How To Prune Your Herbs [Herb Garden Series]

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.

How to prune herbs

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!

Catnip Ready To Prune

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.

Pruned Catnip

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!

Pruned Basil

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!

New Catnip Shoots Growing

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.


Jessi Wohlwend

I believe that anyone can do crafts and DIY projects, regardless of skill or experience. I love sharing simple craft ideas, step by step DIY project tutorials, cleaning hacks, and other tips and tricks all with one goal in mind: giving you the tools you need to “do it yourself”, complete fun projects, and make awesome things!

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Reader Interactions

  1. Judee @ Gluten Free A-Z says

    12 years ago

    This was so helpful. I had no idea how to prune and my plants do get tall and spindly. Thanks so much. Great post.

  2. amy says

    12 years ago

    This is so helpful…I’m growing basil, lavender, rosemary, and mint…I didn’t know any of this. I want to see what you recommend about harvesting. I pretty much just yank off whatever I want to use, and I’m guessing that’s not the best technique. Lol. A little help, please?

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Haha! Harvesting is pretty much the same as pruning, at least in technique. You still want to cut stems right above a pair of leaves so that the plant regrows itself even bigger. There are a few other tips and tricks regarding things like time of day (morning is the best time to harvest) and time in the growing season (plants have the most flavor right before they start to flower), and also don’t take the biggest leaves. Those big guys are the plant’s photosynthesis centers, so it’s better to remove smaller new growth; it will have the same amount of flavor. And don’t remove more than about 40% of the plant at any one time so it has a chance to regrow. The biggest thing is just harvest like you prune (right above a pair of leaves) so the plant has a chance to regrow. 🙂

  3. Katie B. of says

    12 years ago

    This is such an excellent point. When I first started gardening, I’d raised dozens of herb plants from seeds. Both thinning and pinching back/pruning were traumatic. The plants were like my little babies! Now I find myself going at them gladly, because they thrive so much more when pinched back. Tough love, and all, right?

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Haha, yep! Thinning these plants was like the hardest thing I’d ever done, but it was SO worth it because almost immediately the ones I had left doubled in size. And the same seems to be true for pruning them!

  4. Claire says

    12 years ago

    Great tips and information! I felt like I was back in my highschool biology class when we learned about plants 🙂 Now what my Mom always tells me when she’s showing me where to prune my roses makes so much more sense!

    Hmmm . . . now to find my first “victim” . . .

    Visiting from I Heart Naptime’s link party!

  5. Sarah says

    12 years ago

    Very cute planting pots too. Thanks for linking up to Flaunt It Friday! 🙂 Hope you will come back and visit!


  6. ChiWei says

    12 years ago

    This is just for herbs right? Because I’ve been told to take the suckers off my tomato plants and let the main stem grow. I do take off the top of my basil so it doesn’t bolt and makes for a nice bushy plant. Thanks for the clear explanation and the great pictures!

    ChiWei @

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Good question! You can prune any plant this way; the general idea of pruning a plant right above a pair of leaves is true for all plants. But you do want to let tomatoes grow tall and skinny (same for dill and snap peas, and probably a few others as well that I’m not thinking of right now) and you’ll need to stake them to support the weight. It’s up to you, but if you want your plants “bushier” and lower to the ground rather than tall and skinny, you can prune them this way no matter what type of plant (herbs, veggies, or this even works great for flowering plants because you get more flowers spread out over more stems). 🙂

  7. Rose says

    12 years ago

    This is awesome information! I am growing herbs for the first time this year and I don’t know anything about it. Thanks for sharing this.
    Rose @ {A Rosie Sweet Home}

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      I hope this series helps! I’ve learned a ton about growing these little guys and they’re doing so well. But I had a really black thumb before so I’m hoping I can share some tips and tricks to help anyone else trying to grow plants indoors 🙂

  8. Patricia P says

    12 years ago

    I needed this information, thanks! I’m trying to grow some kitchen herbs, and I never thought that I had to be careful about how I harvested them- duh. I’m so glad I read this.

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Yeah I was totally surprised to find out there was a “right” way to do it; hope this helps!

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      They’ll thank you for it! 🙂

  9. Katie says

    12 years ago

    So THAT’S what I need to do to my basil. I always end up with the most RIDICULOUS basil plants that topple over in late-summer storms. I know to pick the flower buds off so it will keep producing leaves, but I never really thought about pruning the rest of it.

    You put waaaaay more effort into your herbs than I do. But look at what success you’re having because of it! ^_^

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Haha, yeah all of the sudden I had these super tall plants that I was thinking I was going to have to stake to support them (I did actually stake the dill cuz it’s supposed to be tall) but then I realized that if I just pruned them a bit I could “shape” them however I wanted. Seems to be working great!

      And I think most of my effort has gone into taking pictures and writing posts about taking care of the herbs, not the actual taking care part itself. :-p

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