How to Prune Basil for Bigger & Longer Harvests
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Pruning basil plants can increase growth significantly, leading to big bountiful basil bushes and a longer harvesting season. Learn how to prune basil the right way with these easy steps, and you’ll be eating pesto all winter!
Why is Pruning Basil Important?
Like many plants, basil responds to pruning by increasing growth or changing the direction of its growth. An un-pruned basil plant will grow tall and skinny, likely fall over, and die back faster. But a correctly pruned basil plant will grow into an herb the size of a small bush and keep producing all season long.
Because when you prune basil correctly you stall upward growth and encourage sideways growth, thus the “bushlike” results. Pruning also encourages basil to grow more leaves (and less stems) which is exactly what you want.
This is true of many other vegetables, too, by the way. Pruning or harvesting can signal to plant to grow more of the “good stuff” like the fruit, vegetable, or leaf that you want to pick and eat. Green beans, for example, should be harvested frequently to encourage the plant to keep growing more beans!
When should you Prune Basil?
While it might be tempting to wait until your basil is huge to prune it, you actually want to start pruning basil fairly early in the season. As soon as your basil plant has at least two healthy stems with large lower leaves and a few sets of upper leaves, you can start pruning.
Look for stems that have at least three sets of leaves. Lower, larger leaves are the “foundation” of your plant and will be left to grow. The second set should be fairly well-sized with smaller babies popping out, too. The third set is the smallest leaves. These are the leaves you will harvest.
As the season goes on, flowering at the top of your basil is also a signal to prune. You will want to prune your basil before it starts to flower, if possible. Flowering basil shoots off tall skinny tops with lots of baby leaves and the beginnings of white flowers. Keeping these flowers back will encourage your basil to grow more leaves instead of flowers.
Where should you Prune Basil?
When harvesting basil, you might be tempted to cut long stems from the bottom of the basil plant. This is NOT a good way to help the basil grow. You actually want those stems to remain in place at their base and start to grow sideways. In order to do that, you need to leave some side growth intact on the lower portion of the basil stems.
Another reason not to cut all of the large bottom leaves off of your basil is that those leaves are absorbing a lot of sunlight to help the plant grow. Remove them, and you may weaken the basil plant.
Pruning basil happens mostly in the top 1/2 to 1/3 of the basil plant. You’ll leave the bottom leaf growth and look another set of leaves up the stem to find a pruning location. You’ll prune the middle basil stem right above where the side leaves and baby leaves are extending at that second level.
Pruning can be done with shears, clippers, or (in a pinch) your thumb and fingernail. We actually do a lot of finger pinching on our basil plants and we find that it works just fine to encourage more growth.
After you prune from that spot on your basil stem, two new branches will emerge from where you pruned! They’ll grow out to the side, and essentially double your stem. Keep doing this, and you multiply your basil harvest over and over again!
We have been known to end up with a basil “bush” that is two feet or more in diameter using this method. Given that we started with one basil seed in a small pot in our seed starting room, this is an amazing return on investment!
How Often should you Prune Basil? and How Much Basil can you Prune at Once?
How often to prune basil depends a bit upon how fast your basil plant is growing. But in general, you can prune basil as much as you want as long as you keep the lower stems and leaves intact and only take from above the next level of leaf growth.
We find that once basil has grown to a bush-like size, we often need to prune once or twice a week. Pruning twice at week can spread out the harvest so that you don’t end up with too much basil to use at once.
Enjoy your freshly harvested basil with tomatoes and mozzarella for an amazing Caprese Salad, or puree it into a pesto that can be frozen for future use! To store your basil over a few days, pop the longer basil stems into a cup full of water and keep it on the counter.