Keep fresh basil (Ocimum basilicum) as close as your garden bed or potted herb garden. This low-maintenance annual herb grows during the sunny summer months, sending up a dense mound of aromatic leaves. Pruning doesn't just encourage healthy growth, it also allows you to harvest regularly while maintaining the flavor quality and basil's pleasant shape. You only need your fingers and small scissors to keep your basil trim and productive.
Just a Pinch
A timely pinch helps young basil develop a bushier, leafier growth habit. The plant will look better and produce more. Pinch out the central stem when the basil is about 6 inches tall and has developed three to five strong leaf sets. Grasp the stem between your fingers, just above the second set of leaves from the tip, and break off the top of the stem. Basil will branch out from this pinch point. You can use the removed young leaves in the kitchen.
Flowers aren't the goal when growing basil. Once the plant begins to produce buds, the leaves begin to lose their aromatic flavor. Basil plants also begin to decline and die after flowering and setting seeds. Monitor the tops of the stems throughout the growing season for the first signs of a flower bud. Pinch back the stems to the second or third leaf set from the tip to remove buds and to force new growth. Once basil sets buds, it won't stop, so you must check the plant a couple of times a week to stay on top of the pinching.
A Bit Off the Top
If you need a large amount of basil at once, or if you preserve it by drying or freezing, shear back the entire plant instead of pinching. Wipe down a small pair of shears or kitchen scissors with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol to disinfect them, and then cut back the plant to about one-half its height. Making the cut just above a leaf set encourages further branching and full, new growth. You can cut back basil whenever it is more than 6 inches tall and it will continue to put on new growth until it flowers or declines naturally at the end of summer.
Keep in Shape
You don't have to prune back the entire plant if you only need a little basil. Pinch or cut off individual leaf stems as needed for an ongoing fresh supply of basil, making the cut within 1/4 inch of the leaf below. If your plant isn't about to flower, you can continue to cut back a little here and a little there, as needed. Trim from a different stem or side each time so the basil keeps its even, mounded shape. If the plant begins to look weak or scraggly, cut back the entire plant to the lowest set of leaves to force a new flush of growth.