Friday, May 31, 2013

Caring for Basil Plants

Brown or Woodsy Stem

Yesterday,  I shared a fresh fish recipe and used chiffonaded basil as a garnish. The basil tasted and smelled bitter. 

This lead to my research on why basil turns bitter. I wondered if it had to do with my basil stems turning hard, some brown from the ground up. 

This post explains how to care for your basil plant and troubleshooting. 

Six weeks ago, my husband and I started a herb garden in our little patio. 

I've probably killed a dozen small basil plants that I bought from grocery stores. So, my little garden is definitely a small victory.

I've had better luck buying plants from nurseries or Trader Joe's. They are much larger and sometimes cheaper, too. 

I bought a pot of Sweet Basil from Lowe's for about $5. 

Bitter Basil

Basil can turn bitter in taste and smell. This is mainly due to the plant bolting or going to seed (explained further below). The plant stops producing its essential oils, which contributes to its taste.  

In general, younger and smaller leaves tend to be more sweet and tender. I noticed when I let the plant grow too many leaves, especially large ones, they are not as tasteful. Some gardeners prefer to harvest leaves in the morning for best flavor. 

Browning Basil

If the stems are hardening, then turning brown from the ground up, it is a sign that production is slowing due to weather changes or maturity. 

Browning is not to be confused to rotting stems which will be slimy, moldy, or limp. This is due mainly due to over-watering or insufficient drainage. 

You can harvest the leaves and cut down the stems to prevent it from getting more woody.


I have had much more success in keeping my plants alive when transferring the plants into larger pots and keeping outdoors. This gives the roots ample room to grow and plenty of sun. 

The full, bushy plants you purchase from grocers usually have an issue of bound roots which will cut its life short. The plant needs room to "breathe" and grow. 

Additionally, I prefer an elevated planter to keep it away from creepy crawlers. In the past, my outdoor pots have been attacked by snails and who knows what else. 

Bring the plant indoors if temperatures drop below 50 degrees as plants are not frost tolerant.

Cut back the plant several times throughout the season to encourage new plant growth. 

Leave at least one pair of leaves on each main stem. If there are 6-8 medium/large leaves on a stem, go ahead and cut. 

Cut right above a node, marked by a Y-shape (see photo left).

Do not remove more than 50% of the plants leaves as it needs it for photosynthesis.


If the plant shows signs of a growth spurt (in the stem), it has bolted. Bolting means getting ready to flower. During this phase, leaf production will slow and basil flavor will decline.

Bolted plants will also show signs of the beginning of flower growth. You'll see green "flowers" on top of your stems. You can cut them off right away to prevent it from flowering and going to seed. 

Bolting is a natural phase of the plant life cycle, but can be brought on prematurely by sudden changes in temperatures, hot weather, under-watering, or even transplanting stress. Basically, it's a sign your plant is stressed out. 

Going to Seed
If you start seeing flowers, cut them off immediately. If you don't, your plant will focus on growing the flower instead of the leaves.

Unchecked, the flowers will start producing seeds and your plant will eventually die since its focusing on seed production and giving up on survival. 

You can temporarily slow down this process by removing the flowers and cutting down the stems.


When pruning stems, you can collect quite a bit of leaves. You can make a pesto or dry the leaves. Try this microwave method from King Arthur Flour to dry herbs. 


To fertilize the soil, you can use coffee grounds or banana peels. 


No matter how well you take care of your basil plant, it will die at the end of the season. It is an annual plant which means that they come up in the spring, grow, flower, seed and then die after the frosts in the fallAll roots, stems, and leaves die every year. They need to be replanted every year. It will not come back to life next season.

If the stem and the leaves are brown, that means your plant is almost dead or dead.

Before it dies, you can collect its seeds and grow them next year in early Spring. I just prefer to buy a new Basil plant. 

You can also propagate the plant with stems. I am going to try this with the rootcups I recently bought from Fab. (Thanks for telling me about them, Jenny)

My Extreme Measures

After my research,  I decided to cut back my basil plants aggressivelyI am guilty of taking more than 50% of the leaves off. I decided to cut back every single stem. 

The plants aren't displaying any flowers, so I assume they were bolting due to weather. Southern California can have very inconsistent weather. This Summer, days ranged from low 70's to over 100 degrees!

All of the leaves were bitter or damaged (thanks, Mr. Caterpillar) to eat, so I cut them all off and threw them away.  

I can see new leaves and stems are still growing, so I'm hoping I can get another full bushy plant before it dies. I'll update you all to see if this last ditch effort will help it thrive until Fall/Winter.

More Info

Basil diseases from Garden Knowhow

My Common Uses of Basil in Cooking

Caprese Salad 
Chiffonade over fish or chicken

Do you have any tips? Comment below!

Note: I am still an amateur at gardening, so if I displayed any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know. 

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