How to Cut Herbs So They Keep Growing
Tips to keep your herb garden healthy and bountiful.
Give your herb garden a little extra attention this week, and take the time to trim your herbs so that they can continue to flourish for the rest of the growing season. With a little patience and a pair of sharpened snips, you’ll find that caring for your plants is the perfect dose of mid-summer zen.
Why Should You Prune Your Herbs?
- Primarily, because it’s good for the health of the plant. We’ll go into more detail below.
- To encourage fresh growth, which often helps a tall, thin plant develop bushier foliage.
- To propagate new, rooted growth (more plants!)
- To control the size of the plant itself, and the overall size of the garden.
- To keep a fresh assortment of herbs at your beck-and-call for cooking purposes. Use them fresh or dehydrate and store the herbs for future use.
How Often Should You Trim Herbs?
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between light pruning and hard pruning, and there is such a thing as too much pruning; the goal is to help your plant thrive and grow, not impair it’s ability to produce new growth.
Also, regardless of what type of herb, whenever you see blossoms forming, you should remove them to redirect the growth energy back to the leaves and roots. The blossoms use up a lot of the plant’s energy, causing the plant’s growth to slow or peter out for the season.
Light pruning applies more generally to herbaceous plants, like basil, stevia, cilantro, etc., plants that thrive all summer and will die off or lose their vigor in winter months. Monitor the growth in herbaceous plants all season long, because frequent trimming will encourage the plant to sprout new growth, and continue to grow bushier and more productive. The process of “tipping” refers to cutting off the top few inches of new growth to encourage the branch to grow outwards in two directions at the break. Tipping will help to maximize the plants willingness to branch out. I do this most regularly with dill and basil (the perfect reason to make pickles and pesto with every harvest).
Pruning herbaceous plants is necessary for the health of the plant and surrounding plants in the garden too; either they get large and begin to suffocate neighboring plants in the same shared bed, or their growth slows tremendously too early in the season, reducing the amount of leafy growth for you to harvest.
With all herbs that you’re pruning readily (every few weeks during peak season) be wary of removing too much plant. Big leaves, or leaves at the base of the plant are really important for the health of the plant because they absorb so much more sunlight than smaller leaves with new growth. Make sure you keep those leaves in tact for the overall health of the plant. That said, you’re often safe to prune back half of a healthy plant without reducing it’s ability to rebound.
Hard pruning refers to evergreen or heartier perennial herbs, such as plants with woody stems like rosemary, lavender, thyme and sage that without much maintenance, are still capable of becoming robust garden perennials. Your lightweight pruning shears are probably not going to cut it on heartier herbs (pun intended) so upgrade to stronger clippers.
Herbs in the evergreen family should only be pruned occasionally; no more than once or twice a year. The act of pruning encourages new growth, so it’s important to avoid pruning near the end of the growing season because at that time it’s important for them to be “toughening up” for winter and not developing tender growth. Also avoid pruning during the winter when the plant is in dormancy. For best results, cut your herbs back early in the year when new growth is beginning to show.
Like with herbaceous plants, it’s important not to trim back too much growth at a single time, but you do want to remove any dead branches that get in the way of new growth. A good rule of thumb is to cut dead branches back to the soil, but avoid cutting more than 1/3 or 1/4 from the overall healthy plant branch. Trimming a large herb back too quickly will thwart it’s ability to rebound.
Lavender is an exception: Often used as a garden feature, you’ll need to trim it way back in the late summer or early fall, so that only 3-4” of green remains atop the wooded stem. Avoid cutting off all new growth, leaving only wood stems, as the plant may not be able to regenerate. A similar pruning in the early spring will help spur new growth.
What Should You Do With Herb Trimmings?
As you practice light pruning all summer long, take advantage of your herbs and use them in fresh recipes. You can also dehydrate herb trimmings and jar them for use all year long.
Many trimmed herbs will easily reroot with a little effort, and what will that give you? More plants! Just place your clean-cut herb trimmings into a jar with a little bit of water, and allow them to soak up sunlight from a window. Rotate the water every few days. After a few weeks, fresh roots will emerge from the herbs, and you can transplant the trimming back into the ground or into a container garden.