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How You Should Cut Basil from the Plant Without Ruining it?

A woman's hand cutting basil leaves using scissor.

When I first started growing basil, I had a hard time being consistent about cutting it. I figured it didn’t matter where on the stem I made my cuts, or even how often I trimmed it. I just kind of picked off what I needed, or cut it all the way down to the soil.

Sometimes I’d pick a few leaves off every day, and other times I’d go a month without cutting anything. Boy was I wrong! 

While basil is an easy plant to grow, its maintenance is a bit finicky when it comes to how it’s trimmed and pruned. In order to save you the hassle and mistakes I made, I thought it’d be good to review how you should cut basil from the plant in order to best promote new growth and get the most out of your basil harvest.

Below are my top tips for how to cut your basil plant.

Always Start from the Top

Cutting basil leaves using scissor in a white isolated background.

Now, there are two approaches to take when it comes to cutting your basil. Both ways are “good,” meaning you won’t kill it either way. It just depends on what your needs are and how much basil you’re planning to use. 

If you need a leaf here or there for a recipe, you can just pinch the top leaves off of the plant. Don’t take the bottom leaves, just take the ones at the top. Those are considered the “older” ones since they’ve been growing longer than the ones at the bottom. They will give you the best flavor for your recipe.

If you want to harvest a larger amount, you need to work your way from the top down. You should cut off up to half of the total stem length, and always cut above a pair of leaves, not below. This was one of my mistakes. I looked at my big beautiful basil plants as though they were flowers to be cut and picked out, but it turns out you need to cut above the leaves. 

Why, you ask? Well, it encourages the basil to start growing more! It also helps the basil plan to grow fuller, bushier leaves close together, rather than a lot of sparse stems that each grow only a few leaves. As you work your way down the plant, make sure to always leave at least one leaf pair at the base of the stem. 

Wait until it’s at least six inches tall

Once your basil plant is 6 to 8 inches tall, you can start trimming your basil. I know you may want to start pruning as soon as you see signs of growth, but you don’t need to do this. You can just wait a few weeks until it’s longer, and then start cutting. Make sure to leave a few inches at the bottom to promote regrowth. 

Even if you cut it down (not more than half the total stem length), it will still be ready for another trimming in 2-3 weeks, depending on moisture and soil drainage.

Cut first thing in the morning

A woman in middle age cuts basil leaves in a pot.

Okay, I know I’m supposed to be telling you about how to cut without ruining your basil, but I want to give you all the tips––including the tips about getting the freshest, most tasty basil! Cutting your basil in the afternoon or evening will not kill your basil, but it will not be as juicy.

You’d think it doesn’t matter, but basil leaves are actually the juiciest in the early morning, so if you want to get the most flavor out of your basil plant, cut in the morning. This will help to preserve the flavor, especially if you’re not planning to use it right away.

Scissors versus Fingers

Picking basil leaves by hands.

If you don’t have scissors, it is perfectly fine to pinch off the basil with your fingers. You may want to wear gloves if you don’t want to stain your fingers––but maybe you’re like me and like getting a little dirty while you work with the earth. Call me a nature freak, but it’s therapeutic for me to work in my garden with my hands. Unless I’m pruning my rose bushes, of course!

The only time you may want to opt for scissors instead of fingers is when you’re cutting deeper down on the plant. I only say this because sometimes, with the thicker stems, using your fingers may result in tearing the stems. You want to avoid this! Tearing the stems can cause damage and introduce disease pathogens into the tissues that will inevitably kill the plant. 

Be consistent in your trimming

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I was all over the place with my trimming. I’d cut daily for some weeks, and then take a month off. This confuses your basil! Make sure you are harvesting at least once every two weeks. You may even want to set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget.

Even if you’re just trimming a little here or there, it helps encourage regular regrowth when you are trimming consistently and regularly. It’s a little like cutting hair; in the same way it’s ideal to get a trim every six weeks, it’s also ideal to trim your basil (and other plants for that matter) on a regular basis.

Watch out for budding flowers

A beds of basil plants with purple flower buds.

Another crucial part of trimming basil is getting rid of flower buds. I know, I know, they’re kind of adorable and you probably associate “flowers” as a good thing, but flower buds on basil can distract the plant from its main job…growing basil! 

You see, what actually happens when flowers start to sprout is that the basil plant redirects all of its energy into reproducing itself by growing more seeds (via the flower buds). We don’t want this. If we wanted the basil to reproduce itself, we’d just sow another basil plant. We want the basil plant to grow more basil leaves, not more flower buds. 

So, all this to say… when you see a flower bud, snip it off! This will help your basil plant to flourish, and stay focused on its main job. 

Flower buds differ among basil plants

A purple Thai basil flower buds.

Another point to note about flowers that grow on basil is that they look a little different depending on what type of basil plant you are harvesting. On Genovese basil plants, flower buds are elongated and turn white. Pinch them as soon as you see them so the plant doesn’t use any of its energy on them. On Thai basil, the flowerbuds will look more purple. 

For Greek basil plants, the flower buds are small little balls that can grow up to 12 inches wide! Because they get so big, it can take a bit longer to remove them if you’re just using your fingers, so grabbing a pair of herb snips will save you some time. Shear the flowers off and you’ll be all set. 

I hope these tips have been helpful to you for pruning your basil plants. As you can see, it’s not too complicated, but there are definitely some small techniques and tips that make all the difference. 

FAQs

In case you still have questions, or my tips sparked some questions you never thought you’d have, read below to see if I cover your concerns.

Will basil grow back after you cut it?

A woman's hand cuts basil leaves in a small pot.

Yes! In fact, when you cut it back to a fresh pair of leaves, this stimulates extra growth––kind of how when a superhero has to cut an evil monster’s head off, and two heads grow back… the same principle applies to your basil! As you continue doing this, you really can generate a sort of exponential growth, and you can look forward to full, bushy, plentiful basil plants. 

What happens if you prune basil too early?

If impatience gets the best of you and you trim your basil before it’s in that 6-8 inch range, you will deprive the plant of the energy it needs to keep growing. Just let it get going on its own, give it time to gain momentum, and then your regular pruning will help it grow into a full and leafy basil plant. 

Can a basil plant get too tall?

Basil grows quickly, so don’t feel bad if you’ve left town for a couple of weeks or all the sudden find yourself facing a super tall basil plant! It happens. Just start from the top, and work your way down, one stem at a time. You may need to move stems aside and really get in there to find the right height or places to cut, but you won’t ruin it. Just take your time. 

Remember to leave half the stem’s length intact so it can keep growing. You don’t want to over cut it or you will stunt its growth. 

What if my basil plant is overgrown?

An overgrown basil plant in the garden.

If your basil has become overgrown, or perhaps overrun with flower buds, you can still save it! It will be a little messier than a usual pruning session, but the plant can be salvaged, I promise. 

First, cut all the dead basil stalks at ground level. Use shears or snips to make sure you get a clean cut. Then, look for any wilted basil leaves and pinch them off with your fingers. Next, you’ll want to look for stalks with flower buds. Pinch the flower off just above the leaf cluster. Again, you may need to use scissors if the stalk is too thick. Repeat this process until you’ve removed all the flower spikes.

Now that you’ve cleared out the dead and wilted basil and the flower buds, harvest some of the fresh basil. And get back into the habit of consistently pruning! This will help to prevent more overgrowth in the future.

Will my basil grow back after winter?

It would be oh so very convenient if this were the case, but unfortunately, basil plants can not survive the winter freeze. This is mostly because the soil needs to be 50-70ºF for optimal growth. This means you’ll need to replant basil each summer. You’ll want to plant seeds about 6 weeks after the last winter frost, or when the soil is in that 50-70ºF range. 

If you want access to freshly grown basil throughout the cold winter months, consider investing in a small indoor aero garden. Some of the ones available on today’s market are so small that they can even fit on your kitchen countertop. This will be the best way to have fresh basil on hand in the colder months.

Can I use any of the bruised basil that I cut?

A file of bruised basil leaves.

Yes, when you are cutting and pruning your basil plant, if you notice any bruising, that basil is still edible. It will not be ideal for use as a garnish because of the brown spotting, but it is perfectly fine to keep it and use in recipes, pesto sauces, or soups. 

However, pay attention to the edges of the leaves. If it looks like they’re starting to dry out and turn brown, you may want to toss them. A little bruising on a mostly green leaf is fine, but if the edges are brown too, it’ll probably be too dried out to taste any of the flavor.

Does it matter what kind of scissors I use?

I know it’s probably more convenient to just grab any pair of scissors to prune your basil plant, but using a pair of garden shears is optimal. Garden shears are typically designed to be sharper than an ordinary pair of scissors.

They’re also usually made of stainless steel. This is important when cutting pulpy or juicy herbs because the stainless steel helps to prevent rusting, which you would probably get with a pair of utility or office scissors.

Some styles of garden shears also have shorter-length blades, which are useful for when you have to get up close to extra leafy plants. 

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