how to trim basil

How to trim basil for big, bushy plants and larger yields

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One of the secrets to producing big, bushy basil plants is trimming. Many gardeners are shy about harvesting from their herbs. They don’t want to cut them back in case it damages the plants or reduces yield. I’m the opposite, constantly trimming herbs like basil to use fresh, or preserve by drying or freezing. Are you ready to learn how to trim your basil plants for maximum production? 

When it comes to pruning basil, it doesn’t matter if you’re growing basil in containers or garden beds. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing Genovese basil, lemon basil or Thai basil. All types of basil benefit from regular clipping. It’s a quick and easy garden task that pays off big time!

basil seedlings

Whether you’re growing your own basil from seed or picking up transplants, pinch back young plants to encourage branching and larger plants.

Why you need to know how to trim basil

There are plenty of great reasons for pruning back basil plants. Here are my top three:

  1. To harvest. This is the best reason to trim your basil! I can’t get enough of the basil harvest and clip branches for cooking almost daily in the summer. We make pesto, chop the leaves for sprinkling over pasta and pizza, toss them in green salads, and add citrusy basils like lemon basil to fruits salads. 
  2. To stimulate growth. I know, I know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to remove part of a plant to make it grow, but trust me, this is the best way to force your basil to grow big and bushy. When you clip basil stems back to a fresh set of leaves, you force those leaves to grow, doubling the basil produced on that stem. And as those stems grow, you can pinch them back and double their production – it’s exponential!
  3. To remove flowers. Eventually most basil plants produce flowers. The flowers are very attractive to bees but basil plants that are allowed to flower slow down their vegetative growth. That means fewer leaves. A sneaky way to get around early-bolting basil is to grow a variety that is slow to go to flower. Everleaf is one of my favorite basils and flowers up to eight weeks later than other varieties. Emerald Towers is also very slow to flower. Or, you can plant a variety like Pesto Perpetuo which is sterile and doesn’t produce flowers at all. 
a pruned basil plant

Take a peek where the arrow is pointing… this basil plant was trimmed a few days before the photo was taken. You can see the stub where I removed the central stem and the two sideshoots which are quickly filling out.

When to trim basil

Timing, as they say is everything. And when trimming basil it’s best to start early when the seedlings are about six to eight inches tall and have three to four sets of leaves. At that point, each plant is likely a single stem. I like to pinch that main stem back to a strong set of side shoots, removing about one-third of the plant. This simple trimming DOUBLES your basil harvest by turning single stemmed plants into double stemmed plants. How easy is that? 

Once the initial trimming is done, you’ve got a few weeks before you’ll need to pick up your snips again. I prune my basil plants every two weeks or so during the summer to stimulate plenty of growth.

How NOT to trim basil

Before I get into the ‘do’s’ of how to trim basil, I think I should first share a ‘don’t’. When harvesting, don’t just pluck off individual leaves. This doesn’t promote new growth. Instead, when you trim, you should be removing top sections of stems. Read on to learn more.

The first cut: pruning basil seedlings

In the above paragraphs I outlined how to trim back basil seedlings for the first time to stimulate growth. But what if you’re not growing your own seedlings? What if you bought basil transplants from the garden centre and they’re already bigger than six to eight inches tall? Don’t worry! You can still trim these back to thicken up the plants and encourage growth. If you can, separate store bought basil into individual plants (there’s often a handful of plants grouped together in the pot). Then, trim the plants back by about one-third, clipping just above a set of side shoots. 

Now that your young basil plants have been given their first haircut, let them have a few weeks to grow. The first harvest usually comes about a month after planting when small shoots can be removed. This serves a dual purpose: 1) you get to eat some of your homegrown basil! And 2) you can use this opportunity to stimulate EVEN MORE growth. 

summer herb garden maintenance

When trimming Greek-type basils, like Spicy Globe, you can use your fingers or herb snips to cut back to a healthy set of leaf buds.

How to trim basil plants to harvest or stimulate growth

To trim basil for harvesting or to promote growth, you can use your fingers, hand pruners, or herb snips. (These compact, lightweight snips are ideal for cutting herbs back). I often use my fingers for pinching flowerbuds or trimming top shoots of basil, but if you’re cutting the plants back hard, you may need sharp pruners as you don’t want to tear the stems. This can damage the plant and introduce disease pathogens into the tissues. 

Before you start clipping or pinching, take a close look at the plant. You want to cut central stems back to a lower set of leaves where two tiny leaf buds emerge from the leaf axil. They’re pretty easy to spot. Once you decide where you’re going to trim, cut the main stem about a quarter inch above the leaf buds. You can remove just a few stems to flavor your dinner or cut the plant back by a third to gather enough basil to make pesto or to preserve.

cutting back basil to promote new growth

When clipping back basil for harvesting or to stimulate growth, cut the stems back to a healthy set of leaf buds.

How to pinch out basil flowers

As noted above, another reason to learn how to trim basil is to remove flowers. Stressed out basil plants begin to flower sooner than those given plenty of sunshine, well-drained soil, and consistent moisture. Therefore, aim to keep your basil happy so that it keeps producing leaves, not flowers. But for most types of basil, it’s inevitable that you’ll see flower buds forming by mid summer. 

summer herb garden maintenance

Removing basil flowers as they form re-directs energy into vegetative growth and can result in a bigger harvest.

How to remove flowers on Genovese basil plants

It’s easy to spot flowerbuds on Genovese basil plants. They emerge at the tip of the shoots and look like a dense cluster of tiny leaves. As they grow, the flowerbuds elongate and tiny white flowers emerge (or purple flowers on Thai basil). I like to pinch the buds as soon as I notice them forming. That way, the plant doesn’t expend unnecessary energy on those buds. 

You can use your fingers to trim off flowerbuds or you can use garden snips. Whatever you find most comfortable. After that initial flower pinching, you’ll need to check every week or so for new flowerbuds and remove those as they appear. 

Trimming basil flowers on Greek basil plants

Greek basil plants form tight, tidy balls that grow up to a foot wide and tall. They have many small leaves with flowerbuds forming at the tips of each shoot. Hand pinching buds or flowers from these plants takes some time so I cheat a bit by using my mini herb snips or even garden shears. Just shear the flowers off like you would shape a boxwood hedge. The plants respond to this type of trimming by continuing to pump out more foliage. 

Finally, as you pinch basil flowerbuds, don’t toss them in the compost, instead use them in the kitchen. They have a wonderful basil flavor and can be used in pesto or sprinkled on salads, dressings, pastas, and pizza.

caring for herbs

Thai basil, which produces such long purple flower stalks can also be trimmed back to increase yield.

How to preserve basil

Now that you’ve trimmed back your basil plants, you’ll need to use that delicious bounty ASAP or preserve it for future meals. Basil leaves can be dried or frozen.  

  • Drying basil leaves – Drying basil is a quick and easy way to preserve basil. That said, I don’t find dried basil retains the intense basil flavor as well as freezing. But if you wish to dry basil, you can use a dehydrator or gather stems in small bundles, tie them with twine, and hang them in a warm room away from direct sunlight. After a week or two, they will be completely dry and can be crumbled into jars. You can also use an herb drying rack if you have one. 
  • Freezing basil leaves – This is my go-to method of preserving my homegrown basil and I freeze basil every week or two from mid-summer to frost. First, I gather the basil shoots, cutting back to a set of side shoots (so I get MORE basil in the subsequent weeks). I then remove the leaves and add them to the bowl of my food processor. Once full, I add a drizzle of olive oil and pulse until the leaves are coarsely chopped. This fragrant mixture is then scooped into freezer bags and labelled. I like to flatten the mixture in the bags so they lay flat in my freezer and it’s easy to break off a chunk in mid-winter when I need a flavor blast of basil in my cooking. You can also use ice cube trays to freeze basil (or pesto) in handy cubes. 

Of course you can also make pesto with your basil, pureeing pine nuts (or walnuts or almonds), parmesan cheese, and garlic with your basil harvest. Here is a great pesto recipe.

For more information on growing basil, check out these articles:

Do you trim your basil plants regularly?

Learn how to trim basil plants

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4 Responses to How to trim basil for big, bushy plants and larger yields

  1. Deb R says:

    Thanks for all the information and for presenting it so clearly! I’m off to trim my basil and root my cuttings!

  2. Richard says:

    Hi Niki, I wanted to let you know I found your article about how to trim basil for big, bushy plants and larger yields very helpful. Thank you, Richard

  3. Josh says:

    This was very informative, thank you and great job!

  4. Alejandra says:

    Hi. great article!
    Is there a month at which I should cease trimming the basil? It’s in a pot, so I’ll be bringing it indoors as the gal turns to winter.

    Thanks!

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