Today’s tutorial will show you how to prune herbs. If you’re a visual learner, there’s a video on how to prune basil at the bottom of the post; it shows you all the steps you need to prune any herb!
For us, the point of growing herbs is clearly so we can use them to make delicious food! Cuz, duh! But in order to do that we have to get them growing big and strong, and then we have to get the leaves or flowers off of the living plant. It seems like that part would be pretty simple (just cut ’em off, right?) but there’s actually a fair bit that goes into pruning and harvesting your plant so that you can get the most out of it.
One important thing that I learned is that even though sometimes the words are used interchangeably, there is a difference between pruning your herbs and harvesting them. They both mean pinching or cutting pieces off of the plant, but they have different purposes.
- To put it simply, pruning is strategically removing pieces of your plant in order to help it grow properly. There are many things you can accomplish by pruning your plants, and pretty much any plant can benefit from pruning. It can shape your plants so that they grow bushy instead of tall and spindly, encourage new growth (especially useful for herbs), get read of dead pieces, increase the yield of flowers or buds, and much more! You can prune a plant throughout it’s whole life to help encourage the type of growth you want.
- Harvesting, on the other hand, is removing pieces of your plant for your use or consumption. Unlike pruning, you only want to harvest plants when they are ready to eat (or dry, or whatever), when they are at their peak flavor or scent. And you need to be strategic here too so that you don’t kill the plant by harvesting too much. (I’ll go into more details about harvesting in a later post).
The plants have been growing for about two months now and they are doing great (the catnip especially, that little guy is going crazy!) It’s not quite time to harvest them yet, but it’s definitely time to prune them! You can start pruning your plants pretty early on, but you want to wait at least until they have three full sets of leaves, otherwise they’re probably still too young.
One of the coolest things about plants is how pruning them helps to promote even more growth. They’re like a hydra…cut one head off and two more take its place! I’m not even joking.
Plants start out with one main stem and grow pairs of leaves from that stem. But plants can’t sustain growth like that forever or they’d be ridiculously tall and skinny! So at some point new stems start growing from the joint of each pair of leaves (you can see a couple extra stems near the bottom of the catnip below). Pruning can help encourage this behavior because once a stem has been cut off the plant puts its energy into growing the two little buds nearest that joint instead. This will make your plant bushier and lower to the ground. Also, since each new stem starts sprouting pairs of leaves as well, your plants will start growing exponentially, and more leaves are always a good thing when you’re growing herbs!
You can see in the picture above that, unlike the basil which only has four sets of leaves total, the catnip has four sets of leaves on the main stem, but TONS of other leaves growing from other stems near the ground.
When pruning or harvesting your plants you want to be careful to always cut just above a pair of leaves rather than below them. Remember the hydra analogy? Well the two new “heads” grow from the joints where the leaves and stems connect, so you don’t want to actually remove the leaves.
Go back and look at the picture of the catnip above. See the leaf on the left that is the closest to the camera? Follow the stem of that leaf down until it joins the main plant stem. Do you see the tiny little buds right at the joint there? Whether you are pruning or harvesting, right above those little buds is where you want to cut the main stem.
Take a pair of scissors and cut the main stem just above the little buds. You can see in the picture above that the little buds are still there. Now that the main stem is gone the plant will put its energy into growing those new shoots instead!
Here’s a close-up of the basil that I pruned yesterday evening. I pruned the fourth set of leaves right off of the top, and now those tiny little buds get a chance to grow!
About four days later the new little catnip shoots were really growing well!
The first time you prune your plants you want to do exactly what I did here: cut off the main stem above a pair of leaves. But the second, third, fourth, etc. times you prune your plants the main stem probably won’t have that much new growth on it, so look around for other stems to prune. The next ones I’m going to prune from the catnip are the very very bottom ones. That way instead of a main stem and two side stems at the bottom I’ll have a main stem and four side stems! (Remember, hydras ) That way the plant will be “bottom heavy” instead of getting so tall and skinny that it falls over from it’s own weight. Yes, that is what will happen if you don’t prune your plants!
If you want to see pruning in action, check out this video I made on how to prune basil! The steps for pruning basil are the same as for any herb, so even if you’re not growing basil this year, take a look!
Have you had any luck growing things so far this season? The weather is getting nice and warm here in Chicago and our herbs are just LOVING it!
This post is part of a series about growing herbs indoors. You can see the rest of the posts in the series here.