Basil is one of the all-time great culinary herbs. With a wide variety of types to choose from, they can help create truly delicious food.
Growing basil is fairly easy, but to get the most out of your plants, you should be pruning them. In this article, you’ll learn how to prune basil for a bigger harvest and bushy plants.
Basil Flowers (and Why They Matter)
As you know, basil is grown for its aromatic and flavorful leaves. However, as you grow your own basil, you may start to see shoots of flowers forming above the foliage.
These flowers are a sign that the plant is beginning to reproduce, as the flowers will eventually become seeds. There are a number of factors that can cause basil to flower:
- Hot temperatures. In the heat of summer, some basil types will become stressed out. If your plants experience a prolonged period of hot weather, this may trigger the flowering stage.
- Drought. Always remember to water your basil evenly. Don’t over-water, but never let the soil become completely dry. If you see the leaves wilding in a drought period, water right away, as this can also trigger flowering.
- Certain varieties flower earlier. My favorite basil, sweet Thai, is known for flowering earlier than many other varieties. There isn’t much to do about this other than stay on top of pruning the plants regularly.
Once a basil plant begins to flower, its leaves become bitter and less appetizing. To preserve the ideal flavor and also promote more growth, we must prune our basil plants.
Pruning basil (video):
How To Prune Basil
To prune basil, all you need is good timing and technique. You can use your fingers to pinch off the basil, or ideally, use a clean pair of pruning shears.
How to prune basil (steps)
- Identify the nodes on stems.
Nodes are the points along your basil plant’s stems where new growth and buds can form. They are where leaves form, and where new shoots can develop. Select a branch and look under the top leaves. You should see several nodes along the stem below the canopy.
- Prune just above a node.
The ideal pruning point is just above a node, usually one or two nodes down from the top of a branch. Depending on how large your plants are, choose how far back you want to cut your plant. If you basil plant is large, you can cut deeper into the plant with each pruning.
- Allow lower shoots to grow for 2-3 weeks before pruning again.
After pruning, allow your plant to regenerate new foliage for a few weeks. This takes anywhere from 2-3 weeks depending on temperature, available nutrients, and sunlight.
- Pinch off any flower buds immediately.
If you notice flower buds forming at the top of basil stems, pinch them back immediately. Flowers are an indication that the plant is either stressed or old enough to begin reproducing. Basil that has flowers begins to taste bitter and less sweet.
Pruning regularly helps keep your plants in foliage mode, rather than switching to the reproductive phase. If you keep on top of it, pruning can keep your plants producing all season long!
When to prune basil for the first time
The technique we use to prune basil is simple and effective. However, the most important thing to learn is exactly when to harvest your basil to keep the plants healthy and productive.
If you are growing your basil from seed, then you want to wait for the plant to be 8-12″ tall before pruning. This can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks after sprouting, depending on the growing conditions.
After this first pruning, you can continue to trim basil every 2-3 weeks. This will encourage the plant to keep producing new side shoots and foliage, leading to more overall harvests.
Picking off basil flowers
Flowers are a bad sign on your basil. If you notice flower buds (they will be right at the top of a basil stem), pick it off. Even if you just pruned a few days ago, prune basil flowers away whenever they show up.
Tips For Bushy Basil Plants
Aside from regularly pruning your basil, you can take some additional steps to grow bushy, productive basil. Essentially, all of these tips have the same end goal: produce as many leaves as possible and prevent flowering.
- Fertilize with a nitrogen-rich formula. If you fertilize your basil, use one that has more nitrogen than it does phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is responsible for producing lush, green foliage. Phosphorus and potassium are more important for crops that produce fruits such as tomatoes and peppers. The amount of nitrogen is not as important as the ratio, for example a 6-4-4 fertilizer is a better choice than a 8-10-10 for basil.
- Partially shade plants in hot weather. If you live in a hot climate, or have hot summer days, providing some shade can help. Basil does best in full sun, but avoiding direct sun in the hot afternoon can help avoid flowering. Use taller plants on the West side of your basil, or even use shade cloth.
- Water evenly. Never, I repeat never allow your basil plants to dry out. If the leaves become wilted due to insufficient water, it may trigger the plant to bolt and flower. Avoid this by checking on the soil regularly. If you are growing in the ground, mulch the base of your basil plants to help retain moisture longer.
Propagating Basil Cuttings in Water
As a bonus, you can actually use your basil cuttings to produce more plants! If you are pruning early in the season, this can come in handy to multiply your plants and get even more basil.
How to: Simply submerge the cut-end of your basil trimming into 1-2″ of water. Place the cutting in a shady spot outdoors, or in a bright window indoors. Replace the water every 2-3 days. After a few weeks, your basil cuttings will produce roots and can be planted into fresh soil.
Be sure to harden off your propagated basil cuttings to adjust them to direct sunlight. This will help prevent sun scald and potentially killing the plants.
If you want to take this to the next level, you can try growing your herbs in hydroponics. Most herbs, like basil, can be grown in water (no soil!). This is ideal in a kitchen setting where soil can become messy. For a simple way of doing this, try the AeroGarden.
Pruning basil is essential to getting healthy plants, and continual harvests. Thankfully, each time you prune, you can use the harvests in the kitchen, dehydrate them for dried basil, or clone them into new plants!