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How to Grow Basil from Cuttings (Works Every Time)

Growing basil from cuttings - photo collage

Growing herbs is usually done in small to medium pots on kitchen windowsills. Sometimes a kitchen will have an herb wall in which small pots of herbs grow on a frame into which the pots fit. Other homeowners plant their herbs in raised beds like their flowers. Either way, you can plant basil from seeds or by using cuttings.

I’ve started many flowering plants from cuttings. It takes time, the right ingredients, and knowing a little about how plants like herbs grow in small pots. You’ll need to know about water drainage as well as how to water the herb so you don’t get root rot. Let’s start with rooting the cutting, and then we’ll move on to the pot and its drainage.

Basil cuttings

How To Grow Basil From Cuttings

Before we start, you should know that growing basil from cuttings takes around a year before you’ll see a yield. The best time to begin your cutting is the beginning of the spring or summer growing season. If you don’t begin until the middle of the season, that’s okay, as long as you don’t begin during a cold snap. That will kill the plants.

Begin With Fresh Basil 

The first thing you’ll need is fresh basil. Grocery stores and farmers’ markets sell bunches of fresh basil if you need to find a place that sells fresh herbs. If you’re not ready at the moment to propagate your basil plants, then store them in a plastic baggie on the counter (basil doesn’t like refrigeration, although it doesn’t mind freezing) until you are ready:

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    • Use non-flowering bunches of basil for your cuttings

    • Cut the sprigs, not whole branches, about four to six inches off the branches

    • Use sharp scissors, not a knife, and certainly not a serrated knife

    • Cut the sprigs at a 45-degree angle. This exposes the inner stalk so it can absorb water and nutrients from the potting soil you’ll be using

    • Take the leaves off the lower two inches of the stem. If you leave them on, they’ll contaminate the water

Now you’ll need a root structure before planting your pot. To accomplish this, you’ll place your cuttings with the two inches of stem in a glass with water completely covering the two inches. Keep the two inches of stem submerged in water for the next three to four weeks.

The roots will look like strings at first. Mind you, don’t expect mature roots to look like tree roots or even a carrot. However, mature roots from cuttings will have some substance and no longer resemble strings. It should take from six to ten weeks for this substance to happen. Now you can plant your basil cuttings in pots.

Cut basil

Pots And Potting Soil

Pots

Most kitchen herb plants are grown in three to four-inch clay pots. This refers to the height of the pot, with the circumference being comparable. This is just the perfect size to grow basil from cuttings. If you’re planting in the ground, then skip this part.

You might be wondering, why clay? Why not plastic or ceramic? I remember the solid walls of ceramic pots. They were pretty, but drainage was non-existent, root rot was almost assured, and the straggly plants struggling to stay alive in those delicate, pretty pots just looked straggly. 

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Most all planters today have some kind of drainage built in. Have you tried the new fabric pot, for instance? Some are even self-watering and/or self-aerating. Wouldn’t mind one of those myself; I’m forever forgetting to water my Mother-in-law’s Tongue plant.

Soil

Potting soil is a compound of peat moss, tree bark, and vermiculite or perlite. The last two provide space in the soil for the water to be so it doesn’t pool at the bottom of the pot. They look like little white beads. The bigger the beads or the more of them, the more space for the water.

Now we’re going back to science class for a bit. Lots of old hands at planting cuttings insist on pebbles or broken crockery in the bottom of plant pots to establish drainage and prevent losing all your soil out the bottom of the pot. This is actually a myth, but it’s always been done that way, so there must be some truth in it, right?

The science part of it all is that water (or anything else) is drawn downward by gravity. Yes, your potting soil will absorb almost all that water. It will wick the water upward against the force of gravity to nurture the plant. What happens to gravity, then? Will any of the water remain in the bottom of the pot to give my basil root rot?

The plain truth is that today’s potting soil mixtures wick water away from the bottom of the pot. It’s held in place in the space occupied by those beads we were talking about. As the plant needs water, it’s wicked up to where the plant needs it. Yes, some water will leak out the bottom of the pot, but a small saucer will fix that.

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Fertilizer

I’ve planted my share (and somebody else’s) of plants, some from cuttings, some not. Believe me when I tell you that you must use a fertilizer with your basil cuttings. I don’t care if the potting soil package tells you that X amount of fertilizer is mixed in with the potting soil. It isn’t.

I’ve always used Miracle-Gro. I used it on potted plants, my miniature azalea bushes, as well as my cherry and dogwood tree saplings. Most everyone has their favorite tried-and-true plant fertilizers, including using spent coffee grounds (used coffee grounds, I found, worked like a charm on African violets,) tea bags, and compost.  It will work on your basil cuttings.

Indoor garden plants in pots

Planting Basil In A Pot

Now that your basil’s root structure has some substance to it, and you’ve bought your pots, potting soil, and fertilizer, it’s time to actually place the cutting in the pot. 

You’ve poured the potting soil and fertilizer into the pot up to about an inch from the top of the pot. Now take your finger and make a hole in the center of the soil. Dig down about two inches. The two inches of stem you rooted in your glass of water need to be in contact with the potting soil and fertilizer in order for the root system to grow strong.

It will take approximately six to eight weeks for any signs of growth to manifest. The roots will mature, grow strong and sturdy, and then the growth will spring out of the soil. You’ll see new leaves on new stems. You’ll see the leaves and stems thicken up and spread to the edges of the pot and then beyond. 

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Growing anything from a cutting is going to take time, so make sure your basil cuttings are in a warm and humid place. Remember, basil loves sunlight and warmth, so keeping your cuttings in a sunny spot is vital to its growth and development. It’s not humid in your kitchen? No problem. Just place a plastic bag over your pots, and that problem will be solved.

Note: If your plants begin to look yellowish and straggly, the cuttings could be feeling the shock from the transplant (I lost two dogwood tree saplings before I got it right.) Just trim the yellowish leaves off the plant, and new ones will grow in their place.

Is Your Basil Cutting Dying? A Few Ideas Why

There’s always the chance that no matter how well you followed the directions, your basil cutting could die. Regarding plants, not many people understand the concept of “enough.” Don’t feel bad. I didn’t, either. Water is the usual suspect, so let’s talk about “enough.”

Water

Water settles at the bottom of the pot. It’s wicked up into the soil to nourish the plant. However, too much water saturates the soil so that there’s no place to wick it. The basil’s roots will get root rot, which means a dead plant. Since the pot is only about three to four inches tall, one full cup of water is about as high as the pot, so it’s too much. 

Not only that, but most people touch the soil at the top of the pot to judge if they need to water the plant. Yes, basil loves water, but remember that the moisture at the bottom of the pot is wicked up. Shove your finger down into the soil about three inches or up to your top knuckle. If the soil is dry, then water the plant. If it’s still moist, then wait a couple of days.

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Also confusing to some plant people is “not enough.” Some wait for two weeks or so to water plants. Others only pour a coffee cup’s worth of water into their pots. Basil loves water, so you have to keep the soil moist. If you don’t, your basil cutting will die. 

Get used to using that coffee cup worth of water twice per week. That’s “enough” water to nourish a three to four-inch pot without drying out the soil.  If you forget to water your herb, don’t overdo it when you do remember. Just water the plant as you normally would. Keep a reminder on a calendar or a Post-It note, for instance, nearby.

Heat

Remembering that basil loves the sun, yours should be in a warm, humid spot in your kitchen or wherever you grow your plants. Since the growing season is spring and summer, however, your A/C could present a problem. Place your basil cuttings away from windows with drafts as well as away from A/C vents. If you can’t do that, then move the plants to a space away from both, like a laundry room (a great place for humidity,) for example.

Light

Let’s say you find the perfect spot away from drafty windows and air conditioning vents. The snag to that is that the sunlight basil loves so much isn’t much. The plant needs light, even if it’s indoor light. LED lights work best.

Hold your hand up in the brightest light in the house. Your hand should cast a shadow against a wall. The darker the shadow, the brighter the light. That’s the spot for your basil cuttings. If none of this works, though, put your basil cuttings outside on the porch for a few hours each day to catch the sun it loves so much.

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Basil Cuttings FAQ

Can Basil Cuttings Be Rooted In Water Instead Of Potting Soil?

Absolutely. Keep the water at the two-inch mark on the stem. You should see roots beginning to grow at about two to four weeks. As you use the herb, more leaves and stems will grow.

Can You Grow Basil Cuttings In Water Indefinitely?

Absolutely. Remember that the herb needs fertilizer. Add one tablespoon of fertilizer with the balance or NPK 20-20-20 to a half-gallon of water. Use this mixture in your coffee cup to water your basil plants. You should only do this once per month.

My Basil Is Turning Black. Why?

The herb will sometimes develop brown or black spots on the leaves. If your plants are outdoors, frost could have caused it. Pests, bacterial or fungal problems, or a lack of nutrients in the soil are all causes of black basil leaves.

Remove the affected leaves before they infect the rest of the plant or plants. If a cold snap was the cause of the black basil leaves, then bring the plants inside. Bacterial or fungal problems can be solved by washing the remaining leaves with a mixture of dish soap, baking soda, and water. This works on pests, too, like aphids. Nutrient deficiencies can be solved by adding fertilizer to the soil.

How Long Do Basil Cuttings Last?

If the cuttings were planted in the ground, then they’ll last the length of the growing season or about four to five months. Basil cuttings grown indoors away from the extremes of the weather last around six months.

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Are Basil Flowers Good?

Not if you’re cultivating the plant for its leaves. Pinch off the flowers. This allows the leaves to proliferate into a bushy plant with higher occurrences of essential oils.

What To Do With Basil At The End Of The Growing Season

Harvest all the leaves. Leave the stems in the ground as a base for composting. Blanch the leaves in hot water, then immediately dunk them in ice water to stop the cooking process. Place the leaves in plastic baggies and put them in the freezer for later use.