How to Revive a Dying Basil Plant

How to revive dying basil

Have you grown basil from seed or bought it from the store and it has started wilting and dying? I know this is super annoying! But do not worry, I grow basil every year and have learned through experience, not only how to take care of basil but how to save it if it starts dying.

In this article, I share with you all the experience, tips, tricks, secrets, and techniques for saving basil…

The reason for basil leaves turning brown, wilting, and dying is because of dry soil due to underwatering, excess sun or wind, high temperatures, or small pots that dry out too quickly. Basil needs consistently moist soil. If the soil dries out, the basil wilts to conserve moisture and often turns brown with a dying appearance.

However, if your basil plants turn yellow then I discovered this is due to overwatering or a lack of nutrients in the soil, usually because the pot is too small and does not contain enough compost from which the basil’s roots can uptake nutrients.

If the basil is drooping, I find this is most often due to a lack of pruning. Your basil should be maintained at 6-8 inches to encourage more leaves and to prevent a drooping appearance.

Of course, Not enough sun, too much fertilizer, and overwatering can also contribute to basil drooping or wilting in appearance.

To revive a dying basil plant, it is important to recreate its preferred conditions of 6 hours of morning sun and consistently moist soil basil in a large pot, so the roots can access the required nutrients and protect basil from intense afternoon sun and high temperatures

(Note that basil is an annual herb that grows in the Spring and Summer before setting seed and dying back in the Winter).

Keep reading for how to save your dying basil, whether it is wilting, turning brown, turning yellow, or drooping

Basil leaves Wilting, Turning Brown and Dying

Basil leaves wilting with brown spots developing.
This is my basil with leaves wilting with brown spots developing.
  • Symptoms. Basil plants wilting and drooping, sometimes turning brown or yellow.
  • Causes. Overwatering, underwatering, pot is too small and dries out too quickly, high temperatures, too much sun, too much wind.

The reason for basil plants wilting is usually because they are not being watered often enough in hot weather and the pot is too small. Basil requires the soil to be evenly moist. In hot weather, the soil can dry out before the basil’s roots can draw up moisture, which causes the leaves and stems to wilt.

Basil is adapted to growing in soil that is consistently moist yet well-draining. This balance of consistent moisture, yet still well-draining, is achieved with porous, friable compost and frequent watering, particularly in the Summer.

If the soil dries out for any amount of time, then the basil wilts rather quickly due to the proportionally large leaves and herbaceous stems (rather than woody stems), which can lose a lot of moisture.

Too much wind and too much sun can really exacerbate water loss by drying out the soil and increasing transpiration from the leaves and can cause them to turn brown with a dying appearance.

Basil is capable of growing well in full sun, but at the hottest times of the year, basil prefers the morning sun followed by shade at midday and the afternoon to protect it from high temperatures.

Basil also wilts temporarily in high temperatures, particularly if there is a sudden and significant temperature increase.

The reason basil wilts at high temperatures is that wilting reduces the surface area of the basil leaf, which effectively reduces water loss and conserves moisture.

The basil often revives later in the day when the temperatures have cooled.

Pots that are too small are also a common reason for basil wilting.

Smaller pots have less capacity for soil and, therefore, less capacity for moisture. In hot weather, the smaller pot dries out much quicker, causing the basil to wilt.

How to Revive a Wilting Basil Plant and Basil with Brown Leaves

The key to reviving a wilting basil plant is to keep the soil consistently moist, locate the basil in an area of morning sun followed by afternoon shade, and shelter the basil from excess winds. After a good soak, the wilted basil should revive.

  • Give the basil a generous soak so that excess water trickles from the pot’s base. This ensures that the soil is evenly moist and the water has reached the basil roots where it is required. Watering generously also encourages the basil’s roots to grow and establish, increasing the basil’s resilience.
  • Water basil as often as required so that the soil is consistently moist. How frequently you water basil depends on the weather. Typically, watering basil with a good soak once a week if it is planted in a good-sized pot can be sufficient, but at the hottest times of the year, it may be necessary to water basil every 1-3 days. Test the soil with your finger to determine how quickly the soil is drying out and water accordingly.
  • Plant basil in a good-sized pot. It may not matter how often you water basil (to prevent it from wilting) if the pot is too small. Small pots have less capacity for soil and, therefore, less capacity for moisture. Smaller pots can dry out on hot, sunny days before the basil’s roots can draw up water, causing it to wilt. Ideally, plant basil in a clay, ceramic, or terracotta pot at least 10 inches across to ensure enough soil and moisture to prevent the basil from wilting.
  • Locate basil in the morning sun, followed by afternoon shade whilst the basil is wilting. Basil can enjoy the sunshine in the morning whilst the temperatures are cooler. Temperatures typically peak after midday, so find a shady afternoon spot so your basil can recover from wilting.
  • Shelter wilting basil from significant winds. Wind saps moisture from leaves (which can leave them brown and crispy) and dry out pots. Basil appreciates some airflow as it reduces the risk of fungal disease but keeps basil out of direct winds whilst it recovers.
  • Prune away any brown leaves. Leaves often turn brown as well as wilt as a result of drought stress. These brown leaves do not recover any and are not good for eating, so prune them back to healthy growth with a sharp pair of pruners. Pruning back helps stimulate more growth and prevents basil from bolting (flowering and turning to seed). Prune back to a height of around 6-8 inches and with the right care, the basil should survive.

With morning sun, followed by shade in the afternoon, consistently moist soil, a large pot, and regular pruning, your basil plant has all the resources it needs to revive.

To learn more about how to water basil according to the conditions, read my article on how often to water basil plants.

Do bear in mind that basil plants are ‘annuals’ which means they grow from seed and die back within the same season, so if your basil is wilting and turning brown late in the year, this is a natural part of the plants cycle and not necessarily because of problems with care or cultivation.

(Read my article, why is my basil flowering to learn more, and how to prevent flowering so that basil produces tasty leaves for longer.)

Basil Leaves Turning Yellow

  • Symptoms. Basil plants turn yellow, often with brown spots. Basil may also have a drooping appearance.
  • Causes. Overwatering, slow-draining soils, pots without drainage holes in the base, pots that are too small, nutrient-poor soil.

The most common reason for basil turning yellow is because of overwatering and slow-draining soils. Basil needs consistently moist soil, yet well-draining soil. If the soil is boggy or saturated as a result of overwatering, then basil leaves turn yellow and droop due to a lack of oxygen around the roots.

Whilst basil requires the soil to be consistently moist, it is imperative that it also drains well, so that the soil does not become boggy around the roots.

Excess water around the roots excludes oxygen from the soil, which prevents root respiration and interferes with the roots’ ability to draw up moisture and nutrients. If the roots cannot draw up moisture or nutrients, the leaves turn yellow, which is a sign of stress.

Boggy soil also promotes the conditions for fungal diseases such as root rot and Fusarium wilt, which also turns the basil leaves yellow, brown, or black with a dying appearance.

Planting basil in pots without drainage holes in the base or the use of saucers and trays underneath basil plants (if you are growing indoors) can also cause the soil to become saturated and turn the leaves yellow.

Basil in a small pot or in soil low in nutrients can also turn yellow. If the pot is too small, then there is less compost from which the basil’s roots can uptake nutrients, which causes the leaves to turn yellow and droop.

Basil leaves beginning to turn yellow because of a smaller pot with less nutrients.
Basil leaves begin to turn yellow because of a smaller pot with fewer nutrients.

How to Revive Basil with Yellow Leaves

  • Scale back the watering. Basil requires the soil to be moist rather than saturated, so if the soil feels damp, then reduce how often you water your basil. Typically, basil may only need watering once a week if it is in a big pot with good compost and the weather is not excessively hot or sunny. However, at the height of summer, with high temperatures and blazing sunshine, you may need to water basil once every 1-3 days to prevent the soil from drying out.
  • Always plant basil in pots with drainage holes in the base. It is essential that excess water can drain effectively after watering so that the soil does not become saturated. Re-pot your basil into a pot with drainage holes in the base and perhaps prop your pot up on ‘feet’ so that the pot is elevated off the ground slightly to ensure the water can drain effectively.
  • Empty saucers and trays underneath basil pots regularly. If you grow basil indoors, it is common for the leaves to turn yellow due to excess water pooling around the bottom of the pot after watering which causes the soil to be too damp for the basil.
  • Re-pot basil if it is in a small pot. Basil sold in stores and markets is often sold in pots that are too small for long-term cultivation. The small pots have less soil and, therefore, less available nutrients for the roots to uptake. Repot the basil into a much larger pot with good quality (peat-free) potting compost. This ensures that the basil roots have enough space to establish and access the nutrients they require, which ensures a healthy plant and good flavor.

If the basil leaves are turning yellow due to small pots and a lack of available nutrients, the basil has a good chance of recovery in the next few weeks.

Wait for new growth to emerge, and then cut back any yellow leaves as they have an impaired flavor and often a bitter taste.

If the basil leaves are turning yellow due to saturated soil, then they can be much more difficult to revive.

However, if you ensure the basil has good, well-draining compost and water can drain freely from the base of the pot, then the basil may start to revive.

If it is still relatively early in the season (ideally June at the latest) then I recommend sowing more basil seeds as they germinate quickly and you can have new productive basil in (if conditions are optimal) around 4 weeks (basil typically germinates in 5-10 days).

Basil Plant Drooping

  • Symptoms. Basil has a drooping appearance and may grow leggy with sparse leaves rather than a compact bushy appearance.
  • Causes. Not pruned regularly, too much fertilizer, not enough sun, basil drooping at the end of the growing season.

The most common reason for basil drooping is that it is not pruned often enough. Basil should be pruned every 2 weeks, to 6-8 inches to prevent it from drooping and maintain a productive plant. Basil can also droop due to, too much fertilizer and not enough sunlight.

Basil should be maintained to a height of 6-8 inches to keep the plant compact, bushy, and more productive.

A regularly pruned basil plant produces more leaves then basil that is allowed to grow higher the 8 inches which eventually turns droopy under its own weight.

Basil also has a drooping appearance at the end of the growing season, as they are annual plants that live for the Spring and Summer months before setting seed and dying back in the Fall or Winter months.

This is why it is a good idea to freeze your harvested basil leaves at the end of the season for a supply of homegrown basil through the Winter.

Basil also prefers a generous amount of sun with 6 hours of morning sun, followed by afternoon shade (to prevent the basil form wilting due to high temperatures at the hottest times of year).

If the basil does not have enough light, then it tends to grow leggy with fewer leaves, turn yellow, and droop downwards as it weakens whilst searching for more light.

Too much fertilizer also promotes excessive growth, which turns the plant droopy. Too much Nitrogen in the soil from fertilizer causes the leaves to grow but decreases the concentration of essential oils in the leaves, which are responsible for the basil’s aroma and flavor.

The resulting growth is also droopy and more susceptible to damage from pests.

How to Revive Drooping Basil

  • Prune basil every 2-3 weeks to a height of 6-8 inches during the height of the growing season. Pruning basil frequently to the right height encourages more leaves to grow and a more robust plant that does not droop under its own weight. Pruning basil once every 4 weeks is usually sufficient to prevent the plant from drooping when growing conditions are not optimal because of overcast days or cool temperatures.

Here is a helpful YouTube video on how to prune basil so that the plant is healthy and the flavor is at its best…

  • Prune basil immediately if you see flowers emerging (If you are growing basil for culinary purposes). Once basil has flowered, it begins to develop seeds, at which point the basil stops producing leaves, and the flavor of the leaves is not as pronounced. If the basil has flowered and developed seeds, then it has effectively reproduced and achieved its goal as an annual plant, at which point it starts to droop with a dying appearance. If you prune regularly before flowering, this prevents the plant from drooping and encourages the growth of more leaves for longer in the season. The basil leaves often taste bitter after the basil has flowered.
  • Prevent basil from drooping by locating it within 6 hours of the morning sun. This amount of direct sun ensures the basil is at its most productive and prevents the basil stems from growing droopy and unnecessarily leggy as they search for more light. Shade at midday and during the afternoon when temperatures are highest prevents the basil from wilting due to excess heat and helps to keep the soil at the optimal level of moisture. In cooler climates, basil can often tolerate midday and afternoon sun for most of the growing season, although I would still recommend providing afternoon shade if the temperature suddenly increases significantly.
  • Scale back the use of fertilizer. Basil grows well in good compost and does not necessarily require additional fertilizer, as this risks drooping stems and impairs the flavor by decreasing the concentration of essential oils. Once excess fertilizer has been applied, it can be difficult to revive the drooping appearance, but I would recommend cutting the basil back to 6 inches, which should help stimulate some new growth and help the basil to recover.
  • Basil is an annual plant that lasts one year and droops with a dying appearance at the end of the growing season. Basil eventually turns brown and droops with a dying appearance at the end of its life cycle, which only lasts a year. Depending on your climate, basil plants can stay productive until early Fall if pruned regularly.

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for a dying basil plant is usually because of dry soil due to underwatering or the pot being too small and the soil has dried out too quickly in the sun and in high temperatures. Basil needs consistently moist soil to prevent the plant from wilting, turning brown, and dying.
  • The reason for basil leaves turning yellow is usually because of overwatering. Damp soil excludes oxygen from the soil which prevents root respiration and reduces the root’s ability to draw up the water and nutrients that the basil needs which causes the leaves to turn yellow and droop as a sign of stress.
  • The reason for drooping basil can be because of not pruning often enough, too much fertilizer, or not enough sun. Basil should be pruned to 6-8 inches to prevent drooping. Too much fertilizer causes the basil to grow quickly with weak, sappy growth that has a drooping appearance.
  • To revive dying basil place it in the shade and buffer it from excess wind, ensure the soil is consistently moist but not saturated, and prune back any brown leaves. If the basil is wilting because of drought, basil should perk up and recover after a generous watering.

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