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Herb Garden
Published January 31, 2023 by Nicole Burke

Like Free Plants? Here's How to Turn One Basil Plant into 100s More

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basil
herb garden
herbs
indoor gardening
how to grow basil from the store

There's a Secret to How to Grow Basil from the Store

You're walking up to the grocery store when something catches your eye: shelf upon shelf of healthy-looking basil plants for sale. You pick up several different containers and carefully select the one that looks the fullest from the top. This basil is a beautiful plant, and it costs roughly the same as one of those little plastic packages of basil leaves that turn brown in the fridge all too quickly.

You smile to yourself. You've figured out the key to buying herbs. You're gonna have your own supply of fresh basil leaves from here on out.

You bring the basil home, pop it into a pot, and cut some leaves for homemade pesto.

And those are the last leaves you enjoy from that basil plant.

You watch as your plant struggles and then dies, no matter how attentive you are with the watering can. What were you thinking when you bought a basil plant? You don't have a green thumb. Every plant you bring home dies.

Does this sound familiar? (I know I've been there, done that a couple dozen times too many.)

If so, don't call yourself a serial plant killer just yet. It's probably not your fault.

Here's the issue:

When growers are starting annual herbs like basil, they sow way too many basil seeds per pot so that consumers will see what appears to be one really nice, healthy basil plant. If you study the pot from the side, however, you'll notice lots of spindly stems, sometimes as many as 20 or even 25, instead of one strong stem. That one really healthy basil plant you thought you were buying? It's actually many different basil seedlings crammed into one little pot.

In the pot pictured below, you can see about a dozen different plants being sold as one basil plant.

how many basil seeds per pot

If you left these plants crammed together like this, which is what most consumers do, you're bound to end up without fresh basil leaves for your next margarita pizza night. Every single plant in that little pot is competing for water, air flow, and nutrients from the soil. It's actually pretty shady for the growers to sell us herbs this way—they're counting on the average consumer not knowing better and blaming themselves when their herbs die.

The good news is there's a way to buy seedlings from the store and help them grow into healthy basil plants. I know I promised you free plants, and I will deliver. You're going to invest $4 or $5—however much the store is charging for a little pot of basil—and then you're going to turn that pot into at least a dozen more plants. Then, you're going to propagate more plants from basil cuttings and end up with hundreds of future basil plants.

This method works really well for basil and for flowering herbs like marigolds. Woodier herbs like rosemary and thyme are usually sold as just one plant, so you won't be getting any free plants there.

To turn your "one basil plant" into a lifetime supply of basil, you just have to do a little plant surgery. Don't worry—it's easy, and I'll walk you through it!

Supplies to Grow Basil from Store-Bought Plant

  • "One basil plant" from the store
  • A container that's at least 6 inches deep and 10 inches wide; terracotta, clay, and steel are great materials for an herb garden (grab a plant saucer if you'll be growing basil indoors)
  • Materials for soil blend: compost, topsoil, paver sand, and (optional) earthworm castings (see picture below for the type of bags you might find at Home Depot or a similar store; paver sand can be found in the construction section)
  • A wide dibber or hori hori
  • Weed barrier cloth (or coffee filters for a smaller container)
  • A small cup or jar filled with fresh water
  • A clean pair of pruners or scissors
  • Gloves
best soil mix to grow basil in pot

Step One to Turn One Basil Plant into 100

Prepare Your Herb Container

If your container doesn't already have a drainage hole in the middle, you'll need to add one with a drill. Your basil really won't want to soak in a tub inside this little container.

Place a weed barrier cloth at the bottom of your herb container (or if your container is pretty small, you could cut and unfold a coffee filter). The idea here is to let water drain out of the pot without allowing all your soil to go with it.

grow basil in a pot with weed barrier cloth at bottom

Step Two to Turn One Basil Plant into 100

Fill Your Container with the Best Soil Blend to Grow Basil in a Pot

I grow my herbs in the 103 soil blend I talk about in Kitchen Garden Revival. The 103 is basically equal parts topsoil, compost, and paver sand. The sand adds permeability to the soil and helps with drainage, and the compost delivers nutrients to your basil plants. For an extra nutritional boost, sprinkle some earthworm castings to the top of your mix (that's the 3 in the 103).

Herbs aren't fussy—they don't need a ton of nutrients in their soil and can grow in lots of different mediums, but my herbs thrive in this soil blend, as do many of the veggies you might want to grow in your garden. It's great to have the components of this blend on hand for other indoor or outdoor garden projects.

Fill your herb container almost to the top with your soil blend.

how to grow basil in a pot
Shop Garden Tools for Your Herb Garden

Go ahead and water the herb container now, before you add your basil plants. We're about to perform some plant surgery, and pre-moistened soil will help to remove some of the stress these basil plants will feel after being separated from their neighbors.

how to grow basil indoors in winter

Step Three to Turn One Basil Plant into 100

Separate Basil Plants

All right, the time has come to turn "one" basil plant into 12 or even 25 plants. (I'm not exaggerating. The 4-inch pot I most recently bought from the grocery store contained 22 basil seedlings.)

Gently slide the herbs and their roots from the pot by tilting the container on its side and pushing up from the bottom.

separate individual basil seedlings to grow basil indoors

Use your hands to gently pull the different sections apart. Don't pull on the stems of the basil seedlings; instead, separate the different sets of roots at soil level. Your goal is to keep as many roots as possible with the attached seedling, but know that it's inevitable you'll lose some roots.

separate individual basil plants before you grow basil in pot

There will most likely be smaller seedlings in the mix. You may or may not be able to save them. I like to put them in a little cup or jar of water to see if they'll grow more roots, but I don't prioritize them for replanting. (You can always just use these as fresh herbs and discard their roots.)

Set the healthiest-looking basil plants around the rim of your herb container for immediate planting.

Step Four to Turn One Basil Plant into 100

Plant Basil Seedlings

Our goal now is to get these little seedlings into the soil as soon as possible.

Use a wide dibber or a hori hori to dig holes for your basil seedlings. You want a tool that's much wider than a pencil so that you can stick it into the soil, swirl it around, and create holes large enough to slide your seedling's roots inside without touching the roots and with minimal disturbance to the stem. Remember, these plants are pretty fragile right now. They've just been separated from their friends after spending their whole little plant life growing together in a very small space.

how to grow basil in pot

You can bury your basil seedlings pretty deep (deeper than you would bury most veggies in the garden). The stems will actually grow lateral roots if buried, which will help strengthen the plant. Your seedlings are most likely pretty leggy, meaning they've grown too tall and don't have leaves until 3 or 4 inches up the stem. Plants grow leggy when they're trying to reach light and/or when they're too cramped next to other seedlings.

how to grow basil in pot

If the stems of your basil seedlings look fragile and leggy, you can bury them all the way to where the first set of leaves are. For those plants that have several sets of leaves, consider using a clean pair of pruners or scissors to cut off the top set of leaves right above a leaf node (where two leaves are directly opposite each other). This helps the seedling focus its energy on growing stronger roots and establishing itself in its new container. (You can stick the bottom of the cutting in your water cup and see if it will develop roots... or you can eat it!)

Even though you pre-moistened the soil, go ahead and water your herbs in as a welcome home present.

you can grow basil indoors in winter in a pot like this

Step Five to Turn One Basil Plant into 100

Grow Basil Indoors While Plants Recover

Once your basil seedlings have been repotted, they need to be babied for a while. Place your container in indirect sunlight (avoid the bright, direct light that might come from a windowsill) for about one week or so, until you know that these little seedlings have adapted to being separated and are growing well.

If the weather is warmer outside, you can slowly begin the process of getting your herbs accustomed to growing outdoors once they've grown a couple new leaves since their operation. If you're expecting weather below 50°F, keep your basil indoors. You can grow basil indoors in winter by moving it to more direct light, such as by a south-facing window. Your basil plants will thank you if they can receive at least 6 hours of natural light per day.

Elevate your backyard veggie patch into a sophisticated and stylish work of art 

Kitchen Garden Revival guides you through every aspect of kitchen gardening, from design to harvesting—with expert advice from author Nicole Johnsey Burke, founder of Rooted Garden, one of the leading US culinary landscape companies, and Gardenary, an online kitchen gardening education and resource company.

Step Six to Turn One Basil Plant into 100

Propagate Basil Cuttings

Once your plants have fully recovered and formed several new sets of leaves, you can take cuttings from them that you can then root in water.

Use a clean pair of pruners or scissors to cut right above a leaf node. Strip any leaves from the bottom 1/3 of the cutting. Stick the cutting in water and make sure to change out the water every couple of days. And there you go—that's how you propagate basil in water.

Within a few short weeks, you should see new little roots develop. You can pot up these basil cuttings as soon as the roots are a couple inches long. Check out the article below for more details on how to propagate basil.

Make sure to keep basil indoors until all chance of frost has passed. (Learn more about growing basil.)

That's How to Grow Basil for Life from Just "One Basil Plant"

Next time you're at your local nursery or the grocery store and you see a tempting display of basil plants for sale, go ahead and indulge your plant-buying-urges. You're actually buying yourself "one basil plant", plus a bunch of free plants, and now you know what to do with those bonus plants!

Take your little basil seedlings home, follow these steps, and you'll end up with basil plants to last you a lifetime. Herbs like basil are so easy to grow indoors or out (when the weather is nice and warm)—this is really something all of us can be doing, no matter where we live or what our gardening experience is.

Thanks so much for being here and for making the garden an ordinary part of your life!

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Like Free Plants? Here's How to Turn One Basil Plant into 100s More