7 tips for how to grow gargantuan basil plants

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Basil leaves photo 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 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, moisture and sun amounts? Does basil need full sun? 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. So if I can do it, I feel like anyone can! Basil has both a great flavor AND is pretty forgiving! Here are the tips I know for growing gargantuan 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 Chicago where I live? We sure have a lot of corn to prove it…

But these basil growing tips should help those without the perfect conditions:

1. Plant with seeds or a starter plant

I grow from seeds using this Capsule Seed Sweet Basil Growing Kit, starting a few months before it gets warmer in my area (around February or March). You can also buy a starter plant seedlings 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. For me, I found that a vertical grow bag situation like this kit worked great for me:

But I have a friend who’s newly obsessed with their hydroponic grow kit, so now I’m curious. If I had one of those maybe I could grow mad basil all year long!?

3. Does basil need full sunlight? YES! Keep the temperature fairly warm with at least six hours of sunhine a day

Basil likes warmer temperatures (over 50°F/10°C) so I grow mine in the summer outside in an area with full sunlight — we’re talking at least six hours a day.

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. (PS: 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. Also, I have these cute little pots for my indoor basil:

5. Water often in hot weather

I watered once a day when the temperatures got really hot this summer. (I use this cute little watering can designed for children but beloved by me, a fullgrown adult.) 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 it!

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 using this technique:

Start pruning the top basil 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, using liquid seaweed as a fertilizer can help. It’s worked for me.

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.


How much sun does basil need? 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 basil 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. Does basil like full sun? I foudn it did, I kept the moisture level high by watering 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 gargantuan basil growing advice?

Comments on 7 tips for how to grow gargantuan basil plants

  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!

  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!

    • 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. 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

  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

    • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

      • Just to be on the safe side Basil should not be eaten everyday as although it is used as a medicinal plant it is also known to contain the carcinogen

        • Thanks for the tip! I’ve been putting them in my smoothies for a week or two and have been on a kick, putting it in water, meals, etc. Good to know that can be dangerous. (also, yes, it tastes fabulous in fruit/greens smoothies)

  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. 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.

    • I put many herbs in a paper (lunch) bag, fold it down a few times, and leave them on top of my garage fridge (where it is warm, but out of sun and away from any critters). They dry in about a week. Then I crunch them in the bag and re-store them in a glass jar in the pantry. Totally easy. (Peppermint, oregano, basil, etc.)

      • Just to add a bit to your comment. When storing dry herbs do not crush them prior to use most of the oil will be expelled from herb and will loose some flavor.

      • 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

        • This is not accurate, microwaves just heat the water in your food. There’s no ionizing radiation so they won’t destroy anything that your oven won’t also destroy. Microwaves are the best way to preserve nutrients when cooking vegetables.

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 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.

  10. 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.

    • 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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!

    • I grow garlic but don’t have nowhere cool enough to store it. This year I ground the garlic in olive oil and keep it frozen until I need it. Use it for everything.

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