Skip to main content

What you need to know about pruning herbs

Pruning is often a neglected but vital chore when it comes to maintaining a lush herb garden. Watching your herbs push out new leaves can be an exciting part of the gardening process, but cutting them back will actually encourage them to grow even more vigorously — not to mention, you’ll get pretty delicious garnish after pruning! If you’re wondering why you should prune and how you should prune, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about managing herb growth so you have the healthiest and most productive plants possible.

Person potting herbs

Why do you need to prune herbs?

Pruning is beneficial to herb plants for many reasons. First, it helps you clean up your plant, as pruning is a great way to get rid of old, diseased, or dried-up foliage. Aesthetically, it’s a way to maintain the shape and appearance of your plant. And while it may seem counterintuitive at first, pruning also prevents an herb plant from becoming thin and leggy, helping stimulate growth. Although your plant will have less foliage after you cut it down, you ultimately encourage thicker and bushier growth when it fills back up — an unpruned plant may become too top-heavy and topple over. As some herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, age, their stems also become woodier, so cutting back the plant will help control woody growth that sheds lower leaves. And the best reason of all? You’ll have fresh veggies for garnish after you prune your herbs!

When should you prune your herbs?

Prune herbs when they’re young and haven’t flowered yet. Flowering indicates that the plant is at the end of its life cycle and going back to producing seeds. Additionally, the herb may become less flavorful as it reaches this point. To encourage your plant to grow and maintain its flavor profile, cut off flower buds before they bloom. You can, however, keep a few flowers if you want to collect seeds for later.

Towards the end of the growing season, you’ll want to be prudent about pruning. Avoid cutting back perennial herbs a month or two before the first frost, or else the vulnerable new growth may not recover and grow back. Holding off on pruning at the end of the growing season also helps your herbs conserve energy for the winter.

How should you prune your herbs?

When pruning, use a clean shearing knife or a pair of scissors to cut back your plant, as you don’t want to spread around any diseases that could harm your herb. Pinching your plant back with your fingers also works, but make sure that your hands are clean before you do so. If you’re working with woody stems, it might be necessary to use extra sharp pruning shears.

No matter what tool you use to cut your herbs, it’s crucial to make a clean cut through; a jagged cut can make your plant susceptible to disease. Before pruning for harvest, first target unwanted flowers and dead leaves. Then, cut down fresh leaves. Use your harvested herbs for cooking, or, if you have an ornamental plant, throw the excess leaves into your yard waste or compost bin.

Person cutting basil
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Pruning perennial versus annual herbs

When you collect leaves from perennials, a good rule of thumb for cutting them back is to cut down one-third to one-half of your herb. (As a refresher, perennials refer to plants that come back each spring in your growing zone while annuals die after one growing season.) Target an area right above the next growth node, where you see a leaf emerging from a stem. With herbs such as rosemary, lavender, and thyme, cut your plant every week throughout the summer to prevent woody growth, stopping two months before the first frost. With annuals like basil, cut off flowers and flower buds to maintain the longevity of your plant. Once winter comes, annuals likely won’t survive a light frost and come back from roots during the spring.

Pruning your herbs may feel like you’re parting ways with growth that you’ve worked so hard to encourage. However, after some time, your herb will bounce back and appear even more robust than ever. With a clean pair of scissors (or even clean hands), you can cut back your plant to encourage bountiful growth throughout the spring and summer.

Editors' Recommendations

Stacey Nguyen
Stacey's work has appeared on sites such as POPSUGAR, HelloGiggles, Buzzfeed, The Balance, TripSavvy, and more. When she's…
A guide to growing rosemary indoors from seed to spice up your dishes
Tips for a delicious rosemary harvest
Potted rosemary plants on a table

Many herbs can grow indoors under the right conditions. Rosemary belongs to this lot. The easiest way to do it is to purchase existing seedlings and repot them at home, leaving them with room to grow. Because of that, many people don’t readily know how to grow rosemary from seed — at least indoors and in a way that will help the plant thrive.

Some of the most important questions to keep in mind when growing rosemary indoors from seed are: What kind of soil does rosemary like? How do I care for my indoor rosemary? By answering those queries, we’ll help you grow successful rosemary plants.

Read more
How to grow mint indoors with these 3 different methods
Whether you grow your mint from a full plant or cuttings, here's how to keep it healthy
Mint on windowsill

Mint is a phenomenal herb, useful for entrees, desserts, drinks, and even some home remedies. If you’re looking to add mint to your indoor kitchen garden, you may be wondering about the different methods you can use, and which one is right for you. Well, look no further! Let us show you how to grow mint indoors, and let us give you all the answers to all your minty fresh questions!

Basic mint care
Mint is a sturdy, hardy plant, and it is remarkably easy to care for. It is so hardy, in fact, that it has a habit of escaping gardens and growing where it shouldn’t! So, a primary part of mint care is keeping it in check and not allowing it to spread. However, this isn’t an issue for indoor mint unless you plan on using it in a combination planter (that is to say, planting it with other plants). In that case, you should usually be fine, but keep an eye on it to make sure it isn’t overtaking the other plants.

Read more
Can you grow hydroponic herbs?
Your guide to all things hydroponic herb planting
A person reaching for a head of lettuce

Many people don’t know much about hydroponic growing, let alone how to grow herbs in water. Hydroponic systems can be quite useful for both home and outdoor greenhouse gardeners but often have more initial costs upfront that can make them seem intimidating. That’s why, for growing hydroponic herbs, it’s important to know which herbs grow in water so that you have the highest chance of success with your new system.

Can you grow hydroponic herbs?
You can! Hydroponic plant growing is said to cultivate better-tasting herbs that have a more potent smell than their soil-grown counterparts. It is, however, a bit trickier than container growing until you get the hang of it. The environment needs to be more consistent, and the system itself is more of an upfront investment; however, if you’re serious about learning how to grow hydroponic herbs and maintaining a hydroponic system, it’s perfectly doable!

Read more