How to Prune Basil

Updated: Jul. 21, 2023

Tender, fragrant and tasty basil plants need more pinching than pruning. Here's everything you need to know about how to prune basil.

If you love having fresh basil on hand to add to sauces, salads or homemade pizza, you might try growing a basil plant on your kitchen windowsill. If you decide to plant basil outside, keep in mind that it’s a summer-only annual that can’t survive cold weather or frost. But because it is summer-only, it can do well in most USDA Plant Hardiness Zones.

And here’s a fun fact to keep in mind with your outdoor basil: It naturally repels flies and mosquitoes. So it’s a great addition to garden beds near outdoor dining and entertaining areas.

When it’s time to harvest or trim your basil, a light touch is required. Read on for expert tips on how to prune basil.

When to Prune Basil

Whether you started basil from seeds or young plants, your plants probably won’t be big enough to prune until late spring. And, because basil needs to be pruned regularly, you should be pruning it — and enjoying it! — all summer. Most basil plants live about four to five months, so enjoy it while it lasts and replant it next year.

How to Prune Basil

“Basil is a delicate herb that doesn’t need vigorous pruning,” says garden designer Amy Fedele, who writes the popular blog Pretty Purple Door, a good resource for home gardeners. She says the only tools you really need are your thumb and forefinger. Here are her expert tips for how to prune basil:

  • Wait until the plant is at least six inches tall.
  • Use your thumb and forefinger to pinch leaves off the plant.
  • “If the plant is growing too tall,” says Fedele, “pinch stems at the top of the plant to encourage more lateral growth.”
  • If you want the plant to grow taller, pinch the side shoots to encourage more vertical growth.
  • If the basil flowers, pinch off those little blooms right away. “I know it’s sad, but flowering takes a lot of energy from your plants,” Fedele says. “You want basil to focus on leaf growth so you have more to harvest. The goal is to get full and bushy foliage.” (Note: If you really hate to waste the basil flowers, toss them in a salad.)
  • When you harvest, pinch basil stems about one-quarter inch above a node (the junction of the main stem and two side branchlets) and no more than three inches from the base of the plant.

Continue to harvest

Another thing to remember with basil is that it requires constant pruning — or specifically, pinching. You have to continually pinch off leaves to encourage new growth, even if you’re not in the mood for basil.

“Most of the time, I find that I have to harvest basil a lot more frequently than I can actually use it,” says Fedele. In those cases, she says she shares her abundant harvests with family and friends.

What if you stop?

And what happens if you don’t prune basil? Its flowers will attract bees and hummingbirds. Once basil blooms, the leaves turn bitter so it’s no longer good for consumption. But if you’re happy with your basil as a pollinator plant and insect repellent, then let it bloom. To encourage the plant to spread out instead of up, you’ll still need to do some occasional pruning.

Preserving basil

Lastly, here’s a tip from Fedele on how to preserve all that extra basil. After drying your basil on the kitchen counter, mix the dried herb with olive oil, pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze. “(Then) anytime you need some, just pop a basil cube out of the freezer and throw it in your pan,” she says.