks. You can harvest them quite early, about the same time that they’re ready to be transplanted. Just ensure you don’t take more than 1/3 of the plant at a time. In fact, frequent harvests can prolong the lifespan of your basil.

Learn more about the proper time to plant herbs.

Basil can get quite big and bushy if you pinch it while it grows.

Happy planting! Let me know if you have any more basil growing questions in the comments below.

More Things to Know About Basil

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