When to Prune Basil for The First Time

Basil is one of the best plants to have growing around your home. It’s incredibly easy to grow and doubles as a great ornamental plant. I like to hang mine on a window by the kitchen, but anywhere it can get some sunlight is fine.

Basil doesn’t need much more than watering, sunlight and basic nutrients to grow into a tall, strong plant. Although, to get the healthiest plant possible we need to take some extra steps. We’re growing a winner, after all.

For example – it’s important to know when to prune basil for the first time. Cut too soon and you could chop off a leaf vital to the plant’s growth. Cut too much and you could slow down growth.

Remember that basil I keep near my kitchen? Whenever my nephew visits, he likes to help me make salads or add the finishing garnish to a dish by picking a few leaves off by himself. It makes him feel like quite the chef!

Growing Basil

when to prune basil for the first time - pruning shears and pot of basil

When you’re ready to grow, you have 2 options. You can either buy seeds and plant them directly into some kind of pot or buy a sapling and transfer it at home.

Our recommendation is to go hydroponic with the Kratky method using seeds and a mason jar!

Personally, I prefer to buy the seeds. Knowing that I’ve been involved in my plants’ full life cycle makes me care more for it.

If you’re like me and go for the seeds, small plastic cups should do just fine. They hold the right amount of soil. Just cut holes in the bottom to drain excess water.

Just make sure to transplant the sapling into a more size appropriate pot when it begins to reach about 4 inches and develop its first set of leaves.

You can save time by buying the sapling from a store and manually moving it into a larger pot. Just be careful with the roots and leaves and you should be fine.

Pruning your basil is essential if you want to increase your yields or want a fuller-looking plant to brighten up your living room.

You want to wait until the herb is about 6 inches tall before trimming the leaves. At this point, the stem should have anywhere between 2 or 3 sets of leaves.

This can take about two weeks.

Pruning the First Time
Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Now we get ready for the trimming.

Time for Action – Pruning the First Time

Just bear in mind, when you prune you’re cutting off the central stem and allowing the plant to split off and grow two central stems.

This doubles the amount of leaves and stems.

Things get wild pretty quick.

If you keep your plant healthy, you will have more basil than you can store and give to friends.

Do you want to eat pesto three times a week? Pruning your basil is how you get to eat pesto three times a week.

Did I mention you can plant the stem you cut off to make a new plant?

It’s at times like these that I sit for a moment and ponder on how amazing nature is.

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Let’s continue…

If you prune too soon, the plant will not receive enough energy. The more often you prune the basil plant, the bushier and leafier it becomes. This is the key takeaway here.

If you don’t prune your basil, it will grow slim, tall and begin bolting. We do not want this so we prune to keep it healthy, in control and flavorful

The Basil Pruning Process

pruning shears and basil

Trimming down your plant is quite simple. You just need a few things.

First comes the plant. Check? Good.

I like to use my special pruning clippers. They come with a special design to not damage the stem so much.

If you don’t have special gardening equipment. Scissors should do fine. I like to use gloves when handling scissors but that’s because I’m a bit clutzy and cut myself often.

All in all, the trimming should take about 15 minutes.

Alright, so it’s time to get our hands dirty. The first prune seems the easiest, but there are some things to keep in mind.

Treat the plant with care, especially the bigger, they’re the plants’ most important energy source.
Basil tends to damage easily. When it does, it begins to release the essential oils which give it its particular aroma and flavor. Damage the leaves too much and you could get some pretty bland tasting pesto.

Count up 2 or 3 sets of leaves. These give your plant the solid foundation it needs to grow strong.

After you’ve chosen the set to cut off, you should see two little branches beginning to stick out on both sides of the stem.

genovese basil leaves
Photo by Lavi Perchik on Unsplash

Cut the central stem about a quarter of an inch above the little branches. This will kill off the central stem and the plant will begin to grow from the side leaves.

Now you have 2 central stems, coming off from the previous main stem. Leave these to grow for a week or two, until a couple sets of leave have grown.

Pruning from here on is a little different.

On the first stem we want to leave 2 or 3 sets of leaves. After the first division, you want to cut down to the last set of leaves, one after the previous cut.

The process is the same from here on out. Once the plant has had time to grow and you want to harvest again. Choose one of the last branches. Look for the previous cut and repeat one set of leaves above.

Things to Keep in Mind

You do have to look out for bolting in the plant. As soon as you do, just pinch ‘em right off.

You see, when a plant begins to bolt, it gets ready to flower. It sends the available nutrients to the flower and stops distributing them to the leaves. We do not want this.

In other words, when you notice the plant begin developing flowers look for the previous cut and just twist it with your fingers to remove it.

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There’s no ‘right’ moment to stop trimming. It’s more of a feel. Just don’t go overboard and you will be fine.

When proper care is taken, just one plant can easily provide two months worth of basil for cooking.

mortal and pestle - grinding basil for kitchen preparation
Photo by Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash

In conclusion, you want to prune your basil to keep it healthy, lovely and vibrant green. Be careful when handling the plant and only cut off true leaves. Pruning is quite a therapeutic session, it’s oddly relaxing.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How often should I prune down my basil?

I would recommend pruning every week or two. If you prune too often, the lower plant leave won’t receive enough sunlight and it won’t grow to its full potential.

Does this work for all types of basil?

Yes, most basil species fundamentally grow the same. They grow their leaves by sets. Above each set, you will see two baby leaves. A quarter-inch above is the right place to cut.

How long can a single basil plant survive for?

Basil is typically an annual plant. Although some species can be grown perennial. A healthy basil plant with proper care can grow for up to 2 years. After this, replanting should be necessary.

Can I grow basil with low sunlight?

I would recommend planting basil somewhere that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight per day, though I’ve found that it grows quite well in a sheltered, shady location, as long as temperatures are warm.

How big can a basil plant get?

Given enough space, basil grows between 2-4 feet high and 1-2 feet wide, though you can grow smaller basil plants in little containers. These are great for indoors.

It’s important to give basil enough space between plants because growing it too close together increases the risk of fungal and bacterial diseases. It will do better if the leaves have the space they need to dry quickly and thoroughly after rain.

Don’t grow more than 3-4 basil plants in a square foot of garden or container space, and allow at least 6 inches of space between plants (more for bigger plants)

How do I store basil, and how long will it keep?

You can put away a couple of sprigs of basil in a cup on the counter for a week or maybe a bit more. Put a little water in, just enough to keep the stems submerged. Change the water every couple of days. You can also put it in the fridge to extend it for a few more days, although the cold will develop a dark, black color on it.

If you want to store if, for an extended period of time, you can freeze the basil leaves. There are a few ways of going about this, the easiest is to chop basil leaves, put them in ice cube trays, cover them with water, and freeze.

Once frozen, move the cubes to sealed freezer bags or containers. When you want to use them, just pop the herbal ice cubes into your soups or sauces. They should last for around 4-6 months.