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Pruning Prodigy: Master the Art of Basil Trimming for a Healthier, More Abundant Harvest!

Ways to prune basil.

You love the peppery, spicy taste of fresh basil if you are like me. It is much less expensive to grow your basil easily. Although fresh basil is relatively easy to grow, the best success is when the basil plant is pruned correctly.

Let’s explore what the basil plant is, why it is such a popular herb, and how to prune it correctly.

What is a basil plant?

A bunch of basil in a basket.

Basil is a member of the mint family of plants with a sweet smell and a peppery taste. A key ingredient in Italian cooking, it is also used in many cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian dishes. In addition, basil leaves are predominant in many Italian tomato-based pasta sauces and the prime ingredient in famous pesto sauces.

Certain varieties of basil (Holy basil, often called Tulsi) are revered by the Hindu religion for medicinal and spiritual purposes when consumed in tea or chai drinks. Read further to explain better the Holy basil properties and why it is so revered.

An annual herb with typically large, green, and delicate leaves harvested for many cooking recipes. Sweet basil is the most popular variety with green leaves. However, there are over 60 varieties that run from red to purple, each with a distinctive basil flavor.

Essential tips on how to prune basil properly

A woman pruning basil using scissor.

Trust me on this one, from experiencing years of growing stalky basil. I finally discovered the proper way to prune basil. Pruning basil properly makes a big difference in how the plant bushes out with an abundance of leaves.

Here are some simple steps to avoid having a sad, struggling basil plant that was too familiar to me.

Proper basil pruning steps

A man pruning top leaf of the basil.

These are tips to ensure having the busiest, most productive basil plant on your patio or garden.

  1. Locate two large leaves on the basil plant, followed down to the stem. Then locate smaller leaves or some green knobs on the stem.
  2. Cut the middle stem above the smaller leaves, trying to leave 1/2 inch of the stem if possible. This pruning technique will divide the stem, resulting in a bushier basil plant.
  3. Continue to cut the middle stem in the same way until it is at the desired size of bushiness, or leave it as is during the growing season for a less bushy plant.
  4. If basil flowers begin to form, pinch off immediately since they sap strength from the plant resulting in a less bushy plant and may create more bitter leaves.
  5. To encourage lateral growth, always pinch leaves from the top, or pinch the leaves on the side for a taller plant.
  6. Continue pruning every 1-2 weeks to encourage optimal growth of basil leaves, making sure to pay attention not to cut too much of the stems.

Additional basil pruning tips

With these essential tips, pruning basil will help make a healthy and leafy basil plant. These are some additional suggestions to ensure you have all the bases covered in pruning for a productive and leafy basil plant.

When to prune the basil plant

A basil plant on black pot.

It is important not to prune the basil plant until it has six sets of leaves or at least 6″ tall. Ensuring the basil plant is at least 6″ tall means there should be at least 5-6 sets of leaves. Allowing the plant to grow is important because the plant requires 2-3 sets of leaves to be healthy and productive.

 Respect the main central stem

Basil plants have a primary main stem. Cutting the main stem encourages the plant to split into two stems, increasing basil leaf production. However, be respectful of the tenderness of the main stem as it bruises easily and can cause trauma to the plant.

Where to cut the central basil stem

Locate the fifth set of leaves counting down from the top of the plant. Cut the central stem at an angle about 1/4 to 1/2 inch above, where two leaves grow. Take care to make sure there are at least one or two sets of leaves left at the bottom of the central stem. Create a clean cut with scissors or garden shears.

Regularly pinch leaves from a basil plant

Pinching basil flower buds.

To encourage bushy basil plant growth, continually pinch off leaves, even if you do not intend to use them at that time. Continuously harvesting basil encourages new plant growth and a bushier, leafier basil plant.

What happens to the basil plant without pruning?

If you discontinue pruning the plant, it will eventually begin to bloom and create blossoms. Blooming basil may not necessarily be wrong if you want to make a pollinator plant for the bees and hummingbirds. Unfortunately, the leaves will become more bitter and inappropriate for recipes.

Plant maintenance tips

These are suggestions for maintaining your basil plant to be productive and full of tender basil leaves.

  • Ensure not to trim leaves close to the bottom of the plant as it needs a robust and healthy base for best growth.
  • Trim regularly to encourage the most productive plant growth with the thickest growth of basil leaves.
  • Water thoroughly once a week to around a depth of 1.5 inches.
  • Fertilize to promote as heavy leaf growth as possible if grown for cooking.
  • Ensure adequate drainage with 1″ or so of gravel in the bottom of the pot.

Most popular and commonly grown basil plants

These are the most commonly grown basil plants used in many dishes and sauces. These plants range from bright green to dark purple, and I had no idea there were so many!

1. Sweet Basil

Sweet basil plants in garden.

The most popular basil plant grown known for its aromatic green leaves. Sweet basil enjoys sunny spots with plenty of water and is fertilized with organic soil.

2. Genovese Basil 

A healthy Genovese basil in the garden.

This variety of basil has slightly spicier and aromatic leaves than sweet basil. The Genovese basil is often used in Italian cooking and pesto sauces for 6-8 hours of sun in well-drained soil with a neutral pH.

3. Thai Basil

A Thai basil plants in the garden.

The best used fresh and has a hint of licorice and a more robust flavor. Thai basil has attractive purple stems and flowers and is the favored basil for Asian cuisine. Thai basil enjoys sunny days with moderate watering but detests frost, so protect it from cold nights by bringing it indoors.

4. Napoletano Basil

A wide Napoletano basil leaves.

Named after the area it originated, Naples, Italy. The Napoletano basil is spicier with huge leaves often used for wrapping fish, cheese, and poultry. Commonly used in soups, meat dishes, sauces, and fish dishes. The Napoletano basil enjoys full, sunny days and is fertilized monthly in a loamy soil.

5. Dark Opal Basil 

A purple Dark Opal basil leaves and flowers.

When I become tired of green basil leaves, I opt for the Dark Opal basil. This plant is beautiful with bright dark purple leaves and contributes to cooking many culinary dishes. The brightly colored leaves steeped in oil or vinegar add color with an aromatic aroma to many dishes. Plant in containers that receive direct sunlight and ensure the soil is watered evenly.

6. Christmas Basil

A Christmas basil plants.

The Christmas basil is a mix of Genovese and Thai basil with leaves flavored with a hint of pine and wine. Often added to teas and drinks, it is often added to pesto sauces, herbal dishes, and salads. In well-watered, mulched soil, the optimum growing temperature is 65° – 85° in well-watered areas. 

7. Lemon Basil 

A Lemon basil in the garden.

Although not as exotic-looking as other basil varieties, it does grow attractively with spikes that add color to the plant. To create a refreshing drink, add Lemon basil to tea and enjoy the tea with a warm lemon flavor. In the first weeks of planting, use a phosphorus-rich fertilizer, then water often, but do not water until the soil becomes soggy and prune frequently.

8. Lettuce Leaf Basil 

A greeny Lettuce Leaf in the garden.

Appropriately named Lettuce Leaf basil as the leaves have a texture reminiscent of lettuce leaves. The large leaves are often used in fresh dishes and salads and are ideal for creating lettuce-wrapped sandwiches. Protect the vegetation against frost and plant the seeds 0.25 inches deep and 10 inches apart. Also, avoid fertilizer with high nitrogen content.

9. Lime Basil

A healthy Lime basil plants in the garden.

Similar to Lemon basil, Lime basil has a citrus flavor and is less common than Lemon basil. Often grown together in pairs, the combination creates an excellent citrus flavoring. Plant in areas receiving 4-6 hours of direct sun with modest watering. If the plant eventually becomes top-heavy, add a support stake to the plant.

10. Cinnamon Basil 

A beautiful Cinnamon basil plants in the garden.

Sometimes called Mexican Spicy basil, Cinnamon basil, with its fragrant aroma and spicy flavor, is used as a garnish and in fruit salads. This basil plant is attractive, with pinkish-lavender and mauve-colored flowers often found in floral arrangements. Plant in slightly acidic, rich, moist soil around 6-12 inches apart and water routinely to maintain moist soil.

11. Holy Basil

A healthy Holy basil plants in the graden.

Often called Tulsi, it is thought to have strong medicinal and spiritual characteristics, especially by Hindus. Holy basil is an attractive plant with leaves with dashes of green and purple, but it is more than just an appealing plant.

When consumed daily in tea or chai, the basil leaves, a type of Indian tea, can boost our immune system. I have tried it in tea and suggest giving it a try. And it has been validated by scientific studies for boosting the immune system. Try to procure Holy basil from reputable organic growers for this variety of basil.

12. Cardinal Basil

A Cardinal basil plants in the garden.

It is immediately identifiable as Cardinal basil due to its spicy scent and colorful red flowers and is often used in ornamental gardens. Similar to celosia, the Cardinal basil is an attractive and spicy additive for various recipes.

Plant in a warm climate and avoid planting in cooler spring weather. Often used as a decorative container plant and make sure to keep the soil moist during the growing season.

13. Green Ruffles Basil 

A beautiful Green Ruffles basil in a pot.

This basil variety has fringed and ruffled leaves with spikes of large purple flowers. The attractive foliage can work well as a decorative border plant. Due to its mild flavor, it works well in pasta, salads, and noodle dishes. It is best planted in partial-sun using mulched soil and watered regularly.

14. Greek Basil

A group of Greek basil in the garden.

Growing as a small bushy plant of up to 8-10 inches, this variety of basil works well in space-limited locations. The pointed leaves are used ideally in tomato dishes, salads, garnishes, soups, and meat dishes.

They are often grown indoors, and recommended to place them in areas with direct sun exposure or a grow light for the best growth. Ensure to keep well-watered during dry spells, and in very hot climates, keep in partial sunlight.

15. Pistou Basil

A Pistou basil in the garden.

Named after a sauce with a mixture of basil, olive oil, and garlic called Pistou sauce, this is one of the smallest basil plants. However, this basil plant’s leaves are loaded with flavor and found in garnishes.

Keep the soil evenly moist by watering moderately and moving outdoors after the last frost. Pinch the terminal shoots to encourage branching and become a bushier plant.