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Pruning basil plants can significantly increase growth, leading to big, bountiful basil bushes. This means a much longer harvesting season.

Learn how to prune basil the right way with these easy steps, and you’ll be eating pesto all winter long.

Image Credit: Homestead How-To

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.

However, a correctly pruned basil plant will grow into an herb the size of a small bush and keep producing all season.

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 fewer stems), exactly what you want.

This is true of many other vegetables, too, by the way. Pruning or harvesting can signal a plant to grow more of the “good stuff,” like the fruit, vegetable, or leaf you want to pick and eat. Green beans, for example, should be harvested frequently to encourage the plant to keep growing more beans!

pruning basil leaves on table

When Should You Prune Basil?

While waiting until your basil is huge to prune, it might be tempting, you want to start pruning basil fairly early in the season. You can start pruning as soon as your basil plant has at least two healthy stems with large lower leaves and a few sets of upper leaves.

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 progresses, flowering at the top of your basil is also a signal to prune. If possible, you will want to prune your basil before it starts to flower.

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 want those stems to remain in place at their base and start to grow sideways. To do that, you must leave some side growth intact on the lower portion of the basil stems.

Another reason not to cut all the large bottom leaves off your basil is that those leaves absorb 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 for 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 extend 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.

pinching basil to prune
You can pinch basil with your fingernails to prune.

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 repeatedly!

Using this method, we have been known to end up with a basil “bush” that is two feet or more in diameter. Since we started with one basil seed in a small pot in our seed starting room, this is an amazing return on investment!

bountiful basil plant

How often should you prune basil?

How often to prune basil depends on how fast your basil plant grows. 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.

How much basil can you prune at once?

Once basil has grown to a bush-like size, we often need to prune it once or twice a week. Pruning twice a week can spread the harvest so that you don’t end up with too much basil to use at once.

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Carrie Williams Howe is an educational leader by day and an aspiring homesteader by night and weekend. She lives on a small homestead in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a rambunctious border collie. She blogs about her family's homestead life at The Happy Hive.

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  1. Tips on basil pruning much appreciated. One topic I almost never see addressed by anybody is how”golden-agers” can keep gardening-other than 2-foot high raised beds. I’m 80 as of this week…have less bendability than I used to…and access to a small garden plot at the 55+ residence I’ve recently moved to. Suggestions for tools/techniques for us ‘less-agile’ seniors would be appreciated. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your comment and question! I’m a bit less agile too, due to chronic pain. I carry my tools (and my harvests) in a repurposed kids Radio Flyer Wagon that I can pull behind me instead of lifting. I also rely heavily on mulching right from the beginning of the season because the mulch around my plants discourages weeds (so I don’t have to bend over to weed!). And, I keep my expectations for perfection in check. Some days I just can’t get out there to harvest and I just accept that and hope for the best the next day.

      Sheet mulch gardening might be a great option for you to keep the weeds down!

      How to use the Sheet Mulch Method to Create a Garden Bed

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