How to Propagate Basil From Leaf Cuttings
Thinking or propagating basil from leaf cuttings for additional plants in your garden this season? Basil propagation is easy, and can be quite rewarding. In this article, gardening expert Jenna Rich shares the exact steps you'll follow to propagate basil from leaf cuttings this season.
Basil is a favorite among backyard growers and market gardeners alike. But one of the downfalls of this aromatic herb is that it takes a long time from seed to harvest (about 75 days).
Curious how to speed up the process? Taking cuttings allows you to quickly grow new basil seedlings from an established mother plant!
Here is an easy step-by-step guide on propagating new basil plants using leaf cuttings.
What Are Cuttings?
Vegetative propagation involves taking a little piece of a mother plant and making a clone baby plant. This baby plant will grow into a replica of the mother plant.
While there are many types of cuttings based on a plant’s species, with basil, we’re dealing with soft stem cuttings. Basil does not create a woody stem and only has soft, green stem tissue. Soft stem cuttings are some of the easiest to propagate, even when new to the process.
These cuttings would be taken from a much larger plant. It’s best not to propagate from a very young plant if possible.
Benefits of Propagating by Cutting
Basil is a garden favorite, and we can never have too much! Propagating by cutting is a cheap and quick way to get more plants.
As a bonus, basil plants do best when they are pruned regularly. Cutting the mother plant does not hurt it; it helps it grow! The plants will grow bigger and bushier when pruned regularly and less prone to bolting to flower and seed production.
Taking cuttings is essentially pruning. By using the cuttings to grow new plants, you’ll get more bang for your buck!
Can I Take Cuttings From Storebought Basil?
If you don’t already grow basil in your garden, you can root very fresh cuttings of this herb purchased at the grocery store or the farmer’s market. Follow the same steps below, starting after cutting the plant.
Just be sure the leaves are not drooping and the cutting looks healthy overall. Give the stem a quick fresh cut right at the tip before putting it into water. Be forewarned that the older the basil is, the less likely this will work.
Some are lucky enough to find live basil plants at their supermarket, and these are better to root than basil found in those little plastic containers or even from a larger bunch of cut basil. With live plants, you don’t have any delay between the harvest and starting to root it, so it’s more likely to succeed.
How to Take Basil Cuttings
First, you want to start with a healthy, established basil plant that has not sent out any flower stalks. It should be big and bushy so you avoid damaging the plant.
If you have a very young plant, you may want to do minor harvests above leaf nodes to encourage lateral development and further growth before taking cuttings for propagation, giving the plant time to recover and grow new foliage.
Supplies needed before getting started:
- Well-established basil plant
- Sharp, clean pruning shears or scissors
- Clean jar or cup
- Fresh water
- Sunny windowsill or greenhouse
- Small pot, about 3-4”
- Organic potting soil; basil prefers rich soil and loves a little compost
Step 1: Fill a Jar With Water
Fill your clean jar or cup with 1-2 inches of fresh water. You don’t need it to be overflowing, and an inch or two is enough to ensure the cut stem ends are immersed and can absorb the moisture they need to thrive!
Step 2: Cut 4-6″ Pieces
Take sanitized scissors or shears and cut a healthy and vigorous-looking tip 4-6 inches in length. If possible, cut just above a leaf node. Remove the lower leaves from the bottom few inches of the stem by pinching them off, trying to avoid damage to the side of the stem.
What’s A Leaf Node?
A node is the place on the main growing stem where new growth happens. You’ll see one about every 4-5 inches where new leaves and shoots appear. When harvesting basil for consumption rather than to propagate, you want to cut above a node so there is room for new growth.
Cutting just above the leaf node tells the plant that it needs to grow new upright foliage at that point, and each leaf there will start to develop a longer stem. You’ll encourage the plant to bush out and produce new foliage, making it much larger as a result!
Step 3: Place Cuttings in the Jar
Place your cutting into the jar of clean water, ensuring the cut end is underwater, and move it to a sunny window.
Change the water daily to ensure no algae develop and your cutting remains clean. A daily water change also ensures that your water is well-oxygenated, something that your cutting will appreciate — stagnant water doesn’t provide a good oxygen supply for your plant’s base!
Step 4: Wait 2-3 Weeks for Roots to Form
In ideal conditions, you should see the initial formation of roots after just a few days to 1 week! Continue to monitor the water level and watch your roots grow. After about 2 to 3 weeks, the roots should be at least 2 inches. At this point, you are ready to pot up your cutting.
Don’t leave cuttings in the water for too long, or they may have trouble acclimating to growing in soil. Technically speaking, the earliest you can plant your basil cuttings is when they have one-inch roots, but longer is better here.
Step 5: Fill a Pot with Moist Soil
When a cutting has formed strong roots, it’s time to transplant it into the soil. Begin with a lightly moistened potting soil blend. You want it to remain in a loose ball shape when you squeeze it in your hand. It shouldn’t crumble or drip water. Then, fill a pot with the soil.
Step 6: Move Cuttings to Soil
Dibble a small hole with your pinky finger or pencil and place the cutting into the soil, ensuring the roots are completely submerged and oriented down or outward in the pot rather than upward.
Gently tamp down the soil around the cutting to ensure good root-to-soil contact. You don’t want a bunch of air around the roots because this can hinder successful establishment.
Step 7: Place in a Sunny Area
At this point, you’re about 3-4 weeks ahead of the game. You can now give this new plant to a friend or neighbor or keep it growing until it is ready to be transplanted.
Pro Tip #1: Take cuttings later in the season so you have a well established basil plant to bring inside your home for the winter. Just be sure your young seedling has a warm spot to grow. Basil plants are extremely sensitive to cold.
Pro Tip #2: If you don’t have access to a sunny window, make a small investment in a grow light. Your local hardware store should carry them and they last quite some time. Studies show that blue light can speed up root formation. Keep in mind that basil requires 6-8 hours of light per day.
Propagating Basil Cuttings in Soil
If you want to propagate basil directly in the soil, skip steps 1, 3, and 4. Instead, put your cutting directly into a pot full of soil.
Some growers believe this method reduces transplant shock caused by moving cuttings from the jar of water into the soil, making it easier to transplant into the garden later!
Best Varieties of Basil
Basil comes in a wide medley of flavors. I’m a real sucker for the traditional Italian ‘Genovese’ variety because it’s very easy to grow, and the flavor is *chef’s kiss*. It is full of spicy anise and sweet licorice notes.
My other favorites include the following:
- ‘Italian Large Leaf’
- ‘Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon’
- ‘Dark Opal’
Each is lovely in its own way and can be used interchangeably in salads, soups, caprese salads or sandwiches, and pesto.
Experiment with different varieties and see what you like best! You may prefer ‘Dark Opal’ for pizza and ‘Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon’ for pesto. Playing around with different flavor profiles for different dishes is fun.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why isn’t my basil cutting sending out roots?
Your basil cutting may not form roots because there isn’t enough water, the water was not changed often enough, or the stem rotted. Cuttings also fail when they don’t receive enough light.
These are easy fixes. Keep your eye on the jar to check your water level is high enough and that it stays clean. Remember, basil still needs 6-8 hours of bright indirect light everyday.
If you propagated directly into soil, the soil may have not been tamped down enough or perhaps the soil was too cool for the cutting which prevented roots forming. Move cuttings to a warmer area.
What should I do with all this extra basil?
Now that you have several very successful basil plants growing, you might wonder about different ways to utilize it all. There are lots of things you can try!
Here is a super simple recipe:
- 2 cups fresh, cleaned and dried basil leaves, stems removed
- 2-3 tbsp pine nuts or walnuts; sunflower seeds or pepitas for a nut-free version
- 2-3 large cloves garlic
- ½ cup good quality olive oil
- ½ cup good quality fresh parmesan cheese (I use half grated fresh parmesan and half powdered because I like the texture the combination provides)
- Lemon juice and salt/pepper to taste
Pro tip: Experiment by adding seasonal greens such as kale, arugula, or beet greens for a boost in nutrition.
Feel free to add or subtract spices to your taste. This recipe easily doubles or triples as needed.
Combine all ingredients except the cheese and olive oil in a food processor. Blend until very fine, then start to drizzle in the olive oil. Blend to the consistency desired. Add cheese and pulse a few times so it is mixed in well.
If you want to freeze your pesto, portion it into an ice cube tray. Once frozen, pop the cubes out and put them into a dated freezer-safe bag. Voila!
Freeze Basil Leaves Whole
I know, I know, basil is known to be intolerant of cold. But if you store it properly, you can successfully freeze whole basil leaves for wintertime use. Like most herbs, preserved whole leaves retain flavor better than when dried.
- Line a baking sheet with fresh, dry basil leaves and freeze for about 30 minutes.
- You can also stack leaves and roll them into little basil cigars for easier chiffonade cutting later.
- Then, layer leaves in a freezer-safe bag. Label and return to the freezer for later use.
You can also quickly (just 3-5 seconds!) blanch the basil leaves before freezing so they maintain their bright green color. This is best if you want to make fresh pesto or sauce in the winter.
Make Tomato Basil Soup
If basil is in season, tomatoes are likely also available in abundance. What’s a better combination than tomato and basil?!
Make a simple summer soup by sautéing chopped onions and garlic in olive oil or butter, add crushed fresh tomatoes and cook them at a simmer for 15-30 minutes. Add some vegetable stock and seasonings like salt, pepper and thyme. Use an immersion blender to roughly chop the tomatoes.
Add a few tablespoons of heavy cream if desired for richness and thickness, but it’s not necessary. Add the basil in the last 15 minutes, with the cream if using. Cook to the consistency you like, top with parmesan cheese, and serve immediately with a crusty bread.
Dehydrate or Dry Basil
You can hang small, clean bunches of basil in a cool, dry area of your home or barn to dry. Be sure the stems are tied tightly, as the bunch will shrink in size as it dries, and it might fall apart if it’s too loose.
In ideal conditions, bunches will be fully dried in about 2 weeks. At this point, you can pull leaves from the stem and put them into a mason jar with a tight lid, either whole leaves or crushed up by hand first. Store the jar in a cool, dark place for up to a year.
You can also use a dehydrator on the herb setting or unheated air-dry setting and store the same way. Do note that if your dehydrator gets much over 90-95 degrees, it’s going to partially cook the herbs as it dries them, changing their flavor. If your dehydrator model does not have temperature settings, test and see if the flavor is suitable for your needs — if not, consider hang-drying your basil.
Basil is a joy to grow, easy to propagate, and can be enjoyed in many ways. If you haven’t already added some to your garden, I urge you to do so next season! Once you have a well-established plant, try creating basil babies from cuttings to keep or share. You won’t regret it!