How to Prune Basil in 6 Easy Steps
Does your basil need a trim? If you want to prune your garden-grown basil but haven't done it before, you might be wondering where to start. In this article, gardening expert and organic farmer Jenna Rich outlines the six simple steps you can follow for pruning healthy basil plants!
Ahh basil. The appearance, the fragrance and that sweet, earthy flavor. It adds a great flare to any summer dish, which is why it’s such a popular herb to grow among home gardeners. Basil is low maintenance and easy to grow, and can act as a natural pest deterrent. This makes it a great herb for gardeners of all skill levels.
Pruning basil plants is important as it keeps them tidy and encourages new growth, giving you a bountiful supply of basil all season long. And who doesn’t want more basil?!
If you’ve never pruned your basil plants, you’re probably not alone. Follow along for step by step instructions on how to prune your basil plant, and which will help keep it productive all season long!
Why You Need to Prune
Pruning is important for a few reasons. Whether it’s to encourage new growth, or prevent bolting, pruning is an essential garden task for any plant, and basil is no exception. Let’s take a deeper look at the many benefits of pruning.
Pruning Encourages Growth
Due to the growing behavior of basil plants, pruning allows them to branch out more, become more bushy and in turn, produce more leaves. The more you snip, the more it grows because you are essentially providing the plant new space for new growth.
The best way to prevent basil from bolting is to keep it pruned on a regular basis. When a plant flowers, it is sometimes referred to as “going to seed”. The main purpose of any plant is to reproduce and flowering is the first step of this.
If left alone, seeds would eventually drop from these flowers in hopes of germinating and producing new plants, or to be carried along by a bird or rodent for future germination elsewhere.
The plant won’t have a chance to produce a flower if consistently harvested. Although you can simply cut flowers off and continue to harvest after it has bolted, some say basil loses its flavor or becomes slightly bitter which you should try to avoid.
By mid-late summer, plants will inevitably start to show signs of flowering. When growing classic Italian Genovese varieties, you can spot the flower formation pretty easily.
At first, it will look like a cluster of tiny basil leaves, but within a day or so, a white or purple flower will appear, variety dependent. Just snip that off with your fingers to keep it from sending out more flowers.
Good airflow will help prevent downy mildew, which is one of the main diseases that can affect basil plants and is easily spread when conditions are humid and still.
Keeps Plant Size in Check
If you find that your plant is becoming very tall, almost leggy, but not producing many leaves, it may be asking for a good prune.
Basil plants are meant to bush out, growing both up and out. When a plant isn’t pruned regularly or at all, it simply continues growing up the main stem, lacking the ability to grow new nodes and produce off to the sides.
Basil Growth Rate
When a basil plant is strong and healthy, the main stem will become thick and woody near the base. This helps it stay in place, withstand winds and rain and helps the plant take water and nutrients up from the soil. The stems and branches higher up on the plant thin out a bit and remain more green.
Full size plants of the Genovese variety will grow to about 2-2 ½ feet tall. Genovese basil can bush out about a foot on either side which is why spacing your plants properly is very important. They will be ready to harvest in 4-10 weeks after transplanting, depending on your climate, the variety and soil health.
The leaves grow in a sort of downward-sloping fashion with a few inches of stem in between each set of leaves, and each node forms a “Y” shape. Each time one of these nodes is pruned, two side shoots form and new growth begins.
Pro tip: If you don’t have much outdoor growing space or live in a colder climate, grow bags are a great option for herbs like basil. They are easily transported and can live inside until it is safe enough for them to live outside. These can live out on a patio, a sunny deck or even in your driveway!
When cold weather arrives, you can simply place the grow bag in a sunny, warm spot and continue enjoying basil all winter long. Just be sure your plant receives at least 6-8 hours of sun a day. Keep in mind, you may need to supplement with artificial grow lights in winter months. This will help ensure they receive enough light.
Pruning Basil in Six Easy Steps
Pruning basil is fairly intuitive, and not very difficult. Follow along with each of the steps below to maximize your harvest.
Step 1: Use Sharp, Clean Shears
Each time you head out to your garden to prune your basil plants, be sure to have sharp, clean shears available. It is important to keep wounds to the stems clean and minimal, which will help keep your plant infection free.
Pro tip: Practice cutting in a downward fashion so water will roll off the wound. This will help avoid any infection or rot at the pruning site.
Step 2: Prune Early
You may think pruning at the time of transplant is counterintuitive. But when plants are 6-8 inches tall and have at least 6 true leaves, they are hardy enough to be pruned. This may be at the time of transplant or a few weeks later. It all depends on how big your plants are when you put them into the ground.
Simply snip the main stem down to the intersection of the lowest set of true leaves. In a week or so, when you return to the same plant, you will see that side shoots have formed at this node.
Pruning early sets your plants up for long-term success. It may set back your first big harvest by about 2 weeks but it will be worth it in the end.
Step 3: Harvest Near The Top
Harves basil leaves at the top first. Even if they are not the largest leaves on the plant, this will allow more space for the plant to open up and branch out. These clusters of leaves up top will also be the freshest, best tasting ones.
Pro tip: Do NOT harvest the largest leaves near the bottom of the plant. They are needed for quality photosynthesis and help maintain the plant’s overall health. These are also thought to be less flavorful, so be sure to harvest from the top down.
Step 4: Encourage Branching
Each time you snip a stem at a node, the basil plant will send out side shoots. This will essentially double the amount of basil produced from the same plant!
Look for the little leaves along the main stem. Use your shears to snip just about an inch above this “node”. The plant will now be encouraged to grow in both directions from the pruned site.
When each of these new growth sites grows to another new node, you can repeat the same pruning technique again. This will give your plant more and more room to branch out!
Your plant will continue to send energy to these new growth sites instead of going to seed if they are pruned consistently. Keep in mind if you do not prune, energy will be sent into flowering. Remember, reproducing is the plant’s sole purpose!
Step 5: Prune and Remove Flowers
Basil is somewhat heat resistant, and summer is when it will start producing flowers if not regularly attended to. During peak summer heat, if your soil health is good and you are watering your basil regularly, you should be able to harvest some leaves from your plants each week.
If you are not using a ton of basil, you should also plan a big prune every 1-2 weeks. This will help keep your plants in ideal shape and to prevent your plants from going to seed.
Pinch off any flowers you see and if your plant has any mature flowers, prune those all the way back to the first set of true leaves as a sort of reset.
Step 6: Keep a Regular Pruning Schedule
Remember to prune even when you don’t have an immediate use for the basil in order to keep your plants in tip-top shape.
You can share these clippings with a friend, add snipped stems to a simple, rustic bouquet or even toss them to your backyard chickens as basil promotes good respiratory health. Just think of pruning as necessary maintenance and not as wasting unused leaves.
One more important thing to know is that you should not remove more than ⅓ of your basil plant during any one pruning session for best results. If you take too much off, it will have negative effects on the plant.
My plant is leggy and tall – what did I do wrong?
You might not be pruning frequently enough or it might need more sunlight. Pruning opens up more space for your plant to grow in different directions, resulting in more basil. Try pruning more and see if this helps your plant to bush out.
If your basil is not receiving full sun, it may be reaching toward the light and becoming leggy. Try pruning off the leggy stem and moving it to a more sunny spot. This should help!
What should I do with my basil clippings?
Pruning is essentially harvesting so you can use your clippings to make pesto, throw them in a salad, or share with a friend. You can even dry a few bunches, crush them up and add to your spice collection.You can also propagate the clippings to make little basil plants, which can be done in water, or directly in the soil.
My plants are too productive – what should I do?
Pruning makes a big difference in the productivity of your plants. There are plenty of things you can do with small amounts of fresh basil. If you want to preserve your harvest, the best thing to do with large quantities, in my opinion, is make pesto! This can be easily stored in ice cube trays and frozen for later use.
My basil isn’t growing after pruning – what now?
You may have overpruned. Remember, you only want to take about ⅓ of your plant at any given pruning session, otherwise you may stunt the growth.
The bottom line is, if you want a high-yielding basil season, pruning your plants is key. Just take a few moments to learn about the growing behavior of basil and you’ll be all set for a productive year.
This low maintenance and productive herb is the perfect item to add to your lineup, whether you’re just starting out or have been gardening for many years. Maybe you try “branching out” this season by trialing a new variety!