February 4, 2012

Growing Basil from Cuttings

my lovely, dying, woody sweet basil
I have a basil plant in the window that is woody, with only a few leaves that aren't particularly flavorful or fragrant.  These are both signs that this plant is nearing the end of its life, and in this case, it suffered neglect while I was out of town working for 2 months.

This was a great basil--it's leaves were sweet, and the smell was wonderful. I'd rather have more like it than try my luck with store bought seeds.  So, I'm going to propagate it from cuttings in this tutorial.

(step by step guide after the jump)

Turns out, this is pretty easy with basil. It's hardy, and develops roots quickly that suck up water.  Using cuttings is a great way to get a new basil for free from one that someone plans to throw out, and a great way to resurrect a basil you would otherwise throw out.  Here's how I do it.

a 4" cutting from the woody plant

Step 1:  Look carefully at your basil, and apply slight pressure to some of the branches as if you were trying to break them off.  Some branches will be woody and dry and will snap off easily.  Those are dead, and you don't want them.  Instead, look for the branches that bend rather than break under slight pressure. These will be the ones under the live leaves.  If you can't find any bendy branches, it may be too late to resurrect the plant.

Step 2:  If you find bendable branches, snip them off about 4" from the top.  If these branches have live leaves on them, try to leave the leaves on.  If you look at the edge you just cut, you will notice that it has a green ring, where the ones that are dead have only tan and brown ends.

waterproof container, lid, gummy candy removed

Step 3:  find a waterproof container you can seal but don't mind destroying in the long run.  In this case, I used a plastic container with a lid that came from the bulk candy section of our grocery store.  The candy's been safely removed to a plastic bag for later eating.

Cut a hole large enough for the cutting
Step 4:  Depending on the size of your container and the number of cuttings you were able to take from the dying plant, cut one or more holes in the the lid.  I make my holes with a knife by cutting a cross and folding back one portion of it.  Leave a few inches between holes to maintain the structural integrity of the lid and to give your roots space to grow.

cuttings pushed through hole in the lid.
Step 5:  Fill the container with water.  Yep.  Just water.  Basil is a pretty hardy plant and will grow new roots in water without needing any rooting hormone.

1"-3" of cutting below the water line

Step 6:  Put the lid back on tightly and gently push the cuttings through the lid.  A few leaves will probably fall off, but that's ok, just make sure that one end of the cutting is fully immersed at least 1" in the water, and that the end sticking up through the lid still has some leaves on it.

sunny window

Step 7:  Put the basil in a sunny window and basically ignore it for a few weeks.  The only thing you need to do with the basil at this point is to refill the water if any evaporates so that the cuttings always have a portion immersed.  Don't fertilize it, don't water it, don't sing it arias. . .just leave it alone (ok, you can sing to it if you want).

Step 8:  Roots will begin to grow.  Mine took about 9 weeks before they were about 3-4" long themselves--leave them alone until then.  At this point, they may begin to tangle with one another, but you'll still be able to separate them.  Take the plants out gently by cutting the opening in the lid so it's large enough to pull out the roots without breaking them.  This may mean destroying the lid, and if you chose your container wisely at the start, that won't be a problem.

Step 9:  Fill a 6" or larger pot with good drainage about 1/2 of the way with potting soil (or if it's warm enough, dig a hole outside), and dig a hole about 1/3 of the way down.  Hold the basil plant above the pot with one hand so that the bottom of the roots are resting on the top of the potting soil hole.

Step 10:  Gently add more soil until the roots are buried.  Continue adding soil until a little of the stem is buried as well.  You may only have a few leaves sticking out.  That's ok--it will encourage a bushy plant, rather than a stringy one.  Pat the soil down gently, and lightly water.  Put your pot back in the sunny window.

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