Our top 16 basil plant care tips (and tricks)

Basil is one of the more popular aromatic herbs to use in the kitchen and to plant and care for by home gardeners. Today we will share easy-to-follow basil plant care tips to help you grow, care for, and harvest basil in your home garden.

And it is essential to know how to care for your basil plants. The difference between knowing and not knowing what to do often means the difference between a nice-looking basil plant and a basil plant that will not stop giving.

You see, basil is one of those herbs that will respond exceptionally well to proper care. And what is even better, most of the basil plant care tips we will share are easy to follow without any extra expense.

And this is true whether you grow basil from seeds, propagate basil from cuttings or prefer to buy plants at the local garden or grocery store.

Our tips will span the entire life of your basil plant, from sowing seeds or propagating stem cuttings to looking after and harvesting the seedlings and plants.

Our best basil plant care tips

1. Pre-germinate basil seeds for best results

Whether you are growing common sweet basil, Thai basil, or maybe cinnamon basil, it is always wise to pre-germinate seeds.

Basil seeds are relatively easy to germinate, and a germination rate of around 80% or more is not unusual.

5 out of 5 basil seeds germinating
When 5 out of 5 basil seeds germinate

Still, pre-germinating the basil seeds will ensure that we only plant viable seeds that we know will grow into plants. 

And even more importantly, pre-germinating will allow us only to select the strongest and healthiest-looking sprouts. And this is important if you are limited on space in your vegetable or herb garden. 

2. Start with stem cuttings when possible

For many home gardeners, growing herbs from seed are about the process and the harvest or yield.

Still, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out how easy it is to grow new basil plants from fresh stem cuttings.

New basil plants from stem cuttings
Basil stem cuttings

Ask for cuttings from a fellow gardener or buy a small plant from your local garden or grocery store.

If you can harvest a couple of stem cuttings at least 7-10 cm (3-4 inches) long, you will have all you need to get started. 

Make sure to change the water at least every other day for the best results. You want the new roots to be white.

You can read and follow our guide on how to grow basil from stem cuttings in the article How to grow basil indoors – 3 ways or here in Grow basil from leggy basil seedlings (and why it happens)

3. Use a lean, well-draining potting soil

Seeds hold all the energy needed to germinate and sprout. This means that when you sow your seeds, you do not have to enrich the soil by adding compost or fertilizer. 

All you have to do is ensure that the soil drains well and is well aerated. Good drainage and aeration will ensure that the seeds can germinate and sprout in a moist but not wet or soggy environment. 

4. Pot or container from a material that breathes

Basil likes moist but not soaking-wet soil. And choosing a pot or container made from a material that breathes will help control the moisture level in our soil.

Choose pots or containers made from clay and terra cotta, or why not make your own grow bags from breathable garden fabric? 

As long as the pots or containers are made from a material that breathes, it will help you maintain a healthy balance of moisture as excess water can evaporate. 

5. Do not transplant outdoors too early

Basil prefers warm air and soil. And there is no reason to transplant your young basil plants outdoors just because there is no longer a risk of frost and the average soil temperature is about 10C / 50F.

Keep your young basil plants indoors until spring has arrived. And then, spend 1-2 weeks hardening your basil plants to gradually get them used to direct sunlight, wind, and other external factors.

6. Give your basil plants full sun and no wind

Basil plants want a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight per day. And if you do not give your basil plants enough light, they will grow weak, spindly, and leggy. Now, there are ways to fix leggy seedlings, but as with all things gardening, prevention is much more effective.

Basil does, however, not like windy conditions. So make sure you find a sunny spot protected from the wind, and your basil plants will thank you.

Ever heard of the notion of too much of a good thing? If you grow basil in zones with really hot summers (eg zone 9 and above) you should consider protecting your basil plants during the hotter times of the day. Actually, even in zone 7 we often have to move our basil plants to half shade midday at the peak of summer to avoid yellowing leaves and leaves that get burnt by the sun.

7. Basil plants want moist but not wet soil

Do not let your basil plants dry out.

Basil likes a moist growing environment, which means staying on top of the watering. Especially when growing basil in smaller pots and containers where the soil dries out more quickly.

Water your basil plants thoroughly when you do water. Stay away from watering habits where you water a little here and there. 

Basil grows well given the right conditions
With proper plant care, basil grows well.

Bottom watering is the most effective technique to ensure that your plants absorb what they need without risking constant wet soil and root rot. Place the pot or container in a water bath and then remove and drain excess water when the soil’s surface turns dark.

But remember that no plant likes to sit in wet soil. You are looking for moist but not soggy soil. Roots in soaking wet soil are prone to problems with fungus and root rot, with leaves that turn yellow or worse to follow.

Read more about the advantages of bottom watering here in the article Bottom watering plants – why, when & how

8. Do not get the leaves wet when watering

Do not get the leaves wet when you water. Wet leaves invite fungus, disease, and pests and increase the risk of the leaves getting damaged from sunburn.

Bottom watering your pots and containers or carefully watering at the base of the plant will help minimize the risk.

9. Water is not enough; feed your basil plant

Established basil plants need rich and fertile soil to thrive and grow. And as the plant develops, this includes giving your basil plant fertilizer with high nitrogen levels. 

Without fertilizer, compost, or other nutrients, your basil leaves will turn brown, and the plant will end its lifespan prematurely. Feed your basil plant for continuous harvests through spring, summer, and fall.

10. Harvest stems, not basil leaves

Harvest your basil by the stem and not the leaf. Pinch the branch above where two leaves meet to form a pair and watch how your plant grows vigorous and bushy. 

Avoid harvesting late in the day, as basil leaves tend to dehydrate and lose some vigor when exposed to the sun. Instead, harvest early in the morning for a richer and more flavorful harvest. 

11. Prune and top your basil plant

If you want your basil plants to thrive, it is essential to pinch tops and prune them continuously.  

Basil plants that are not pruned will grow tall and spindly and produce less bountiful harvests.

You can start pinching tops when your basil plant or seedling is 15 cm / 6 inches tall. Pinch half the length of the stem just above where two leaves meet to form a pair.

Also, prune your basil plant from the top. Pinch just above a lower leaf pair and watch your basil plant set side shoots for a more compact and bushy plant. 

12 Pinch center shoots before blooming

Stems showing signs of blooming should be pinched before flowering.

Pinch the stem to encourage bushier growth and ensure that the plant uses its energy to produce more leaves than flowers. 

Gardening tip: Let one of your basil plants flower and harvest basil seeds to grow even more plants.

13 Basil and tomatoes go great together – in more ways than one

Companion planting is an exciting chapter of gardening. There are some general and widely accepted truths, and then there are many opinions that do not always align.

One truth is, however, that aromatic herbs like basil can help keep pests away from other plants. And this becomes even more true if you “activate” the herb every morning by squeezing, cutting, or bruising against the leaves. 

And tomatoes, in particular, are said to benefit from being grown around basil.

I grow basil close to my beefsteak and cherry tomatoes, as well as chilies and peppers, as they are all sun-loving. And looking back, I have never suffered from pests or diseases attacking my tomato, pepper, or chili plants to any more significant extent.

Read our article "Companion planting for peppers (beginners guide)" to understand how you too can apply the sound principles of companion planting in your garden.

14 Harvest basil plants regularly

It may seem counterproductive, but to grow strong and healthy basil plants, you must harvest continuously throughout the season.

If you fail to harvest regularly, your plants will grow long and leggy and, more often than not, set flowers quite early in the season.

15 Mulch basil plants for moisture and weed control

As we have already established, basil prefers moist and well-drained soil. And to some extent, these two characteristics can work against each other. 

When soil drains well, it will dry more quickly.

To help control the moisture level in our pots, we mulch by adding a layer of grass clippings, wood chips, hay, or straw. This added layer of mulch will help lock in the moisture and prevent weeds from growing—a true win-win.

16. Spacing and air circulation

Whether you grow basil in pots, containers, grow bags, or directly in your garden, you should not overcrowd your basil plants. 

If you grow basil plants too densely, inadequate air circulation will increase the risk of diseases and fungi. Growing basil outdoors, you should aim for approximately 15 cm / 6 inches between plants. 

Summary basil plant care tips

Basil is a relatively forgiving herb to grow. And this is also why most people think they know how to grow and care for basil plants.

But the reality is that paying attention to details will keep your basil plants producing more for longer.

But remember that giving your basil plants too much love is not necessarily good.

I will end this article by listing two mistakes I have made growing basil from seed. And in both cases, I was too greedy and tried to grow too many plants too early in the year.

1. Using the conservatory too early in the year

We do not use our conservatory for gardening. We have greenhouses and dedicated indoor space dedicated for our gardening projects. 

But this year, we were too ambitious and ended up with too many basil seedlings. It was early spring, and transplanting outdoors was not an alternative. 

I decided to use our conservatory. 

To make a long story short, the conservatory would heat during the day and reach temperatures above 30 C / 86 F, whereas the light level was still far below eight good hours of sunlight.

The result was a long line of leggy seedlings that had to be rescued. And yes, they were saved, and they did recover, but truth be told, the plants from the leggy seedling never truly caught up to the seedlings grown under grow lights indoors. 

2. Growing seedlings indoors and not enough light to go around 

Ebb and flow hydroponic grow systems work great as indoor garden beds, especially during late fall, winter, and early spring.

Place starter pots on top of the LECA between plants in the ebb-and-flow hydroponic bed. I also embed rock wool grow cubes in the LECA where there is room. It is all about maximizing the space.

Using ebb and flow hydroponics as indoor garden bed
Growing lettuce, arugula, chives, basil, and more in one ebb-and-flow bed

But, even though it looks like there is enough light for all plants, some young plants do not get enough light and grow leggy.

The fix is to wait for true leaves and then pinch the seedlings to encourage the growth of side shoots. When done, give more light and watch the plants recover. 

Mattias Magnusson: Hello, I'm Mattias, a passionate and experienced gardening enthusiast. I am the creator of MattMagnusson.com, your guide to year-round herb and veggie growing. Let's simplify green living, no matter your space or location.