How to Propagate Basil

One of the most exciting moments of my childhood was the sweet summer’s day when my mom gave me an entire raised bed in her square foot garden.

I had helped with the detestable task of digging post holes for a fence to keep deer and bears out of the garden – we lived in Montana in a place aptly named Bear Canyon – and my reward was well worth it.

A vertical close up picture of basil plants growing in the garden fading to soft focus in the background. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white text.

My nine-year-old self didn’t care much for vegetables, but I did love herbs and flowers.

So that’s what I planted.

Since it’s so easy to propagate, basil (Ocimum basilicum) earned a spot in my treasured little garden. Every morning that summer I’d leap out of bed and grab my watering can. Watching those tiny green seedlings grow and thrive gave me an unmatched sense of accomplishment.

If you’re just starting your adventure in the world of gardening or you love pesto, bruschetta, tomato and basil soup, pho, margherita pizza, and all the countless dishes where this herb is an absolute, unequivocal necessity, keep reading.

This guide will show you tips, tricks, and a secret or two on how to propagate it at home. For more information about basil, including history and cultivars, check out our complete growing guide.

Divide Grocery Store Plants

If you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 6-13, you can probably find basil at your grocery store in the spring and summer, and possibly into the fall and winter.

You know the type I’m talking about, right?

Those little packets or pots of “live basil plants,” complete with dirt and root balls? The ones you buy in the fresh produce section that say “store in the refrigerator” and are not specifically intended for planting?

A supermarket shelf stocked with various different herbs in plastic packets arranged in dark brown wicker baskets with prices below them.

Here’s a secret you should know: you can plant them, but these basil plants aren’t really one plant at all.

Supermarket basil is often a manufactured root ball comprised of a number of seedlings. This makes it look like an extremely healthy plant with scads of leaves, when really it’s a few different plants smushed together.

It’s a smart and inexpensive marketing tactic. And it’s fine for shoppers who are going to use all the leaves at once to make their own pesto, like this one from our sister site, Foodal.

But it’s bad news for beginner gardeners, who often try to plant this deceitful root ball at home only to watch it die within days. All the roots start competing with each other for water and sunshine, and none of them win.

There’s a silver lining here, though. Now that you know the secret of store bought basil plants, you’re equipped with knowledge to help you successfully propagate your own at home.

A close up of a bunch of basil leaves on a wooden chopping board set on a wooden surface, fading to soft focus in the background.

Here’s how:

First off, this herb isn’t a plant you’d typically divide because it’s so easy to grow new roots from a cutting.

With supermarket basil, though, as opposed to nursery plants, you’re not truly dividing one plant. You’re separating all those squished-together roots into separate plants that can actually grow and thrive.

To do this, you’ll need:

  • 1 supermarket plant (live herbs with roots, sold in the produce section)
  • Soil-based potting mix
  • Scissors
  • Plastic or ceramic pots at least 5 inches deep with good drainage (a draining hole) and saucers

First, gently remove the plant from its original container and lay it on a clean surface.

With your fingers, pry the root ball into two halves. Then divide those halves again and cut off weak or leggy shoots so that you have separate clumps with 3-4 leafy shoots per clump.

A close up of a store bought basil plant with bright green leaves taken out of its pot with the root ball visible set on a rustic wooden surface.

Plant each clump in its own container with fresh potting soil and water it with lukewarm water.

Basil likes to stay warm – hence the tepid water – and moist, yet well-drained, so give it water every other day or so for a total of 1-2 inches per week. Pour the water on the soil and not the leaves to avoid fungal problems.

Dump any liquid that leaks into the draining dish after each watering. The plant will take what it needs and let the rest drain, and you don’t want your plants to sit in waterlogged soil. This herb thrives in moist, well-drained soil, but it doesn’t like wet feet.

Finally, make sure you give each pot a spot on a sunny, south-facing windowsill.

If it’s not summertime, you may want to invest in a grow light. I like this one, available from Amazon. It’s a dual-headed clip-on gooseneck lamp, which means I can clip it on the windowsill and point it directly at my plants.

LED Dual-Headed Grow Light for Indoor Plants via Amazon

I can even point it at several plants at once, thanks to the two separate adjustable heads.

As the plants grow, pinch or cut the terminal bud – at the top of the plant – to support the growth of side shoots.

This will help your plant grow outward, not just upward, and will result in a bounty of deliciously fragrant leaves.

A close up of herb seedlings in small white pots, ready for planting out into the garden on a soft focus background.

After two weeks, you can transplant the basil into larger pots and gift them to your friends.

Or, at least one week after your last frost date, start hardening the plants off by putting them outside for an increasing amount of time each day.

By the end of a full week, the plants should be ready for their home in your outdoor garden.

A close up of two hands from the right of the frame wearing green gardening gloves planting a small basil seedling into dark, rich soil. The background is a garden scene in soft focus.

But what if you can’t find grocery store basil anywhere?

For those of us who live in USDA Hardiness Zones 1-5, it can be considerably harder to find live plants in our local stores – especially if it’s not summertime.

The good news is that if you can find a cutting, you can grow a new plant.

From Cuttings

It’s really almost magical, the things a basil plant can do, like growing new roots from a cutting.

Luckily for you, there are several places where you can get cuttings.

A close up of a basil plant in a pot with droplets of water all over the leaves on a soft focus background.

Are potted herbs available from a nursery in your area?

If you purchase just one plant and bring it home, you’ll be able to propagate more plants from the original parent, and you’ll get more basil for your buck in the long run.

If you’re like me and you live in Alaska, where the weather is currently hovering around 0°F and there’s no fresh basil for sale across the entire state, you’ll have to get creative.

Maybe you have a friend who would let you take a cutting from her indoor plant?

Or perhaps you enjoy Thai or Vietnamese dishes? (Stick with me here.)

If you’ve ever eaten pho, you’ve probably received a garnish plate featuring at least one basil cutting to enjoy with your meal.

A close up top down picture of herbs with lime segments, cut chilis, and mung bean sprouts set on a square plate on a wooden surface.

Restaurants may have basil plants of their own, or a special way to import fresh cuttings to even the coldest states.

So the next time you’re at your favorite Vietnamese or Thai restaurant, order a dish that comes with a basil cutting, wrap the stem in a napkin, and bring it home.

You might get a Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflorum) cultivar or a Genovese basil (O. basilicum) stem, depending on the restaurant’s preference, so be prepared for a surprise.

If you like to experiment with different types, be sure to check out our 13 Favorite Basil Varieties for the Garden.

If you’ve got an established plant handy to take a cutting from, find a nice long stem and cut just below the last leaf node.

A close up of a cutting taken from a kitchen herb placed in a glass with water set on a wooden surface with a soft focus background.

If you’ve got a cutting from a restaurant, it’s probably a decent length already, but you can cut below the last leaf node as long as you’ve still got at least three inches left of the stem after you cut. Four or more inches of stem is even better.

You’ll need:

  • A basil cutting
  • A glass of fresh water
  • Powdered rooting hormone (optional)

To get started, trim the leaves off a two-inch section of the stem, starting from the base.

Place the trimmed cutting in a clear glass of water and find it a spot on a sunny windowsill.

You can first dip the bottom part of the stem in water and then roll it in a small amount of powdered rooting hormone if you wish. Just make sure you don’t overdo the amount of powder you apply, and be sure to tap the end of your cutting to remove any excess.

A close up of several cuttings from a basil plant set in a glass jar half filled with water, on a sunny windowsill with soft focus garden views through the window.

Keep in mind that many gardeners easily propagate basil from cuttings without using rooting hormone.

Some friends of mine have even experimented with growing cuttings with and without the powder and found that the cutting without it thrived while the other died.

Try this experiment yourself if you have several cuttings to work with, and see which method works best!

A vertical picture of two basil cuttings in a glass of water with new roots starting to form on a dark background.

Ideally, give each cutting its own glass of water. However, you can propagate several cuttings at once by putting them in the same water glass to save space on your windowsill.

You’ll just need to separate the roots carefully when you remove the stems.

Keep the Water Clean

Change the water in your glass every other day. The rooting stems need clean, fresh water in order to thrive. If you leave the same water in the glass for too long, the stems are prone to rot.

Once the roots begin to form, wait until they’ve grown to at least two inches in length.

This can take anywhere from two to four weeks, so don’t worry if they seem a little slow to grow.

Pot Up the Rooted Cuttings

When the roots are two inches long, prepare an indoor planter or pot with fresh potting soil. Make sure the pot is at least five inches deep so that your basil cutting has plenty of room to flourish.

A close up of ceramic pots containing basil seedlings on a soft focus background.

Plant one rooted stem per pot to avoid overcrowding. Cover the entire root system and the two inches of leafless stem with soil.

You’ll want to keep the transplants in the same sunny windowsill or use a grow light if needed.

Remember to pinch leaves off regularly to encourage new growth. A well-groomed basil plant is a happy one.

Sowing Seeds

Basil is easily propagated from seed with a little bit of care and attention.

A couple of days ago, the beautiful basil plant I brought indoors from my summertime garden died when I went out of town over Christmas because someone (ahem, my significant other) forgot to water it for me.

Sigh. Thankfully, I had a packet of seeds left over from the summer and I decided to propagate basil the old-fashioned way: by sowing seeds.

A close up of a green basil plant growing in the garden. To the bottom right of the frame is a circular logo and white text.

‘Genovese’

We love these ‘Genovese’ basil seeds from True Leaf Market.

Since it’s bitterly cold here in Alaska, as it is in many places in the northerly regions of the US through the winter, it’s the perfect time to plant seeds indoors.

Gardening supplies won’t hit stores until April here, so I decided to plant my seeds in a container I already had: a big pot with a draining dish attached.

A close up of two ceramic pots, one red and the other yellow with a packet of basil seeds in front of them set on a kitchen counter on a green background.
Photo by Laura Melchor.

You can also plant your basil seeds in starter trays, like these peat pots available from Daniel’s Plants via Amazon.

Peat Pot Seedling Starter Trays via Amazon

Planting them in peat pots makes it easier to transplant the basil outdoors once it’s established, but plastic pots work well too.

If you want to give your seeds a head start on germination, soak them overnight in 1/4 cup of lukewarm water.

A close up of small seedlings in individual pots set in plastic trays fading to soft focus in the background.

Sow one or two seeds per pot and cover with 1/4 inch of soil. Or, if you’re planting directly into a larger ceramic or plastic pot, plant several seeds in a circle, about two inches apart.

You can thin them once they’ve germinated, or transplant them into different pots once they’re established.

After you’ve planted the seeds, give the basil an even, gentle watering. I used my son’s bath toy for an extremely gentle rain drip because I didn’t want to displace the tiny seeds.

A vertical picture of a hand from the left of the frame holding a small white plastic child's toy watering a plant pot with seeds planted in dark, rich soil. The pot is set on a countertop with a green wall in the background.
Photo by Laura Melchor.

Basil doesn’t need light to germinate, but it does need warmth, which a grow light can provide.

You can also wrap plastic over the top of your pot to keep the soil warm and moist.

Just remember to remove the covering once the seeds start sprouting.

They should germinate within two weeks – and once germinated, the seedlings will need at least six hours of light each day.

Sow Seeds Outdoors

You can also sow seeds directly outside, especially if it’s summertime or you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-13.

Make sure that the last frost is at least a week behind you and sow the seeds six inches apart in a sunny patch of your garden. Cover with 1/4 inch of soil and water thoroughly.

A Bevy of Basil Dishes Awaits You

No matter how you propagate your basil, as soon as your plant has several pairs of mature leaves, you can start harvesting the delicious herb.

A variety of fresh herbs growing in pots on a windowsill in bright sunshine with a soft focus background.

Just remember to cut from the top so that your plant keeps growing outward, and to prevent bolting.

Use your fresh herbs in classic Mediterranean dishes, cocktails, and even sweet dishes like this recipe for lemon curd on basil shortbread from our sister site, Foodal. Or this one for citrus honey basil creamsicles, also from Foodal.

Whether you propagated one basil plant or ten, a whole lot of deliciousness awaits you.

To learn more about plant propagation, check out these articles next:

Photos by Laura Ojeda Melchor © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on January 22, 2020. Last updated: May 3, 2020 at 22:40 pm. Product photos via Daniel’s Plants, Juhefa, and True Leaf Market. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing by Clare Groom and Allison Sidhu.

About Laura Melchor

Laura Melchor grew up helping her mom in the garden in Montana, and as an adult she’s brought her cold-weather gardening skills with her to her home in Alaska. She’s especially proud of the flowerbeds she and her three-year-old son built with rocks dug up from their little Alaska homestead. As a freelance writer, she contributes to several websites and blogs across the web. Laura also writes novels and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Carolyn McCormick
Carolyn McCormick (@guest_7834)
5 months ago

Thank you for your information on how to plant basil. I purchased four plants at Trader Joe’s yesterday, and was not sure of how to plant them. I appreciate your step by step directions.

Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta
Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta (@guest_8715)
4 months ago

I too appreciate your clear instructions. One thing, though. I tried to get a couple of cuttings from a store-bought bundle (not a plant) here in BC, Canada. When nothing happened after a couple of weeks, I browsed around and found a site where one commenter said if your water is mineral-poor, you may benefit from the addition of some plant food. I tried that and within a week, roots have started to sprout! This site cautioned not to use hormones except on ornamentals, as they could make the plant unhealthy for human consumption. Do you have an opinion on… Read more »

Dan from TheSassyPlant.com
Dan from TheSassyPlant.com (@guest_9458)
Reply to  Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta
3 months ago

Hi Maxine, we are in BC as well. We bought Basil plants from Save On Foods and placed the cuttings in salt and pepper shakers from the Dollar Store (with narrow tops to prevent cuttings from falling in and wide bottoms for root growth they work great for propagation). Within 1 week we had small roots showing and within 2 weeks there were full roots and we transplanted. We used water from our backyard hose – nothing fancy : )

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  Dan from TheSassyPlant.com
3 months ago

I love your idea to use these containers for propagation- I have some cuttings rooting right now in a reused glass bottle with a wide bottom and narrow neck. Works great!

Janet
Janet (@guest_9986)
2 months ago

Can you root basil cuttings which have thin stems and smallish leaves? They would be from basil which has been cut all the way down and is growing back spindly (tall and thin).