7 tips for growing mad giant basil plants

By: Nate SteinerCC BY 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, we were freaking out over making homemade mozzarella, and I mentioned my basil plants.

Sometimes they grow so quickly and so big that I fear they will become carnivorous like in Little Shop of Horrors. Side note: I wish Rick Moranis was still in movies.

The point is a commenter asked us how to best grow basil:

I would love the details on how you grow basil so successfully. Specifically, where you got the plant or seeds, the temp range, watering, and sun amounts? I grew it on a balcony seven years or so ago in full sun, but ever since, no matter where I try to grow it, it either wilts, rots, or burns up.

The first thing to know is that I am not a pro when it comes to gardening… at all.

But basil is pretty forgiving, so I give it a go. Here are the tips I know for growing mad basil.

Note that I don't actually remember to do a lot of these things and the darn plants grow beyond my control anyway.

Maybe it's the climate in the Midwest? We sure have a lot of corn to prove it…

But these tips should help those without the perfect conditions:

By: Alice HennemanCC BY 2.0

1. Plant with seeds or a starter plant. I grow from seeds and start a few months before it gets warmer in my area (around February or March). You can also buy a starter plant at a nursery or a grocery store.

2. Well-drained soil is good soil for basil. If you grow yours in containers like I do, the container itself needs to have good drainage holes.

3. Keep the temperature fairly warm with lots of sunlight (at least six hours a day). Basil likes warmer temperatures (over 50°F/10°C) so I grow mine in the summer outside. If you're growing it outside, a layer or mulch will help regulate temperature and prevent weeds from growing. If there's any hint of frost coming, protect the plants with a covering like sheets or blankets tied loosely around and held in place with rocks, stakes, or bricks. If you don't have any stakes, call Buffy.

4. Fertilize the soil about once a month if you're growing it indoors. Organic or slow-release fertilizers (like compost tea) are best for basil. Just don't fertilize it below 60°F/16°C.

By: Christian SchnettelkerCC BY 2.0

5. Water often in hot weather. I watered once a day when the temperatures got really hot this summer. But in more normal conditions, I water every other day or so. Check your soil to make sure it isn't getting dry either way.

6. Prune that bitch! Pruning leads to more basil, so make sure that you figure out how you'll handle the overflow, maybe by learning how to freeze fresh herbs. Start pruning the top leaves at around six inches tall and continue to prune as it gets bushier. Also, pinch off any flowers that you see so they don't go to seed. That will lead to bland and sparse plants.

7. Keep insects away. If pests are bugging your plants, I've heard using liquid seaweed as a fertilizer will help.

By: apiumCC BY 2.0

We also saw some awesome suggestions from other readers!

Nerissa said:

I don't have a green thumb, but I just grew basil for the first time successfully this year from seeds. I got the seeds from Burpee (I think) and started a bunch of little ones inside in a little plastic greenhouse, and then once they were of a viable size I moved them outdoors. I live in the south and have them in an area where they get a good bit of sun (not quite full all-day sun, it's west-facing) and a LOT of humidity, and they've gone crazy. Before that, I had tried growing them indoors, but it seems like the air is too dry. I water them every few days or if they start to look sad.

T'Rina said:

The biggest trick to basil I know is pruning it — always pinch it back to the next place where there are two leaves sprouting, and those will grow into two more stems. Look up "pruning basil" — it makes a huge difference. I have basil growing in a wide variety of pots, including a nine-inch deep Rubbermaid box and a dollar store garbage can, both with holes on the bottom as well as two deep planters and another 15-inch deep garbage can with some very small holes in the bottom.

I use good potting soil, but they will do okay in most dirt. They like full sunshine and I water them every other day unless it is over 100°F/38°C, then I water daily. Once a month, I mix up a plant food in their water and soak them good. I prune them two to three times a week, preferably in the evening if it is going to be roasting hot, so the stems don't bake.

I make pesto to freeze, or just crush the basil and freeze in little muffin tins with olive oil. Or there is basil syrup for tea and best of all BASIL LEMONADE!

Want more mad giant advice?

What tips do YOU have for growing basil? Feel free to share your own favorite ways to store or cook with basil, too.

  1. If you're growing basil in a pot or planter, make sure the pot is big enough for the roots. Once basil becomes root-bound it will get really leggy and leaves will be small. One of my biggest issues in growing basil indoors at my last apartment was that I was growing my plants (I had many) on a windowsill in fairly small pots (~6 inch diameter). They ended up getting really leggy and woody and the leaves were frequently yellow and small. I moved and transferred all my plants to one big pot (~15 inch diameter, because I have a patio with the space for it now) and they are EXPLODING with huge green leaves. Root room is important!

    23 agree
    • Oooh, so that may be why the new leaves on my basil plant are all so sad and pale! Must get a big pot soon…

      10 agree
  2. My Fiance's family bought us an Aerogarden for Christmas last year and I can't seem to grow anything in it BUT basil. I have a huge plant in there now and was considering repotting it, but now i know I have to. Thanks Ladies!

    5 agree
    • I've used my aero grow for the last 2 Years when growing my seedlings: tomatoes, peppers, basil, parsley, watermelon, cilantro and cucumbers. We have well water, so I use distilled water and my plants are doing great. Hope that helps you.

      3 agree
  3. Basil Syrup (for basil lemonade, ice tea and ice cream topper)
    3-4 cups of water in a sauce pan
    1 packed cup of basil leaves
    Boil water and basil for 5 Mins and then simmer for 20 more
    Strain out the basil (save in the freezer for pesto)
    Add 1.5 cups of sugar and bring back to a vwry low boil for 10 Mins until all of the sugar is

    60 agree
  4. Sigh stupid phone
    ….slowly boil on low until the sugar dissolves and you have a thick basil infused simple syrup
    Add to lemonade, tea or over ice cream

    17 agree
      • What is " hot"? I live in Tex. on the gulf coast , it's 85 and very humid right now.

        5 agree
        • It was over 100 when I was watering twice a day. At 85 you could water once and be fine, especially if it's humid.

          2 agree
    • You can just purée your basil with olive oil too and it comes in handy many places…. Drizzled on polenta, tomatoes, soup, egg sandwiches…. It can be frozen in wee containers and defrosted as you need. I find it cheaper and more versatile than pesto. I just stuff the blender full, add about 1/2 cup of olive oil and a pinch of salt. You can stuff other stuff in there too- arugula, parsley, mint, thyme, are all good with the basil. Then you can be like, oh, this would be fancy with some herb oil on it…. Megan, even you could do it.

      17 agree
    • How do you freeze basil? You can freeze pesto? Is it still good?

      8 agree
      • frozen pesto is awesome! freeze it in ice cube trays so that it is easy to use in small portions. Then toss the pesto cubes in a freezer bag, press out as much air as possible each time you open it! you can do it with lots of herbs- just chop, mix in oil, and freeze.

        10 agree
        • Thank you for the great advice on the page, and for good comments. There is only one thing I have to add/comment on: there is no need to freeze pesto whatsoever. A well made pesto (say, Stephanie Alexander's recipe for one) will keep just fine, for a long time, under a solid layer of olive oil. In colder climates it does not even need to be refrigerated.
          Oil needs to (always) completely cover every single particle of pesto in a jar. When you take a teaspoon or two out, do it from the middle of the jar so that its sides don't get smeared (this would cause oxidation of the whole mix within a few hours), make even again, and replenish the top layer of the oil. Goes without saying that the yummy oil (there is unfortunately an end to every jar…) has a number of yummy uses.

  5. Another tip – if you are growing in the garden, plant with Tomato plans and Petunias… they are great friends! (you will also be amazed at the growth if grown in soil that had Beans last season…)

    6 agree
  6. Pruning is a pain until I learned how to dry it for storage. Use a salad spinner to wash and dry it before you start. The three main way are:
    Use a dehydrator – this is what I use, takes less than a day on my old crappy rondo one.
    Hang to air dry – cut long stalks of it and strip the bottom leaves on each one so that the string has a place, then hang upside down for days and days. Inside, or you will get spider webs… >.<!
    Oven Dry – low low oven and never leave it for fear of burning it.

    2 agree
  7. Those flowers you pinched off could go in your next salad. Don't throw them away because they taste awesome

    4 agree
  8. You can also dry it in the microwave on paper towels for a couple of minutes or at least until dry.

    3 agree
    • I microwave at 30 second intervals until the basil is dry and crumbly. I have been warned about fires.

      • NO! dont do it! microwaves destroy proteins and other molecules! if you must quick dry an herb.. put it in an oven/toaster oven at 150.. 5 or 10 minutes at a time

        3 agree
  9. Thank you!! Why it took me like half a year to see this, I don't know. But hurray for basil triumph in 2013! I hope!

    5 agree
  10. We make a champagne basil vinaigrette as our house salad dressing! It is awesome. Check out our Facebook page "Lunch at the Lady"

    7 agree
  11. I'm new at gardening…… I need all the help I can get …lol. THANK U. C.CJ

    2 agree
  12. Basil plants just get old- they are annuals. Being root-bound accelerates this process, but this even happens if planted in the ground. The younger leaves will always have higher concentrations of oils, which is what gives basil its amazing smell and taste. Pruning helps a LOT, but I think starting with fresh plants is the best.

    My solution:
    I continuously take cuttings, root them on the windowsill, and then plant them in the garden. I normally have 2-3 mason jars by the window in my kitchen in various stages of rooting. A good cutting has at least 7 leaves, but does not comprise more than 1/3 of the plant. They root easily in water.

    You can also stagger when you start your seeds to have fresh plants ready.

    16 agree
  13. I grow basil on my deck every year. It's a great mosiquito repellant. When you prune your leaves, just crush them between your fingers and place in a bowl on your deck. Mosiquitos hate the smell of basil

    9 agree
  14. One more really great thing about basil, plant it between your tomato plants and they will ward off pests that harm your tomato plants. I heard it, did it and it worked. I thought it might be a fluke and tried it again last year, still no pests on my tomatoes, I'm a believer.

    6 agree
  15. Is it true once the plant flowers it is no good? Or can you just cut them off and continue using it?

    4 agree
  16. I always keep several basil plant and let one flower like crazy. I cut off the large stems with seed pods in them, let them dry then shake out the hundreds of seeds. Now you can plant your own basil seeds and have enough basil for life. They germinate quickly and are very easy to transplant. I have not bought basil seeds for years and probably never will.

    14 agree
    • Jo-anne I would like to know if my small basil plant will have seed pods, do u just have to wait till the end of the year to let them go to seed? or not, please let me know, I really appreciate it. thanks Coleen

  17. If you plant basil between your pepper plants they really help each other along.

    4 agree
  18. You know what else basil is great with? Throw a small bunch in the blender when you're making a peach smoothie…DEELISH!

    4 agree
  19. also, another good one is a bunch of basil in a blender, any type of hot pepper, garlic and olive oil. Pack into small jars. You can freeze it also. Great as a condiment for grilled meat or over pasta.

    2 agree
  20. Thanks for all the timely info. I am trying basil for the first time this year.

  21. @ T'rina and the recipe for basil lemonade is…?

    3 agree
  22. I love Basil! I frequently make pesto or just oil and basil, and I freeze it in an ice cube tray then transfer to bags. It is great to pop into any other dish this way, small amounts melt easily into sauces. I am famous for my Pesto!! Yes, they go to seed if you do not keep pruning them, so just freeze it for winter if you don't have one indoors in winter. Yes, rooting them and re-growing is another great solution. I have several in different stages. I love that they repel mosquitos!!! I planted mine next to my tomato and pepper plants this year too! I recently got food dehydrator, have not done basil in it yet, will have to try it next!

    1 agrees
  23. Thanks for the tips! I pinned this post a little over a week ago and have been pruning them like crazy. They have really taken off…I am constantly freezing in olive oil or water and adding them to recipes or marinades. I love summer!

    2 agree
  24. Thanks for all the tips…I have been pinching the leaves off and using them all summer my plant is huge.

  25. We just bought some crunchy ass basil at the farmer's/hippie's market. I came across this blog post to help me figure out which end of my new plant goes into the soil. Your step by step instructions were really clear, understandable, and in terms that I grasp very well. I'm so excited to watch my little green friend grow so I can "Prune that bitch!" and (step 8) "Eat the shit out of that basil" really soon. Thanks for the tips!

    1 agrees
  26. Read this post and all comments this spring and OMGoodness..the basil is beautiful….Am growing it in a big pot in my parking area behind my store…Seems to need fertilizer often . I cut the tops off and share with the restaurant next door Thanks for sharing

    1 agrees
  27. I always seem to end up with dark brown to black patches on my basil leaves.

    I live near Toronto, Canada in an apartment block fairly high up – I tend to keep my basil inside to prevent wind burn/damage. My plants get sunlight through the window and I water the basil every two or three days, plus I rotate the plant to ensure each side gets to face the sun.

    Any ideas??

  28. I think most of your problems I'm reading about are because you either planting in a soil with that fertilizer already in it (horrible junk) and it's burning your plants or your overwatering. Plants need a complete wet/dry cycle, not wet all the time. If they are always wet they will drown cause they can't get oxygen. Signs of this are wilting (also caused by underwatering), yellowing, rotting.

  29. Thank you for this! I'm having so much trouble knowing when to plant and what to do. I keep trying and plants die!! The only thing I seem to keep alive is my aloe. I have always had a black thumb but want to change that. That combine with just moving to Western Australia where we have completely different growing seasons (dry (over 100 days no rain), hot hot hot) from Seattle are definitely making it a huge challenge!!

  30. Love the tips. Basil is one of my favorite herbs to go because you can use it in so many dishes! I just wrote about my favorite dish with basil using Penne and tomatoes. Simple and fresh–basil is definitely the star!

  31. Great tips! I think pruning is the most important. You can always take the parts you prune, soak them in water until they sprout roots and plant them as another plant, another way to increase your basil production.

  32. I love basil in sandwiches…slice a baguette, smear with hummus, sliced zucchini, tomatoes and basil…fabulous!

  33. most people dont know this, but i who live in Italy and have way to much basil will tell u the secret of growing basil all year long…Yes good drainage but never water the plant from the top especially if in a pot, it will rot and leaves will sag..use a non deep pot and put a deep dish under the pot and water it with luke warm water only in the Dish the basil plant will absorb the water with its roots always keep at least a finger of water if u want really big leaves add more water… try u'll c ure Basil will love u for it…

    1 agrees
  34. If you want to freeze whole leaf basil, just wash the leaves, dry thoroughly on paper towels or in a salad spinner and lay them in plastic bags or boxes and freeze. Do not thaw until ready to eat as they will turn soggy and black almost immediately. I haven't tried spraying with olive oil on both sides yet but that might slow the darkening process. They will stay bright green as long as they are frozen. I got a lot of great tips on growing and also love the mosquitoes repellant tip. Didn't realize that one. How about trying the freezing method with cilantro as well. Haven't tried but am going to this year since cilantro is so hard to grow and keep fresh in the frig. I also think this year I will buy a new dehydrator. Used to have one but it wore out. I am also trying square foot gardens this year. So far, so good.

    1 agrees
  35. i think too many people try to grow basil inside cause they hear it's easy but it needs full sun and a warm climate. they think it will magically grow awesomely cause it looks good on the window sill in the kitchen but the reality is, it need 6+ hours — direct sun. a grow light helps indoors, but it aint sexy

  36. Por favor poner la traducción al Español Me encanta tus publicaciones-

  37. Thank you for this article, I have grown basil for years and in different homes. The basil I grew in this house last year was amazing!! Basil likes heat but it doesn't like to fry. I have a tall herb planter and put it in the back. It still received sun but was protected and I think the warmth of the house kept it warm overnight. It went crazy for me, the first time ever! I live up in Canada in Alberta and we have a short growing season and cool nights.

  38. I grow basil in an old recycling bin with free compost from our city.

    My first year I learned something very important.

    Basil does not like it's leaves watered. Rain is fine, but don't spray the leaves, just add water to the dirt. After that, my basil has grown faster than I can use.

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