However diligent you are with your watering schedule, the pots of basil you bought from the grocery store can wilt and die in a few weeks. Fortunately, you can keep these store-bought plants alive and help them thrive, giving you an endless supply of fresh and flavorful leaves fmaor your pesto or a caprese salad with sun-dried tomatoes.
Here are the essential ways to care for a basil plant from the grocery store:
- Choose healthy plants.
- Divide the plants before potting.
- Repot the healthiest plants in individual pots.
- Place the pot in a warm, sunny spot.
- Water regularly.
- Move the pot outside when it is warm.
- Apply fertilizer.
- Prune for bushy growth.
- Harvest your basil.
The key to keeping store-bought basil alive is to separate and repot the seedlings in individual pots. You must keep the plant well-hydrated and well-fed, prune, and harvest it regularly to keep the leaves growing. I will explain in this article the steps involved in caring for store-bought basil, enabling you to make multiple plants out of one.
1. Choose Healthy Plants
Healthy basil seedlings are more likely to thrive in your home than diseased plants. Bringing home healthy seedlings also ensures that you do not introduce pests and mold to your existing indoor plant community.
When buying, look for big plants sporting lush growth. If you can check, make sure that the roots of the plant are healthy and the plant is not root-bound.
Most importantly, DO NOT buy basil plants exhibiting the following signs of disease or poor health:
- Wilting or drooping leaves
- Crushed leaves
- Whitefly infestation
- Broken stems
- Brown and shriveled roots
2. Divide the Plants Before Potting
Commercial growers tend to densely seed basil in pots. So, the one potted basil you buy from the supermarket is a cluster of plants.
However, the small pot does not contain enough nutrients to help all the plants thrive. You must divide the plants and repot the healthiest ones individually.
Here are the steps for dividing a store-bought basil plant:
- Choose any time during the growing season to divide the plant so it regrows quickly.
- Water the plant well two days before dividing.
- Remove the cluster of basil plants from the pot. Squeeze the pot or gently tap it to loosen the roots. Hold the plants with one hand to support them, and tilt the pot with your other hand. Now, carefully remove the rootball from the pot without damaging the stems or leaves.
- Tease apart the rootball to separate the plants. You don’t have to separate every plant. You can divide the rootball into several small clumps, each with two or three plants and a sizeable set of roots. Be careful so that you don’t crush the delicate stems.
- Remove the smallest plants from each clump. Use a pair of sharp scissors to snip off the weakest plants at the soil level.
- Trim very long roots to about 3 inches (7.6 cm).
3. Repot the Healthiest Plants in Individual Pots
Choose the healthiest and the largest basil seedlings and replant them in individual pots. Being housed in individual pots gives each plant room to spread its roots and not need to compete with others for nutrients.
You can use the smaller and weaker-looking plants in your recipes.
Use a well-draining potting mix for your plants because basil does not like sitting in water. Rich potting soil with plenty of organic matter is porous and ensures excellent drainage. Make sure the pot is at least 4 inches (10 cm) deep and sports drainage holes at the bottom.
Here are the steps for replanting a basil seedling in a pot:
- Fill 2 inches (5 cm) of the pot with the potting mix.
- Set the clump at the center of the pot.
- Gently backfill the potting mix to cover the roots, leaving about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) of space between the top soil surface and the lip of the pot.
- Ensure the sapling is planted no deeper than it was in the original pot.
- DO NOT cover the stems with soil to prevent rotting.
- Gently tap the potting mix to help the plant settle in and ensure the roots have maximum contact with the soil.
- Snip back the top foliage till the top leaf node. This lessens the amount of water evaporating from the leaves, encourages the plant to concentrate on developing a robust root system, and promotes bushy growth.
- Soak the plant thoroughly till water runs out of the bottom of the pot.
- Mulch around the base of the plant to keep the roots cool and conserve water.
You can plant more than one seedling in a large pot. However, ensure to keep 8-10 inches (20-25 centimeters) of space between the plants to give each sapling ample growing space.
4. Place the Pot in a Warm, Sunny Spot
Basil is a heat-loving plant. After you have divided and repotted your store-bought basil, place the pot in a warm, sunny spot in your house.
You can put the pot on a sunny windowsill where it will receive direct sunlight. Basil plants thrive near a south-facing window or inside the greenhouse.
If there is no appropriate sunny site in your house, you can grow basil under artificial grow lights.
5. Water Regularly
The soil should be consistently moist but not soggy, as overwatering can lead to mildew and rot.
Poke a finger down to the second knuckle into the soil. If it feels dry, it’s time to water the plant. You also need to look out for signs of dehydration like drooping and wilting leaves.
Pour water directly at the base of the plant and not on the leaves. Wet leaves tend to attract pests and can cause mold.
Avoid watering in the evening or at night when the temperature is low. This is because the water will cool down quickly and shock the roots. The best time to water basil is in the morning just before sunrise.
6. Move the Pot Outside When It Is Warm
This is an optional step but still worth mentioning. Basil thrives both indoors and outdoors if you create the right growing conditions.
Basil grows best when the nighttime temperature stays above 50 °F (10 °C). If you want to move the plant outdoors, wait till it is warm and the plant is showing signs of new growth. Move the pot to a sheltered location outside and then relocate it to a spot where it receives 6-8 hours of full sunlight.
Continue watering regularly to keep the soil just moist. You might want to keep an eye on the weather updates and move your plant indoors if cold nights are forecasted.
7. Apply Fertilizer
Feed your basil plant with an organic fertilizer containing nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus in equal proportions.
There are plenty of fertilizers that work well on basil plants:
- Liquid Fertilizer: You can use a fish emulsion or liquid seaweed feed. Apply the fertilizer on your indoor basil every 4-6 weeks or every 2-3 weeks if it is planted outside. You can use a water-soluble or liquid fertilizer diluted at half its strength for your indoor plant. This ensures you don’t have to dig into the soil or remove the top few inches (5 cm) to add the fertilizer. It can be a messy job if you do it indoors.
- Granular Fertilizer: You can also use a dry fertilizer for your basil planted outside. Sprinkle the granules or powder around the base of the plant and lightly scratch with a garden fork or spade to work the fertilizer into the soil. Always water your plant thoroughly after applying a dry fertilizer to ensure it reaches the root zone.
- Compost or Manure: When planting, you can dig an inch or two (2.5-5 cm) of compost or well-rotted manure into the top few inches of the soil. This way, you don’t have to fertilize at all or at most, only feed the plant lightly once or twice during the growing season.
8. Prune for Bushy Growth
Pruning encourages branching and gives a bushy appearance to the plant. You should prune even if you don’t want to harvest basil leaves for the kitchen.
Here’s what you must keep in mind when pruning a basil plant:
- Prune when the plant is at least 6 inches (15 cm) tall.
- Use a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears to make clean cuts.
- Prune just above the new, small leaves growing at the tip of a branch.
- Cut back the central shoot after about six weeks from planting to prevent flowering.
- Pinch off flower buds to keep the plant growing. Else, the plant will expend all energy to produce flowers instead of growing flavorful leaves. Also, snip off the flowers.
9. Harvest Your Basil
Harvest only the top few sets of leaves of your basil plant. As a rule, never harvest more than 20% of the plant. This ensures there are enough leaves to keep the plant growing.
Instead of over-harvesting one or two plants, grow more basil plants if you want to use the leaves to make pesto.
Store-bought basil plants look deceptively healthy. However, they appear bushy because too many seedlings are crammed into a small pot. Unfortunately, the plants fight for the nutrients in the compost and struggle to survive beyond a few weeks because they run out of food.
The trick to keeping basil alive is to divide the store-bought plant as soon as you reach home and transplant the healthiest seedlings to individual pots.
Basil is an easy-to-grow plant. Keep in mind its natural habitat (a warm region), and create the ideal growing conditions for it to flourish either inside your home or backyard.