How do you grow an indoor basil plant ?
January 6, 2012 5:43 AM   Subscribe

I keep killing indoor basil plants despite following instructions, doing research and talking to happy owners of indoor basil plants. What am I doing wrong?

Every time I go to the market, they always have those potted grown basil plants that you can take home and grow indoors. I've purchased at least 4 and every time they start dying within in a week. Everyone tells me how easily and low maintenance they are, but they still keep dying.

I put it by the window to get light, I water it every two days and it just wilts right away. Is there a trick to growing them? I have other plans that seem to thrive in my home, so I don't understand why the simplest basil plant is giving me a hard time.
posted by Danithegirl to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Repot into a larger pot with fresh soil. Maybe water less often - don't water unless the soil is really dry. Use plant food (I use Baby Bio For Herbs every week or two). If the plant is getting quite big, prune it down by like 50% and you can freeze the leaves for later use if you want (or make some pesto). These steps have all worked for me.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:48 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

How do they die? Do they wilt, do the leaves fall off, do they turn brown? More details will help us figure out what you're potentially doing wrong.
posted by lydhre at 5:55 AM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: They don't dry out - they wilt. So I thought maybe I was watering it too much, so I stopped but then it kept dying.
posted by Danithegirl at 6:02 AM on January 6, 2012

The only things I can think of is that either you're watering too much (doesn't sound likely) or, at the risk of paranoia, someone in your household is doing something to them you don't know about - could someone be feeding to excess, or does the cat wee on them when you're not looking?

They don't last forever, anyway, though it is fairly easy to let them produce seed and start all over again.
posted by Segundus at 6:04 AM on January 6, 2012

Two things come to mind: the plants were grown in relatively sterile soil and the starter fertilizer coincidentally runs out by the time you get them home. Or two: your windows are high efficiency and aren't letting in enough light for plants to grow. I suppose you can test for this by getting a cheap grow light.
posted by gjc at 6:13 AM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: I suggest repotting them in a clay pot, that'll help keep the roots from rotting in case you're overwatering. Basil seems to need more water than you'd think, though. They're pretty thirsty plants. Repot, water less but water everyday. See if that helps.
posted by lydhre at 6:13 AM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks! I'm going to try and re-pot one with new soil.

GJC - Not to be paranoid, but I assume the Market would have a soil like that so suckers like me keep buying them! :)
posted by Danithegirl at 6:16 AM on January 6, 2012

I'm guessing they're not getting enough light. Basil needs a lot of it.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:49 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is it under a heating vent?
posted by something something at 7:24 AM on January 6, 2012

Basil tends not to winter well, in my limited experience, in colder climates. Is it getting a severe draft by the window? I'm not sure that this would be the death of a basil plant, but it could be a contributing factor.
posted by divisjm at 7:27 AM on January 6, 2012

Seconding the light and the temperature -- basil needs a LOT of light. Like, at least 5 to 6 hours of sunlight a day. And it likes things warm -- if you have it right up against the glass so it gets light, that still may be too much exposure to the cold, even if you don't have a draft.

Basil's just tough. I gave up on being able to grow it inside and stick to hardier herbs instead (rosemary and sage have done really well).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 AM on January 6, 2012

Had the same problem, I found you can't mist them enough, daily if possible. As well as moisture, it keeps down the aphids, etc.
posted by canoehead at 7:56 AM on January 6, 2012

Yeah, basil is just kind of picky. N'thing light and temperature -- the only time we've ever been successful at growing basil is when it was summer, planted outside in a pot, and enjoyed direct sunlight all day. That basil grew fast and big into like a two foot tall bush. Also, a friend of mine who lived in a west-facing apartment with large windows grew basil on his windowsill one summer; he only did it once, because the basil grew like crazy and he quickly got sick of the smell (it was a studio apartment).
posted by odin53 at 8:40 AM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: My condo has tons of light, and during the summer the temperature wouldn't have been a problem.

I'm going to try potting it in a new pot and see, if it dies then I will just stop buying them.

I tried growing rosemary and it died too -- unless it's a herb outside I just kill them. Other plants I'm fine with tho' (I have indoor tomatoes that are doing fantastic!).
posted by Danithegirl at 9:42 AM on January 6, 2012

Perhaps it's not your fault - they are probably used to specific conditions in the greenhouse and cannot adapt to your conditions. This is perhaps done intentionally, so that you keep buying them. Herbs are sometimes sown very thickly so that you get very bushy luscious plant for a short period of time, but the plant cannot thrive in such a small space and soon dies.
posted by leigh1 at 9:53 AM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: My secrets to keeping supermarket basil alive:

The day you get the pot, or as soon as you can after that, use a lot of it up. Supermarket basil is way overcrowded. Mercilessly uproot all but the 4 or 5 strongest plants, pinch off the root ends, wash and make pesto or basil butter.

Alternatively, if the pot is small and only has a few plants in it, plant them out into separate pots. Basil puts down a taproot, so depth of the pot is more important than width.

Water the remaining ones a little every day. Basil, especially young basil, is thirsty and will start to droop and look sad if you don't water it (and then perk up miraculously after). As others have said, lots of light is crucial. It does fine indoors; outdoors is also fine in summer but it doesn't tolerate frost well. Eventually, plant them out 1 or 2 to a pot. As they mature and grow a bigger root system, they can go longer without water.

When using the basil, take the growing tips off so it will form side shoots. Eventually it will try and flower. Pinch off the flowerheads; you want that energy to go into making leaves.

If you're going away for a week or more and your basil is well established, prune it back to a couple of inches high and give it a good watering. When you return it will be putting out new shoots.

I've kept supermarket basil alive for years this way. Have fun!
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:27 AM on January 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

Do you have a water softener? I recently made the connection between my water softener and a sad run of dead plants.

Water softeners work by using salt. Many plants do not like to drink salt water AT ALL. It's my observation that tender plants - like basil, and my late lamented begonia - are more sensitive to softened water.

Fortunately the cure is simple. Buy a gallon jug of water at the store for about a dollar. Or if you live in a setting where it's plausible, and where you have minimal air pollution, you can collect rain water.
posted by ErikaB at 2:12 PM on January 6, 2012

Basil likes temps of 55-65 F and humidity of 80-90%. I'm guessing the problem is less one of water than of heat and humidity. Most homes with decent humidity are in the 30-50% range, far too low for greenhouse grown basil to easily adjust. I also agree that you are probably watering too much- you don't need a new pot as long as it freely drains, and you only water when the top inch or two of soil has dried out. You can try putting your basil on a tray of wet pebbles to see if that increases humidity around the plant, but if your home is quite warm and dry it won't do much.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:04 PM on January 6, 2012

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