How To Keep Your Supermarket Basil Alive For Months? (4 Steps)

You need to get your hand a bit dirty but it is totally worth it

You might have bought from your local supermarket one of those little potted herbs wrapped in plastic and you have now harvested most of those beautiful leaves for some gourmet pasta dish. Rather than tossing it away you can, very easily, multiply that little plant and producing many more herbs that will be more than sufficient for your family needs.

How can you keep your supermarket herbs alive? The only way to grow healthy supermarket-bought basil (and many other herbs) is to repot them as soon as possible. Such a process can be broken down into the following steps:

  1. Remove packaging and the herb from the pot;
  2. Place fresh potting soil in new pots;
  3. Separate each single herbs;
  4. Place one or two herbs per pot;

There are a few pitfalls that you might encounter in these steps and moreover, there are also a few further tips that are worth knowing. So let’s dive in with some images to help you in such process taken from my last basil repotting.

Why You Need To Repot the Supermarket Herb As Soon As Possible

I would never state enough that a supermarket potted herb needs to repotted as soon as you can. Since they leave the farm where they have grown a countdown to their death started.

Indeed, for economic reasons, each one of those tiny pots contains many plants (typically up to 30!) that are fighting for space (the pot is small) and resources (there is little soil in the pot given its modest size, and so nutrients).

However, this is not the main issue when growing in their farm of origin where they receive lots of artificial light (more details on my article regarding grow light here), fertilizers and the right amount of daily water that allow them to thrive even in such a tiny space (at least at the beginning) becoming the bushy green we found on the grocery shelves as shown in the video below.

Vertical farming big trend in Chicago
Video showing how your supermarket potted herbs grow before arriving at the supermarket shelves

However, once they leave the farm all these “extremely favorable” growing conditions cannot be met in a house/supermarket. Hence, you know understand why such potted herbs are destined to quickly die if you do not take care of them really closely.

Repot Supermarket Herb: A Step by Step Guide With Pictures

In this step by step guide, I will refer to basil as this is what I have at home at the moment and take pictures of. However, the following steps apply to any herbs. I suggest proceeding with repotting when the soil of the plant slightly dry or, if possible, avoid to repot the plant just after watering. It will make your life easier and less messy.

The operation will take around 20 minutes and for the purpose you need:

  1. A number of containers depending on the number of plants you want to keep (you do not need to repot all the plants in the supermarket container as way too many). Go for the 2-3 strongest plants (every stem is a plant) or a group of 2-3 per pot.

    Which pot to use? For a quick and effective option I would go for a 10inch. There you can place up to three plants (ideally one). A 10 inches self-watering one, is a pretty good option like this one on Amazon.
  2. Good quality potting soil. Which one to use? The FoxFarm is quite good in my opinion (check it by yourself and the reviews of others in Amazon here);
  3. A big plastic bag/cardboard that you can use to cover the surface where you are working (if you are at home) so to quickly recollect the soil as it might get a bit messy

#1 Remove the Plastic and the Container

Just cut the plastic around the pot with a pair of scissors, do not slide away from the bottom as otherwise, you might need to pull the plant from the upper part of stems potentially damaging it.

Our potted basil straight from the supermarket with its plastic wrapping

Once done you need to remove the container. This might the second most “difficult” task for you as you might need to be careful with the roots due to a (extremely likely) excessively small container.

Sliding the fingers in order to remove the plant from the container

To notice also another sign of a too-tight pot. The roots are starting to escape from the drainage holes! It means that they grew across the whole pot and looking for more soil from which extract nutrients.

Then, if the pot does not come out you can squeeze with the fingers or tap on top just to release it. In case you bought a pot from a nursery or a “higher” quality vendor whose container is quite hard you can use a knife to pass in the inner border to release the plant. If you followed the advice to repot with a dry soil then the soil should be compact around the plant roots without falling all over the place.

Removing the pot: if necessary you might need to squeeze several times to unstuck the roots that are holding in the drainage holes

Once the plant is released place it on top of the working area ready for the next step.

#2 Place (a bit) Of Fresh Soil In Separate Pots

The number of pots you decide to adopt depends on how many individual plants (or small groups for 2-3) there are in the supermarket pot you bought. The easiest way to track a single plant is too look to the stems close to the soil. Each stem that comes out from the soil is very likely to belong to an individual plant as you can see in the picture.

Every stem coming out from the soil is an individual plant – note also the small plant on top of my thumb, it is clearly extremely weak and would not survive probably a repotting, it has been tossed away

For your personal needs you absolutely no need all of them, in my case 3 to 5 pots are more than enough for your personal needs. However, go ahead and take all the plant you want. 

However, I will avoid repotting those plants that already show early signs of distress (small yellow leaves, or dull) like those that are typically at the border of the pot as you can see in the picture above. These plants might die after repotting due to the well-known transplant shock, article here.

Once you have decided on the number of pots just place a bit of potting mix (a guide on how you can do it yourself, or the best one in the market) at the bottom of each one of them. Your objective will be to have a layer of soil that will allow you to have the plant, once potted, at the same level it was in the old pot (in other words the stem should come out from the soil at the same point they were coming out in the old pot. You should not bury in soil part of stems that were not in contact with soil and vice-versa).

Keep in mind, the pots must have drainage holes. If not, even the small mistake in watering might cost you the plant (root rot is one of the worst things to fight back).

These are my improvised pots obtained from milk boxes with drainage holes at the bottom

Once the pots are ready you can go back to work with your potted herbs.

#3 Separate Individual Plants or Small Groups

If you left your herb long enough in its original tiny supermarket pot it is very likely that you will see a root-bound at this stage. A root bond, as also explained in this article in my blog, is a condition in which the roots, due to insufficient space, starts travelling around the pot creating an intricate mass of roots. This is something that you want to avoid as it means that the plant is not in a healthy condition and needs a bigger home if you do not want it to die.

Although not crazily developed you can already notice the first stage of root-bound at the bottom lots of roots concentrated the very bottom of the pot.

In my case, I left it to grow only for 3 weeks inside the container so the root bond was not that bad.

Starting from the border of your soil start extracting with your hands (I prefer bare hands as easier to grab such small herbs), every single stem (a plant) with the surrounding soil.

With your fingers remove individual plants. You will encounter resistancepho and hear the sounds of broken roots, it is normal, keep going

Remember that you might have up to 30 plants per pot. 

These are the healthiest looking basil plant I extracted from my supermarket pot with their original soil surrounding the roots

If you do not have enough pot but you still want more plant you can try up to 3 plants for each pot (generous size, like 6-7’’/15-17 cm in diameter) as a few recommend, but I would not go more than that.

# 4 Place The Plants In The Pot And Add The Remaining Soil

Once every plant/group, with its soil is separate you can place each one of them at the center of every half-filled pot. Check if the plant height is OK (it should be the same height, referred to the rim, as it was before). Otherwise, place more soil to the bottom and once OK hold with one hand the plant and with the other place the soil in the surrounding empty space around the plant. Press a bit the new soil but not too much as you want to have decent aeration and the water to come through and reach the roots.

Due to the lack of posts, I went for 2 plants for this milk brick. However, I suggest you go just for one as such pot is not particularly large (the depth is ok, around 15cm)

Further Tip: Shadow

Although the following tips are not adopted by the majority, are still good tips that I found useful in repotting my supermarket herbs. These are based on the well-known transplant shock, a stressful situation that the plant undergoes due to the change of “environment” as well as root damage that inevitably can happen during repotting. 

I usually place the plant in a corner with indirect sunlight for a day. This will allow the plant to not being “energetically” busy with the photosynthesis process that undergoes during the day allowing a slower and more gradual recovery.

Where Supermarket Herbs Come From?

You might wonder where your herbs come from (your nearby farm, another country?) and how old are they since they leave their farm. Indeed, the older, the less chance for you to successfully grow them at home. To answer this question is sufficient to look at the plant label, a source of information that you as well, with the help of the internet, can easily decipher!

Origin of the supermarket herb: Grower Name contains the information we need

In the case of my potted basil used throughout this article, as you can see from the label, we found the following information (I live in the North West of England, in the United Kingdom) as you can notice from the above picture:

Grower: Neame Lea Fresh, Lincs

By quick research, I found out that this company is located only 150 miles away from the supermarket I bought it, a trip that amounts to around 3 hours by truck accordingly to Google Maps. The transport usually happens at night time with specialized trucks that keep a constant temperature your herbs (as well as other plants that are expected to be delivered the same day) arrive at the supermarket in the early morning before opening. 

So, if you are lucky to arrive the same day the herbs have been delivered and buy them in the morning, those herbs might be taken away from their farm less than 8 hours before.

Do I Need To Repot Supermarket Herbs?

If you want your plant to last (way) longer and not being a single-use (a shame in my opinion as still a fully functioning living organism) the answer is definitely yes. Indeed, as detailed before, due to the way the herb in your supermarket pot has been grown are not designed to last long or even fully develop. Think also to all the money and time you will save. Every time you need fresh basil or rosemary or any other herb is just a few centimetres away from your counter.

Moreover, keeping the plant alive is such tiny supermarket pots can become more and more challenging with time as watering becomes a serious issue. Indeed, due to the significant amount of roots in the pot, you might need to water the plant daily if you do not want it to die of dehydration. However, at the same time, you cannot soak the soil otherwise you will create the right environment for bacteria responsible for root rot to thrive and you will inevitably lose the plant.

In addition, the already poor soil gets poorer with time and your herb, without any apparent reasons (as watering and sunlight might be perfect), will start dying off.

Many on the internet suggest that a potted herb can be kept alive easily 1-2 weeks, however, I was able to keep a basil plant in its supermarket potted herb (common Genovese basil) for around 1.5 months before repotting (and the basil used for the picture in this guide is around 3 weeks old). However, I never went above such time, hence I cannot exactly tell you how long a potted plant can last. 

However, I would be surprised if it would last longer than that, and, in any case, the herb will not be able to fully develop in such conditions, especially due to the poor soil (if you do not provide any kind of fertilizer).

Suggestions When Buying a Supermarket Herb

If your intention is to buy a potted herb to further repot and give it a second (longer) life then there are two things that you might need to look at when buying your potted plant.

  1. Shelf Position and Expiry Date: Indeed, it might happen that those potted herbs in front of the shelves (ready to be grasped) are older than the one at the back. The only way to know is to simply compare the “expiry date” and choose of course the one that expires later in time. As strange as it might sound potted herbs have an expiry date of around 1-2 weeks after harvest.  
  1. Below The Top: The plastic wrapping has the main purpose to contain the development of the herbs with a tight area and facilitate their transportation. Moreover, they make the herb more pleasant to the eyes as look more compact, bushier and healthier. However, this also prevents you to see what’s going on beneath those few large(r) leaves on top. Hence, slide away such wrapping and check if there are too many yellow/brown or curled/crashed leaves or/and stems.  Remember those herbs are in a supermarket where people are not gardeners and they will not water those (poor) herbs. A few leaves and 1-2 stems are OK, however, I would not pick a herb with more damaged stems.
From the top, it might look OK, but always better to verify if below there are any (bad) surprise waiting for us

What If The Herbs Are Sold Without Pot?

Sometimes you can also found the whole herb (I am not talking about the packaged with leaves only) sold without pot. In this case, you can see the roots with the naked eye. These kinds of herbs have been quite likely grown hydroponically. Without getting into details, the object of a future article, this means that they have been grown without soil, just with a solution of water and nutrients in which the roots were submerged. There are many herbs that can be grown in such a way (basil, coriander, cilantro, oregano, parsley, rosemary, etc…).

Hence, if you want to give a second chance to these plants you should not plant them in soil straight away but first, leave their roots a few days submerged in distilled water. To increase the chance of success (that are lower compared to potted plants due to the different environment they have been grown) add some nutrients such as fish seaweed or even normal fertiliser for a soil-based plant (those in liquid form of course).  

As always cut the lower leaves to avoid any contact with the water (leaves are not meant to be soaked). Keep in mind that the herb might not grow anymore so I would give a shot by placing in water as many herbs as you have. Leave them in a sunny place (your sunny south-faced windowsill is ideal). In the worst-case scenario they do not develop further roots at least they managed to stay fresh for way longer compared to have left them on the counter.

If you notice root growth then you can plant them in a moist pot as with soil as described above. In this case, as all the roots are exposed (not surrounded by soil) be extra careful when you place them in the pot to avoid to damage the few roots available. What I usually do is to place all the soil at once and create a hole in the centre and place gently the plant. Then, with the hand, you can gently cover the root area. Again, multiple attempts are suggested so at least you can have a few plants growing. 

Related Questions

Is the soil of potted herb sterile? The soil of supermarket herb is typically sterile to avoid the presence of any insect, as designed for the indoor environment, and extremely poor in nutrients. Indeed these are “short-term” products designed to last a few days, justifying the use of a cheaper soil with no nutrients on it and also explaining the need for repotting.

What is the easiest supermarket herb to grow? Chives and mint are quite famous among gardeners for their resilience making them an ideal candidate for beginner gardeners starting from potted supermarket version as among the easiest to grow.

Where supermarket potted herbs are grown? They are grown in farms, usually a few hours away by truck and transported through specialized horticulture companies able to keep the temperature of the herbs at a defined ideal value, especially important during winter.

Further Readings

21 Tips to grow massive basil

Best container size for your basil

Best potting soil for your herbs

7 Pitfalls that make your herb dying after repotting

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