I had a basil epiphany last year. My goal was to grow enough basil to fuel my pesto addiction, but my plants weren’t producing nearly as much as I wanted. I tried watering them more, moving them to a different spot, planting different varieties – you name it, I tried it. Turns out, the small “harvests” I was doing on my plants were not being done the right way, and their growth was suffering as a result. There is an actual method for pruning basil, and you all need to start doing it!
This year, I jumped the gun a little bit and planted my basil seeds in late April. Anyone who lives in Colorado knows that this is very optimistic, as spring snowstorms are not at all uncommon. And can you guess what happened soon after I planted my seeds and the little seedlings had popped up? Snow. In May. All over my plants. Of course. I tried to bring them back to life, but I think the snow permanently stunted their growth.
Flash forward to today when I finally swallowed my pride and bought some small basil plants at the store to replace my dying seedlings. Since they have a decent amount of leaves on them, they can be pruned the same day that they are planted. Here’s how:
- Look for a set of two large leaves. Where the base of each leaf meets the stem, you should see another small set of leaves (or small green knobs).
- Cut the middle stem directly above the set of small leaves, leaving at least a 1/2 inch of stem if possible. The small leaves will now grow out in place of the one cut stem between them. You’re getting two new stems in the place of one!
- The piece that got cut off is your harvest–time for pesto!
- Continue this process until you have harvested enough basil for your recipe, and/or until your plant is at the desired size. Do this throughout the season as needed.
- Don’t cut off the leaves closest to the bottom of the plant, as it needs a steady base. I leave the bottom two sets of big leaves alone all season (i.e. the bottom 6-8 inches of the plant).
I know pruning basil can seem counterintuitive–why should I make big cuts to my plant when I want it to grow?–but trust me, there is no better way to grow your plant! For each cut of one stem that you make, your plant will now grow TWO new stems in its place. Then, when those new stems grow out, you can cut those to make four more new stems. And then you can cut those to make eight more new stems. And then your basil growth will be INFINITE! (I might be getting ahead of myself, but I really like basil.)
Whatever you do, DO NOT pick off leaves from random spots when you want them. I spent the first portion of the growing season last year doing just that, and pruning basil has proven to be the better method by a long shot.
Here are some other tips for growing basil that I’ve picked up via trial and error:
- As mentioned, a cold spell will wreak havoc on basil plants. They are very sensitive to dips in temperature. If you’re planting your basil outside, make sure the temperature is going to remain consistent in your area. I like to plant some of my basil in containers outside; if the temperature drops, I just pull the containers inside (or in the garage) for a night or two to wait out the cold. Basil likes it warm!
- If planting indoors, make sure to use a planter with drainage holes. Basil will grow indoors, but it needs well draining soil. A lot of indoor planters that I’ve seen favor style over function–i.e. they do not have drainage holes in the bottom. Don’t buy these containers for basil. If you already bought some, make holes in the bottom with a drill if possible. Your basil will not grow without well draining soil. Trust me, I’ve tried it.
- Basil likes humidity and moist soil. The humidity part can be difficult to manage in drier climates (Hi, Colorado!) so keeping the soil moist is imperative. If you’re growing basil in an outdoor planter, make sure to water more frequently because container soil dries out faster than ground soil does. Make sure that container has drainage holes too, of course!
UPDATE: Here is that same little basil plant, about a week after my initial trimming. See how pruning basil creates two new stems where there used to be one? One simple cut doubles the plant size! I could cut these two stems to make four new ones, but I’m going to let the plant grow out a little more first. I’m also going to tell that ladybug hiding under the leaves to invite all of her friends over because she is so cute. Plus, she eats garden pests (aphids, mites, etc) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She’s kind of a badass.