What could possibly come close to the smell of basil in the summer? Just rubbing a leaf and holding it to your nose can give you daydreams of pasta (or licorice… depending on the variety of your basil). Basil reigns as my favorite herb to have in the garden because it’s super easy to grow, and it usually seeds, so I have volunteers popping up the next spring (win!). And if you’re worried that basil is difficult to grow, there’s no need to fear. I can guide you through the entire process of growing basil from seed, watering, pruning, and finally serving it up in both sweet and savory dishes all in my Basil: From Seed to Table guide. Basil is one of the hardiest and easiest to grow herbs for the summer garden.
How to Prune Basil
Whether in a container or in your actual garden, basil can produce an amazing harvest with just one plant. And not only do these fantastic plants provide you with fresh basil leaves, but at the end of the season, when your plant produces tiny white flowers, you’ll be providing the pollinators in your garden with an abundant food source. But before we get there, let’s talk about a crucial element for abundant basil. Knowing how to prune basil will give you the biggest harvest in the neighborhood. Not that growing and pruning basil is a competition, but… it could be, right? Challenge accepted.
Why Prune Basil?
My basil plants haven’t always been abundant growers. I share in Basil: From Seed to Table that after the first few years of tall, skinny basil plants, I finally realized there must be something I’m missing. Other basil plants on tv all seemed huge, but I was stuck with skinny plants. Maybe more fertilizer was the trick? No, though they did certainly grow taller. And despite my watering and hovering, no changes other than height were happening.
Finally, when thinking about pruning as a help for other summer growers (like tomatoes), I caught on to the idea of pruning basil. And wow! What a difference a little pruning can make! Just a few snips per plant makes the difference between one batch of pesto and enough pesto to share with the neighbors. Trust me; your neighbors want you to prune your basil plants. Pruning is beneficial for all types of plants, and you can find instructions for other vegetables and fruits here:
- How to Prune Tomatoes like a Pro
- How to Prune Blueberry Bushes
- How to Prune Dill
- How to Prune Fruit Trees
Pruning or cutting back gives plants a chance to focus on producing more of what you’ll actually consume, and less of what you don’t need.
So how do you go from paltry to robust with your basil plants? Even if your thumb is closer to black than green, It’s really quite simple! And I’m going to show you how:
Instructions for Cutting Back Basil
- Ideally, you’d start pruning when your basil plant is still pretty small, with only one or two stems (6-8 leaves) off of the main plant. If you’ve waited a bit longer, then I would suggest not pruning all the way down near the base, but rather on a higher stem. First, find a stem that has a leaf on each side and leaves growing in “the middle.”
- With a good set of pruning shears (or your thumb nail if you’re in a pinch), cut the middle growth close to its base. What you’re doing here is encouraging the plant to focus on those two side branches by getting rid of what was in the middle. It’s all about distributing the plant’s energy where you want it to go. The same is true for many plants in the garden, including tomatoes.
- Use the basil that you’ve pruned off for a nice Caprese salad or a bright pop to the top of your next pasta meal. (Find my Caprese Pasta Salad Recipe here!) If the stem portion you’ve cut off is long enough, you can also put it in a small container with water and let it root. Then you’ll have more basil plants! In the meantime, those two leaves you left behind will grow and flourish. You can see below one of the stems I pruned about a month ago. Both of those side leaves are now growing leaves of their own, and your harvest has almost doubled simply because you pruned with one tiny snip.
- You can repeat this pruning process with several stems, but don’t go crazy, especially if your basil plant is a little larger. You don’t want to shock the plant, so start with pruning two stems, and then in a week or two prune a bit more if needed. On average, I only prune my basil plants two or three times during the season, and as you’ll see in my video below, my basil plants get pretty large. There’s plenty of basil for me and my friends and neighbors!
Our tiny basil plant that we bought at our local plant sale has now blossomed into a full and productive plant, and this is really with only one pruning so far. You can also had rich compost to the soil around your plant to encourage growth as well. With our basil cuttings, we’ve had several caprese salads, and my food processor is begging me to make some pesto, and of course, basil is easy to dry and use later.
Other basil and herb articles
- How to Save Basil Seed
- How to Root Basil from Cuttings
- Tips for Growing Rosemary
- How to Dry Basil
- Basil and Sage Compound Butter
I’d love to know your favorite uses for fresh basil, and if you’ve found pruning helpful for you as well. Happy Gardening!
Want to see how it’s done?
Want to know how to grow basil from start to finish? (Including saving and recipes!!) Grab my book, Basil: From Seed to Table, today! You’ll know exactly what variety to grow, how to make it thrive, and then how to use it in delicious savory and sweet recipes! All for the price of a cup of coffee. It’s the easiest and fastest way to learn all about one of the world’s most popular herbs! Click the image below for all the details.