How to Prune Basil

Pruning basil correctly can help it yield more growth. What is the best way to do it?

It doesn’t matter where you’re growing your basil: indoors on a windowsill, in a hydroponics setup in the kitchen, in a container on your patio, or out in your garden. It also doesn’t matter what type of basil you’re growing, whether Genovese, lemon, or Thai. All basil plants benefit from being pruned when they’re young and small.

Pruning is a bit more than haphazardly going in and cutting off parts of your plant. If it isn’t done correctly, it can negatively impact growth.

However, when done the right way, you’ll end up with a healthy, robust plant full of harvestable leaves.

What is Pruning, and Why is it Important? 

There’s a misconception that pruning a plant is simply cutting off parts of the stems or branches to shape it into a desired aesthetic. While pruning does accomplish this, it is also an essential process that manipulates the plant’s growth pattern, causing it to grow outwards instead of just growing straight up towards the sun. 

Many plants, including basil, grow from a single stem. At the end of this central stem is a group of cells known as the apical meristem responsible for the shoot tip’s growth. It is where the plant cells are actively growing and dividing to elongate the stem and create leaves. 

Basil also has lateral meristems around the body of the plant. These cells are responsible for outward growth. 

In botany, apical dominance is a growth phenomenon where the apical meristem is dominant over the lateral meristems. It controls the plant’s growth, so the central stem is the primary growth point.

But when that apical meristem is removed during pruning, apical dominance is broken, and plant hormones force the lateral meristems to take over. Thus, the plant starts growing outward too.

fresh basil leaves exposed under the heat of the sun

Pruning Basil Plants 101

When To Prune Your Basil

Ideally, you want to start pruning plants when they are young and small to maximize their growth. However, you can’t do it too early, or you risk halting growth completely. It’s best to wait until your plant is six inches tall and has at least three or four sets of leaves on that main stem. 

Don’t worry, though. If your plant is taller than six inches, it isn’t too late. You can prune larger plants, and it will still encourage lateral stem and leaf growth. 

After the initial prune, you can return every two to three weeks and prune again if you’d like. 

Tools of the Trade

Pruning doesn’t require any specialized tools. Chances are, you have the tools you need at home.

You’ll need something for cutting the stems off the plant—it’s best to avoid using your fingers—and isopropyl alcohol to disinfect the tools before and after. Keeping your tools clean and sanitized avoids infecting your plant or introducing debris into the pruning cut. 

Possible cutting tools include:

  • Garden shears
  • Specialized herb snips
  • Small scissors with a sharp, pointed tip

How To Prune Basil Step By Step

If you look closely at the plant’s central stem, you’ll see that leaves grow in pairs, coming out of the stem on opposite sides. You always want to prune just above the nodes where these leaves emerge to force them to grow into lateral branches.

  1. Find the point on the upper part of the stem where big leaves are growing.
  2. Then search for two tiny leaf buds just above these large leaves. 
  3. Using your cutting tool, prune off the main stem one-quarter to one-half inch above these tiny leaves.
  4. Repeat the process in two to three weeks, pruning again to encourage further growth. 
a person cutting basil leaves from plant

Benefits of Pruning Your Basil

While many people dislike pruning off parts of their beautiful, healthy plants, pruning actually has many benefits. Not only does it guarantee the plant produces more leaves, but it also helps maintain the plant’s overall health. Pruning keeps your plant looking neat and tidy instead of scraggly and unkempt.

  • Increased Growth – Pruning off your plant’s apical meristem (active growing point) enables it to grow leaves exponentially. Instead of only having one central stem for growth, your plant grows multiple branches, increasing the harvestable amount.
  • Healthier Plants – Pruning out basil stems allows you to remove unhealthy leaves, improving the overall health of your plant.
  • Neat and Tidy Appearance – Pruning your basil plant often prevent your plant from growing tall and leggy and will look full and bushy instead.
bushy leaves of several basil plants

Pinching vs. Pruning

The terms pinching and pruning are often used interchangeably. Pinching is a simple technique that accomplishes exactly what its name says—it involves harvesting or removing leaves with your fingers. Pruning is technically the process of removing the ends of the plant’s stems, including the active growing point, to encourage the lateral branches to grow, creating a full, bushy plant. 

A person pinching and picking leaves of  basil

Pruning Tips and Tricks

  • Once an herb plant develops flower buds, it stops producing leaves, and the taste of the plant may change if the flowers open. Always prune off flower buds, so the plant directs its energy towards growing new leaves.
  • Start pruning early, and prune often. Frequent pruning will continually encourage more side stems and leaves for harvesting.
  • Wash your hands before and after pruning to avoid unknowingly transferring diseases.
  • Always prune out stems that look yellow or have dried, dead leaves.
  • Don’t throw the pruned leaves away. Go ahead and use them!
  • There’s no need to be hesitant about pruning or trimming your herbs. When done correctly and even often, it helps increase your harvestable foliage.
  • Never just pluck off individual leaves. This doesn’t promote new growth. You need to remove the active growing point from the end of the stem.
  • When pruning larger plants, never remove more than one-third of the plant at any given time.
Carley Miller
Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at Bustling Nest. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.
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