How to Grow Basil in Pots or Containers
Basil is one of the most beloved culinary herbs and it’s easy to grow in a garden. If you want to try growing basil in pots or containers this season, come along as gardening expert Jenna Rich provides seven simple steps for success.
There are so many great uses for basil, and I spend most of the summer wishing I had more. Growing basil in containers on your deck or windowsill is a great way to keep this herb close by, giving you easy access when you need a few leaves for dinner.
There can be a slight learning curve when growing in pots, containers, or grow bags, but anyone can do it. Here are seven easy steps to help you grow basil in pots or containers successfully.
Choose the Right Container
The biggest rule you should follow when growing basil in containers is to ensure that the soil remains moist but never gets bogged down with water. The more soil you provide for your plant, the better chance it has at retaining moisture, so be sure your container is large enough for the number of plants you plan to grow.
Lastly, always ensure there is a way for water to drain out of the container. Pots with drainage holes and breathable materials (like fabric or terra cotta) allow an escape route for extra moisture.
If you plan to add more than one plant to your container, consider a wooden raised grow box, a large grow bag, or a Birdie’s Metal Garden Bed. Basil roots reach 8-12″ into the soil, so consider this when choosing your container.
Most varieties are planted 12-18″ apart, which means a round short metal raised bed could fit about 7 basil plants. Ensure each plant has deep enough soil to reach its roots down and spread out.
I have had lots of success growing traditional Genovese-style basil in Epic Grow Bags. I highly recommend trying them if you have not before. These are perfect for:
- Patio growing (mobile and low space requirements)
- Cooler growing zones (easy to move inside)
- Beginners (especially if you struggle with proper watering)
- Homes with kids and pets (they won’t break if knocked over)
They include sturdy handles, making it a cinch to bring it inside on a cold night or to move it to a sunnier spot on your patio if additional light is needed. They also hold up well year after year (with proper care when not in use) and come in various sizes for all your growing needs.
Fabric grow bags offer root aeration and are nearly impossible to overwater as the water seeps right out. Your plants will stay warmer in the spring and fall and cooler in the heat of the summer.
Unlike a traditional plastic pot, when growing basil in fabric grow bags and the roots hit the bottom or sides, they encounter airflow. The roots will not circle and become rootbound but naturally “root prune.” The fabric-aerated edges of the bag signal the plant to stop growing down or outward and to send its energy into either building new feeder roots off the main root structure inside the bag or back up to the top of the plant, where it results in more basil for you!
Choose an Appropriate Potting Soil Blend
This infamous herb prefers well-draining, compost-rich, and moist soil. The soil must drain well so the roots will not be sitting in water or mud, as this may cause them to rot.
These ingredients help improve soil drainage:
- Compost (particularly larger particulate sizes)
- Large-grained sand (playground sand to very fine gravel)
- Extra-fine wood chips
- Rice hulls
These ingredients improve soil moisture retention by absorbing some of the moisture while allowing any excess to flow away freely:
- Vermicompost (worm castings)
- Peat moss (pre-moistened)
- Coconut coir (pre-moistened)
If the soil you select does not contain fertilizer, you can add some at the time of transplant to help establish the herbs get established. More on fertilizer a bit later!
Space Them Out Properly
Basil is extremely sensitive to humidity levels and susceptible to fungal diseases, so providing ample airflow is very important for disease prevention. Providing each basil plant with at least 12 inches of space on all sides will be best.
This also goes for companion plantings, such as basil grown alongside tomatoes or peppers. When doing so, try planting basil in the space opposite your other crops.
For instance, if your tomatoes are spaced out at two feet, add basil in the two feet between the tomatoes along the edge of the bed so each plant has ample space around the leaves and base.
Select a Sunny Space
Basil prefers full sun and needs 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day for peak performance.
However, if you live in zones 6+ and are not receiving much cloud coverage, the leaves could get sunburned, so it is advised to move them into the shade for some relief in the afternoon. Growing in pots allows you to easily move your plants into the shade.
Provide Consistent Water
When sticking your finger or a moisture sensor into the soil, it should be fairly moist 2-3 inches down. If it is not, it’s time to water. Consistent irrigation allows the water to be retained and soak into the soil. It is not recommended to wait until your basil plants are wilted or until the soil has totally dried out before watering.
You can water with a watering can, use drip irrigation over the top of multiple containers at once, or add a self-watering stake to each container.
There are some grow bags that now come with a bottom-watering reservoir. Fill the reservoir with clean water, and the plants soak up water with their roots when needed.
This allows growers to go on vacation and not worry about their plants not receiving enough water. However, this can result in some soils becoming oversaturated, so this technique is not recommended except when absolutely necessary.
Prune and Harvest Regularly
The terms pruning and harvesting can be used interchangeably for basil because both activities do the same thing to your plant. Prune your plants to allow for upward and outward growth, even if you do not need herbs right away.
To get the most from your basil patch, walk through every 4-7 days and cut the tops of your plants above a growing node. This will cause more side shoots to grow, doubling the number of growing tips you have.
Pruning also keeps your plant from bolting (trying to go to seed). In a particularly humid, chilly, or hot growing season, pruning is even more critical because you want to keep your plants from being under stress, as this will cause them to bolt more quickly.
Pro tip: If you don’t have an immediate use for basil but pruning is in order, you can always toss your freshly harvested stems into a jar of water or an airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator or chop and freeze them in ice cube trays with a small amount of water for later use.
Use Balanced Fertilizer
You can usually start harvesting about 6-8 weeks after transplanting into your containers. At this point, you’ll want to add a well-balanced fertilizer like Espoma Bio-tone to your container to boost plants. After the plant has been well-established, feeding it will give it the nutrients it needs so that it continues to provide lots of delicious herbal leaves. You should feed your plants again at least one other time during the season.
If you are using a granular fertilizer, sprinkle it around and scratch the soil surface around the base of each plant, taking care not to allow any chemical-based soluble fertilizer to land on the leaves, which could burn them.
Organic granular fertilizers do not burn leaves. Work organic fertilizers loosely into the surface soil with your hand and then water. For chemical-based fertilizers, water it to dissolve it and allow the soil to absorb it.
You can also use liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion or seaweed. Liquid feed can be applied as a foliar feed or a soil drench, although soil drenches are far more effective as plants absorb very few nutrients through their leaves.
Apply any foliar feed early in the morning before it’s too hot or later in the evening when the sun has started to go down. Follow the directions on the label of whatever product you choose and measure it accordingly.
Remember, when growing basil in pots or containers, your plants rely solely on you for what they need. When grown directly in the ground, roots can easily grow deeper to access nutrients and water, but they’ll hit the bottom of a container.
Keep Pests in Check
Common basil pests include aphids, Japanese beetles, slugs, and flea beetles. These annoying bugs still attack when growing in containers. Here are a few tips on how to keep these away from your beloved herbs.
Aphids are annoying sap-sucking pests that hang out on the undersides of leaves. You can often blast these off with a strong blast of water from a hose. If needed, spray plants with an insecticidal soap like Safer Soap® to control them.
Try to avoid most dish detergent blends recommended online, as the grease-removing chemicals can strip some of the essential oils from your plants’ leaves and leave them more susceptible to bacterial or fungal infections.
Neem oil or other horticultural oils are also effective but should not be applied when the temperature is 90 degrees or above, as this can cause sunscald to your plants.
Japanese beetles can multiply quickly and decimate your herb patch in the blink of an eye if you are not paying close attention. These can be hand-picked each morning into a glass of soapy water. Get them before they fully wake up for the best success.
These can be tricky pests to treat as they lay eggs in the soil that overwinter in the ground as grubs. Methods like milky spore powder have some minor effects but can take years to become truly effective. However, many beneficial nematodes will attack the grubs in the soil, and with fewer grubs, you’ll have fewer Japanese beetles.
You can also try hanging a (somewhat controversial) Japanese beetle trap. Some growers believe this can lure in beetles from elsewhere that may not otherwise find your garden, but if they’re heading straight to the trap, I don’t mind!
Snails and slugs can quickly make a slimy home in the moisture of basil containers. Insect netting works great against slugs, but there are organic pellets you can sprinkle around your garden plot that will kill slugs if they are bothersome.
The pellets contain iron phosphate, which lures them out from their hiding places and then kills them within 3-6 days of consumption. Sluggo® is OMRI listed for organic gardening, as is Garden Safe Slug & Snail Bait.
If you see tiny little holes in herb leaves that create a lace-like appearance, you may have flea beetles present in your container garden. Cover your plants with a floating row cover to create a barrier, dust plants with diatomaceous earth, or stake out sticky yellow traps to try catching beetles as they fly.
If you have never grown basil in a pot or container, now is a great time to try it. Basil is a fairly easy herb to grow, as long as you know a few simple dos and don’ts. Traditional pots, fabric grow bags, and metal garden beds are all great options for growing basil. Just remember to space out your plants, water and fertilize regularly and prune them each week for continued growth and abundance.