Grow basil from leggy basil seedlings (and why it happens)

You get tall, spindly, or leggy basil seedlings when your soil is too nutrient-rich, there is not enough light, you fail to prune your plants, or the temperature is too hot.

And it is often a combination of at least two factors where not providing enough light is almost always the main culprit.

The good news is that basil is one of those herbs where leggy seedlings can be used to propagate more plants.

Why we welcome leggy basil seedlings

Basil is one of our favorite herbs, as we use pesto in our cooking. And you do need a lot of basil to make pesto. 

Our basil seedlings often grow leggy when we plant our seeds between October and March when the levels of natural light are low or even non-existent.

But we have devised a method that works very well for us. We grow basil from seeds in starter pots and place the pots under some – but not enough light.

We may, for example, put the starter pots in the kitchen on a surface area that is lit during the day.

The result will always be well-developed but leggy seedlings. And this is where it gets interesting.

We will consistently double the number of plants we grow by, for example, turning four leggy seedlings into eight basil plants. And for us, this means more pesto.

How to grow more basil from leggy basil seedlings

1. Start with leggy basil seedlings that are at least 15 cm (6 inches) tall
Use a sharp pair of scissors to cut the stem just above, where you see new leaves forming.

2. Cut all leaves from the stem cutting leaving only the top pair of leaves
Leave at least one set of fully formed leaves if the cutting is shorter than 10 cm (4 inches).

3. Place basil cuttings in a glass or container of water
If you have the space, use one container for each individual cutting. Replace water daily and always use room temperature water.

4. Transplant remaining seedlings from the starter pot
Next, transplant seedlings from the starter pot into a larger pot with fertile soil that drains well. Keep the soil moist and place it in a spot with good light. 

Related reading: Read our articles about transplanting tomatoes and peppers in the articles When to pot up or transplant peppers (and how)? and Transplanting tomatoes: How to transplant tomato seedlings

5. If you started with one leggy basil seedling, you now have two separate basil plants growing
You have one basil cutting placed in a glass container and one basil seedling growing in a pot with fertile soil for each of your leggy basil seedlings. 

6. After 1-4 weeks, you will see fully formed white roots growing from your basil cuttings

7. Transplant each basil cutting into a pot with fertile soil that drains well and place it in a location with plenty of light

And there you have it, you have turned each leggy basil seedling into two individual basil plants. 

If we had an unlimited number of grow lights we would most likely grow all basil seedlings in perfectly lit conditions. But, as we only have a limited number of grow lights, we have found this method to be a great way to consistently and quickly grow more basil plants year-round.

4 reasons basil plants get spindly or leggy

We have already listed four factors that will cause your basil plants to grow tall, leggy, and spindly.

But to avoid growing leggy basil seedlings and plants in the future, you must understand why basil grows spindly and leggy. Because it often starts already when you plant your seeds.

1. Soil is too nutrient-rich for basil seeds and seedlings

When you plant your seeds it is important to use a lean potting soil or seed starting mix. 


Because the seed itself holds all the energy needed for the seed to germinate and sprout its first leaves. 

Using soil that is nutrient-rich can stress the plant to grow and develop too fast, resulting in tall, weak, and leggy plants.

Always use a lean potting soil or seed starting mix to give your seeds the best possible environment to germinate and sprout. 

2. Not providing enough light for basil seedlings

Basil wants full sun for at least 6 hours daily to grow and thrive. And if you are not providing enough light, seedlings will use all their energy to grow tall in search of more light.

The stem will grow long, and you end up with a top-heavy plant that cannot carry its weight.

When starting basil seeds indoors in zone 7, there is not enough natural light in early spring. We always use artificial grow lights to help our seedlings develop into strong and compact plants. 

3. Failing to prune basil plants

It can feel counterproductive to prune seedlings and young plants that have taken weeks to get going.

But basil must be pruned to grow into a strong, compact, healthy plant. 

We start pruning basil when our seedlings have a minimum of 3-4 sets of true leaves growing from the branch. For most varieties of basil, including Thai basil, your plant will be about 15 cm (6 inches) tall at this stage of development.

Inspect the stem and use a pair of sharp scissors to cut just above where you see new leaves forming. Be careful not to hurt or damage these fresh leaves.

Prune for a bushier basil plants, here new branches where preciously pruned
Two new branches growing from just below cut when the plant was pruned

Pruning your basil plant will give you more leaves to harvest and a healthier, bushier, and more compact basil plant. 

4. Growing environment too hot for seedlings

Mature basil plants will grow and thrive in temperatures up to 32 degrees Celsius (90 F). 

But whereas basil seedlings want a warm environment to develop, it is my experience that too hot will stress basil seedlings to grow tall and leggy.

Aim for a temperature around 22-26 degrees Celsius (72-79 F) when germinating basil seeds. But as soon as the seeds have germinated and sprouted their first leaves, lower the temperature to around 20-22 degrees Celsius (68-72 F). 

This method has proven to produce strong and compact basil plants.

Leggy Thai and common sweet basil seedlings grown indoors
Two starter pots with leggy seedlings in the making. Thai basil (left) and the more common or sweet basil (right).

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