Basil is a staple in most kitchens due to its versatile flavor that fits well into pasta, salads, meat dishes, and desserts. The plant is also easy to grow, making it a favorite among gardeners. Part of its care is pruning, which ensures a bushy plant, tasty flavors, and a longer growth cycle. In the following sections, we’ll cover all aspects of pruning basil, including the proper timing, methods, what to avoid, and how to manage your trimmed plant. If you’re unsure how to prune basil plants or need a few extra tips on the process, keep reading.
Just a reminder, if you want more on how to grow basil check out our article dedicated to just that!
Why Is Pruning Important For Basil Plants
Basil is part of the mint family, with over 150 species and varieties. These feature varying colors, leaf sizes, and flavors, though some are more common than others. Regardless of the type you choose, pruning is essential for several reasons.
Promotes Bushier And Healthier Growth
A basil seed sprouts a single stem, which grows fast and features multiple leaves. When you prune a stem, two new branches form, allowing the plant to spread. Once those branches are established and have sprouted several leaves, you can prune them as well. The plant will form two new ones for each pruned stem. Frequently pruning basil forces the plant to grow bushier while limiting leggy stems and inconsistent leaf formations.
Enhances The Flavor And Aroma Of The Leaves
Like other plants, basil eventually produces flowers, slowing the plant’s growth. Once it flowers the stems become more woody, and the leaves’ flavor turns bitter. Though this isn’t an issue for ornamental basil, those wanting edible leaves likely won’t enjoy the unpleasant taste and aroma. Pruning the leaves before or immediately after the first flowers have formed maintains the delicious flavor basil is known for.
Prevents Overcrowding And Encourages Air Circulation
When plucking only a few leaves at a time, a basil plant is allowed to grow out of control. Pruning prevents the branches from overcrowding, giving each one room to spread and grow. It also allows air to reach the inner stems and leaves. Poor airflow causes odors, fungus, rot, and other issues, so improving circulation prevents these plant problems.
When To Prune Basil Plants
Though a necessary part of plant care, it’s not ideal to randomly cut stems off a basil plant. For a healthy plant, monitor its growth and trim it at the optimal times. We’ll discuss these factors in-depth in the following sections.
Optimal Timing For Pruning
Basil grows fast, so you don’t need to wait long to begin pruning. The main stem should have at least a few sets of leaves before you attempt trimming it, as should any other branches. You can prune indoor plants at any time of day, but outdoor plants should be cut in the morning or evening when the weather is cool.
Signs That Indicate It’s Time To Prune
Though you can prune basil whenever you like, a few signs show it’s necessary to do it sooner rather than later. First, prune a new plant when you see three or more pairs of leaves along the stem. Doing so encourages it to grow out instead of up.
If the plant begins to look leggy, it’s also a sign it needs a healthy trim. The same goes for stems sprouting flowers at the top since this is a sign it’s moving into the reproductive stage of growth and will halt foliage production.
Frequency Of Pruning
Once the plant has grown 6 to 8 inches tall, you can prune it every week or two as needed. Be sure to check leaf growth so you are always trimming above a new set. These tiny leaves will fall off, and branches will form from the nodes.
Pruning Techniques For Basil Plants
When pruning basil, there are two methods to pick from. Both are effective, though each has a specific use to benefit the plant and make pruning easier.
The pinching method is best when pruning the plant near the top since this area has slim, tender stems. It’s also the preferred method for removing flowering tops.
The only tools you need for the pinching method are a thumb and forefinger. Be sure to wash your hands before you begin to remove any germs that could contaminate the plants.
To prune basil using the pinching method, use the following steps:
Step 1 – On a new plant, wait until the main stem has at least 6 true leaves. Locate the second set from the bottom since you’ll be pruning above these. If the plant is more established, you can locate a leaf set at least halfway up the main stem or any others requiring a trim.
Step 2 – Place your fingers about ¼ inch above the chosen leaf set and pinch the stem to remove the top.
Step 3 – Repeat this process for any stem you want to trim. You can take one or two stems for a meal or prune the entire plant. Don’t remove more than a third of the entire plant, though, or you may cause irreparable damage.
Step 4 – Check the top of the stems for flower buds. If these are forming, pinch the stem just below the flowers to remove them. Check weekly for new buds and pinch them off as they appear.
Benefits And Tips For Pinching
Pinching the stems of basil plants is easy and requires no tools, so you can do it at any point. It encourages new growth while preventing the plant from shifting into the reproductive stage. For the best results, try not to twist as you pinch since doing so could tear the top of the stem.
Harvest Pruning Method
The harvest pruning method is ideal for removing more of the plant at once. It can be done when the plant becomes too large to maintain or at the end of the season to accumulate edible leaves before the plant dies.
Though you can use the pinching method for harvesting, hand pruners or herb snips are best for cutting the thick lower stems. You’ll also want a basket or pail to collect the removed pieces.
To prune basil using the harvest method, follow these steps:
Step 1 – Sanitize the snips or shears to remove germs or bacteria. You may also want to wash your hands or put on gloves to avoid contaminating the plants.
Step 2 – When harvesting basil, you can trim off about half of each branched stem, though you may not want to take more than a third of the main one. Locate a leaf pair on the stem you want to harvest and cut it about ¼ inch above the set. Cut the stems at an angle to allow any moisture to run off the stems.
Step 3 – Place the removed stem in the basket and move on to another stem. Trim as many as you’d like for immediate use or drying for future meals.
Benefits And Tips For Harvest Pruning
Harvest pruning a basil plant allows you to obtain more leaves at once for drying or freezing. Doing so also creates a much smaller plant to maintain while giving it more room to grow. When pruning for harvest, don’t remove more than a third of the plant, or it may not recover.
Tips For Successful Pruning
Pruning basil isn’t about cutting random stems. There is a pattern to it that promotes healthy growth for a longer-lasting plant. Using these tips will ensure the best results for your basil plants.
Choosing The Right Stems To Prune
Choosing the right stems is a crucial aspect of trimming basil plants. The main stem needs at least three sets of leaves to ensure it has enough of a base to support new branches. Other stems should also have a few leaf pairs, especially if you’re trimming for harvest. Leggy stems should be pruned to prevent too much height and encourage bushiness.
Proper Technique For Pruning Basil Plants
When pruning basil plants, the proper technique ensures continual growth. Always prune about ¼ inch above a leaf pair since the leaf nodes will become the new stems. Pinch carefully to avoid damaging the stem. Cut at an angle to allow moisture to run off since moisture accumulation may cause fungal growth.
Avoiding Over-pruning Or Under-pruning
Pruning a plant stimulates new growth, but it’s possible to over-prune. Doing so causes stress to the plant, which could result in premature death. The woody growth near the base won’t grow back if cut, so avoid pruning too close to this area.
Underpruning is often as damaging as overpruning. Leaving the plant to grow excessively may cause leggy stems as they fight for sunlight. Crowded stems and leaves also prevent air circulation, which could lead to moisture accumulation, fungal growth, and rot.
Sterilizing Tools To Prevent Disease Transmission
Tools pick up bacteria and other germs from plants, your hands, or any surface they touch. Using dirty tools when pruning basil transfers those unwanted contaminants to the newly cut stems. Sterilizing your tools before using them on any plant prevents disease transmission, ensuring the plant remains healthy.
Managing The Pruned Basil Plants
Despite the many benefits of pruning, it’s still somewhat shocking to your basil plants, especially when removing multiple stems at once. After trimming the plant, caring for the plants and the cut-off sections is essential.
Proper Disposal Of Pruned Basil Leaves
If you’re trimming off spotted, decaying, or dead areas, these pieces likely have no use. You can toss them into a garbage can, though organic matter like plant stems is better placed in a compost bin. It then decomposes and makes excellent fertilizer for your other plants.
Utilizing The Pruned Leaves And Stems
Healthy pruned leaves and stems have several uses. Placing the stems in a glass of water keeps them fresh for use over the next two weeks. It can also be washed, patted dry, and then placed in an air-tight container in the fridge. Use them as needed in all your favorite recipes, including pesto, salads, pasta, and anything else you have in mind.
You can also leave them in water until new roots have sprouted. When this occurs, plant them in soil for new basil plants for your home or give them away to family and friends.
Basil leaves and stems can even be used in various cosmetic products. These include soaps, bath bombs, cleansers, and moisturizers, which are easy to make using ingredients you likely already have at home. Maintenance And Care After Pruning
Despite how healthy basil becomes after pruning, the initial stem cutting causes the plant stress. It’s crucial to cut off less than a third of the plant to minimize damage and strain. Insects, disease, drought, and cold also pose a higher risk when basil is stressed. Watch for signs the plant is suffering, including wilting or discoloration. If you notice any issues, treat them immediately.
Monitoring For Regrowth And Subsequent Pruning Needs
Basil grows fast, so it won’t take long for new branches to grow. You should see new stems sprouting within a week after cutting. Before long, your basil plant will require more pruning to maintain its shape or encourage new stems for plentiful leaves. Check the plant every week, trimming longer stems as needed.
Preserving The Basil
There are a few ways to preserve basil for later use. One option is hanging the stems for a few days or a week until they’ve dried. Then remove the leaves from the stem and store them in an air-tight container. Chopping the dried leaves, sprinkling them into ice cube trays with a bit of water or oil, and placing them in the freezer is another option for future use.
Common Mistakes To Avoid While Pruning Basil
Those inexperienced with pruning may take a pair of shears and start cutting without knowing the proper method. The following are common mistakes to avoid when pruning basil plants.
Pruning Too Much And Too Frequently
Pruning basil promotes healthy plants, but taking too much off does more damage than good. Excess stem and leaf removal causes extreme stress on the plant, which it may not recover from. Trimming basil too frequently doesn’t give it time to heal from the last cutting. It’s best to prune less than a third of the plant at once and give it a week or more to heal between trimmings.
Pruning When The Plant Is Stressed Or Weak
Transplanting, overwatering, or too much heat causes stress to any plant, weakening it. When in such a state, basil requires a bit of babying until it has recovered. Trying to prune a plant during these instances causes even more damage. Though basil may be able to survive such strain, its imminent death is more likely. If you think the plant is already weakened, give it time to heal before trimming even small sections.
Neglecting To Sanitize Pruning Tools
Pruning tools are often used to remove damaged or diseased plant sections. Though this prevents the disease from infecting the entire plant, those pathogens stick to the shears or snips. If you use those same tools on another plant, the disease may infect the new cut you’ve made. To prevent spreading disease to basil and other plants, never neglect to clean your pruning tools before and after each use.
Improper Disposal Of Pruned Plant Material
There is no wrong way to dispose of healthy plant materials, with the exception of the seeds. If you toss those pieces into a compost bin and then add compost to your garden, those seeds may sprout wherever they fall. The same goes for tossing the seeds aside in your yard or anywhere else they could grow.
Improper disposal of diseased or infested areas of basil plants is more serious. If these pruned areas are placed near other plants or in a compost bin, the bacteria and bugs won’t necessarily die off. They could survive and spread to other plants, causing more harm than you can handle.
Pruning basil plants is essential for those wanting the healthiest basil plants possible. Doing so encourages bushy growth with maximum air circulation and a bountiful harvest throughout the plant’s growth cycle. Both methods are easy, requiring minimal tools, so even novice gardeners should have no trouble trimming their plants whenever needed. When done correctly, you’ll have more delicious basil than you can handle, allowing you to expand your indoor garden or help others start their own.
Pruning Basil Frequently Asked Questions
Can I prune basil plants after flowering?
Yes, you can prune basil plants after flowering, though it’s best to do so before the buds open. Doing so prevents the plant from moving out of the vegetation stage and into the reproductive phase of its life cycle.
Will pruning encourage more leaves to grow?
Yes, pruning encourages more leaves to grow. Cutting each stem above a set of leaf nodes creates two new stems, each of which will produce more basil leaves.
Can I prune my basil plant if it is leggy?
Yes, you can prune basil plants if they are leggy. Doing so encourages those stems to produce new ones, which grow out instead of up. Trim each leggy stem about ¼ inch above a leaf node. Don’t remove more than a third of the total length of the main stem and half the length of a branched stem.
How long does it take for pruned stems to regrow?
Pruned stems won’t actually regrow. Instead, the tiny leaves below the cut drop off, and two new branches form in their place. It can take about a week for new growth to appear and a few more before the branch is ready for pruning.