In early spring, before my basil plants have grown big enough to harvest, I usually buy them as “living herbs” in the supermarket. You’ve seen them in the produce aisle: the fresh herbs in little pots with their roots still attached.
The logic behind these living herbs is they stay fresher longer than the cut sprigs sold in clamshells. I’ll sometimes keep mine on the windowsill for up to three weeks, pinching off a stem here and there while I’m cooking.
For most people, however, the herbs have already keeled over by this point. Living herbs are produced with the ordinary consumer in mind, so they aren’t meant to last more than a week or two.
So maybe it’s the gardener in me who can’t resist “saving” an herb. Since I continually pinch off the basil each week, it keeps growing and growing until it’s obviously unhappy in its tiny plastic pot.
Rather than composting the basil, I usually try to extend its life by transplanting it in the garden. I can raise several new basil plants this way and get more bang for the buck out of something that’s supposed to be disposable.
Sometimes, I don’t even need to start seeds or buy “proper” basil starts from the nursery because I’ll get so many from a single living herb purchase!
Planting a supermarket herb and giving it a second life is actually quite easy, but there are a few steps you should take to ensure success in the garden. And these same tips work for other living herbs as well—such as rosemary, thyme, sage, and mint—as long as they came in a pot of soil or were hydroponically grown (where the cuttings still have roots attached).
So before you stick a supermarket herb in the soil, here are five things you should know.
Tip #1: Supermarket herbs should be transplanted soon after purchase.
To increase the chances of your herb surviving, it should be moved into a larger pot or into the ground the week it’s brought home. (It also wouldn’t hurt to harden off your herb for a few days first, especially if it’s going straight from a fluorescent-lit grocery store to direct sunlight outside.)
Supermarkets aren’t watering or fertilizing these herbs the way a nursery might while they’re sitting on the shelves. They’re counting on quick turnover, so once the herbs start to look a little ratty, they’re tossed out (similar to how unsold fruits and vegetables are discarded).
Since these herbs are typically grown in a sterile potting medium that’s devoid of nutrients, and placed in an indoor environment with terrible lighting, you’ll want to transplant the herbs into well-amended soil at home and give them plenty of sunshine to help them thrive.
Tip #2: Supermarket herbs are planted intensively.
Since they go to market as seedlings, supermarket herbs are seeded thickly and grown close together so it looks like you’re getting a full-grown plant. (When in fact, what you’re buying is likely half a dozen little plants clumped together.)
The seedlings compete for space, light, and moisture as they grow, often struggling as their roots become severely rootbound. (If you’ve ever dealt with leggy seedlings, you know how it goes.)
Because of this, supermarket herbs won’t do well if you just take them out of the pot and put them straight in the ground (or into a larger container). You need to divide them first.
Tip #3: Supermarket herbs should be divided before transplanting.
To keep your plants healthy, gently prod the root ball apart with your hands or cut them with a clean pair of shears. I usually leave two to three seedlings per transplant, and remove the weaker ones as the plant matures.
Don’t worry too much about separating the roots evenly—as long as each clump has some nice long roots attached, it has a good chance of surviving. (Besides, you won’t do anymore damage that’s already been done here.)
Tip #4: Thin the divisions as needed.
Remove any tiny seedlings by snipping them off at the base of the stems. These seedlings will never be able to survive in the shade of their taller neighbors. But don’t throw them out—use them in a salad as microgreens!
If you’re so inclined, you can even try rooting these basil babies in a glass of water to make even more new plants. Basil roots quickly and easily in water, and once your seedlings have a small mass of roots a couple of inches long, you can pot them up in soil or transplant them outside.
Tip #5: Bury the stems of basil seedlings and water well.
Just like you do with tomatoes, plant the basil up to its lowest set of leaves (even removing the last set if it’s starting to yellow) to encourage roots to form along the stem. Keep the basil well-watered (but not water-logged) to reduce the effects of transplant shock.
It may take a few weeks for the basil to bounce back, but once it does, there’s no reason it couldn’t look like this by the end of the season! (And yes, this three-foot-tall sweet basil started from a sad little supermarket herb just months before!)
Common questions about growing living herbs
How to make your herbs last even longer
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on May 8, 2017.