Cutting Back Basil: When and How to Prune Basil!

I always say there’s nothing better than a well-cut basil plant, and I really mean it. Freshly grown basil leaves make every dish better but only if they’re harvested from a plant that has been pruned properly.

Cutting back basil is one of the most important tasks in the whole process of growing this herb. If you grow your basil in the richest soil under the ideal sun but forget to prune it, you will end up with low-quality leaves.

Don’t worry, though. In this article, we will go through all the secrets behind proper basil pruning. By the end, you will learn all the tips needed to give your plant the best look.

Understand Your Basil

Let’s begin with understanding how basil really grows. Basil belongs to the family of mints, so it isn’t a slow-growing plant. In fact, it grows rapidly, but this isn’t everything you need to know about it.

Several sets of leaves grow on each “stem” of your basil plant. Each set grows from a node located somewhere on the stem.

If you look closely at these nodes, you’ll realize that most of them grow another set of very tiny leaves that are actually what we call “offshoots.”

cutting back basil

Each offshoot has the ability to grow into a huge stem once it’s stimulated. By stimulation, I mean all these growth hormones and nutrients flowing into it.

How do you achieve that? Pruning. Cutting one of your basil’s stems pushes the plant to find new places to grow from, and that’s how you get new branches growing.

Since most nodes grow two offshoots, this means that every time you cut one branch of your basil we get two new branches in return.

That’s how basil grows from a one-stem plant that only provides a few leaves for garnish to some sort of a bush that provides great quantities of foliage for pesto!

When to Cut Back Basil

Knowing when to cut back basil is the first thing you have to do, and to be successful, you need to consider several important factors.

In general, basil is considered to be a resilient plant, so even if you cut it back a bit earlier than the right timing, it should grow back normally.

The best time to prune your basil, however, is when it reaches around 6 inches (15 cm) tall. At this height, it would be able to survive heavy trimming.

basil

Instead of looking at its height, you can know when to prune your basil by looking at the set of leaves it has grown so far.

Each leaf on your basil represents an additional source of food for the plant. This means the more leaves it accumulates, the more prepared it is to replace what has been lost.

Once your basil grows its third set of leaves, it can be cut back. The leaves usually taste better when they’re younger, but if you wait for your basil to grow more than three sets of leaves on each stem, you will help it become stronger.

When does it become somewhat late to cut back your basil? The answer is when it’s about to bloom or already has.

Revealing flower buds means that your basil plant is about to conclude its life cycle. Blooming is all about reproduction and indicates the last stage of life for flowering plants.

basil flowering buds

What’s more, is that basil leaves become bitter and less flavorful when the plant starts to develop flowers.

That’s why pruning is very important for basil. If you want to enjoy delicious basil for as long as possible, you need to trim the plant on a regular basis.

Since basil is a fast-growing plant, you’ll be able to cut it back every two weeks once it is fully established.

How to Prune Basil:

Cutting back basil requires that you learn a few tips beforehand. These tips will keep your plant as healthy as possible and help it grow faster.

First of all, whenever you’re cutting back your basil, remember that you shouldn’t touch the set of leaves located at the bottom. These are your plant’s last food source and growth production factory. Snipping them off means you’re placing the herb at risk of dying.

The general recommendation for pruning is that you shouldn’t cut back more than one-third of the plant, but basil is somewhat an exception and can be heavily pruned.

Starting from the bottom of the stem and going upward, count one or two sets of leaves and produce a cut a few centimeters above them. It’s important that the set of leaves you leave on top of each stem has those tiny offshoots mentioned earlier.

If you don’t have time to prune your basil regularly, you can just cut the tops of the plant whenever it begins flower to prevent it from producing seeds and dying.

Whenever you find flowering clusters forming on the top of your basil, simply remove the head of each stem and the set of leaves beneath it.

After pruning, your basil plant may look a little bit unappealing, but don’t worry because in a few days its beauty will be restored.

Extra Tips: 

  • The proper cutting back of basil requires the use of sharp pruning shears. High-quality scissors don’t scar the plant with several tears, and they create very defined cuts.

If you use your hands or some scissors aren’t good enough, you might make your basil more susceptible to diseases by creating unwanted wounds.

  • Once you finish pruning your basil, you can use some of the stem cuttings to propagate new plants.

Choose a cutting that is around 3–4 inches (7.6-10 cm) long. Remove all the leaves at the bottom, and keep only one set of leaves at the top.

Immerse the cutting in a glass of water, and keep it away from direct sunlight. After nearly two weeks, it will start growing some roots.

  • The best way to support your basil is with different soil amendments directly after it has been pruned.

I always use an organic fertilizer with my basil plants to harvest the greatest quantities of leaves for pesto!

  • Remember that pruning basil means you’re harvesting the plant in bulk. This is why you should wait at least two weeks for the plant to restore its stability so that you can cut it back again.
cutting back basil

On the other hand, however, you can harvest a few leaves from your basil whenever you want. This isn’t likely going to harm the plant at all.

  • If you’re growing basil under unregulated conditions, you need to cut it back before the first expected frost or else you would lose the whole yield.

Basil is sensitive to frost, and its leaves will be turning brown as soon the temperature drops.

You’re now fully prepared to take care of your basil’s pruning needs! Enjoy growing this beautiful herb, and don’t forget to submit all your questions and thoughts in the comments below!

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I'm Jad, a biologist, blogger, and experienced indoor gardener. I am knowledgeable in plant biology, particularly in plant cultivation and propagation. I founded HerbsWithin.com in 2019 to share my knowledge in indoor gardening with passionate home growers.

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