When to cut back your basil plant

Written by eoghan mccloskey
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When to cut back your basil plant
Guarantee healthy basil plants by pruning regularly. (Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Growing herbs at home can be a low-cost and low-maintenance way of infusing your cooking with the flavour of home-grown herbs. Though herbs like basil are known to be relatively hardy plants that do not require significant attention to grow healthily, a good pruning technique can increase the health, productivity and longevity of your basil plants.

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Importance of pruning

The leaves of basil plants are harvested for culinary uses because of the high concentration of flavourful essential oils inside the leaves, but home basil growers will know that basil plants also produce flowers alongside leaves. Though flower production is a natural occurrence, the need to produce flowers can force the plant to divert nutrients away from leaf production into flower production, resulting in less flavourful leaves and diminished leaf production. A good pruning technique can help avoid these problems.

When to prune

If pruning to remove flower growth, simply pinch off flower buds as soon as they appear on the plant; flower buds are usually small enough that they can be pinched off by hand. For maintenance pruning -- to expose lower parts of the plants to sunlight when top growth blocks sunlight, for example -- prune basil every two to three weeks.

Non-culinary considerations

Pruning basil is important from a culinary standpoint because flavour and leaf production is greatly enhanced by proper and regular pruning. But some people grow basil for cosmetic as well as for culinary reasons, and the flowers of purple basil varieties in particular are valued for their bright and vivid petals. If this is the case for your basil plants, you can cut away basil flowers to place in a bouquet and still retain the maximum flavour possible in leaves that are harvested for culinary uses.

Other considerations

Just like many other plants, there is a wide proliferation of hybrid varieties and region-specific cultivars of basil available on the market. The pruning techniques and frequency described are generalised so that they can apply equally to many varieties of basil, but a specific cultivar you purchase may have its own ideal pruning schedule and needs. Always follow pruning directions specific to the cultivar you are growing.

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