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Basil is one of the most fragrant and flavorful herbs to grow in your garden. But it can be hard to enjoy when your plants become too tall and leggy. It can leave you wondering if your basil is even worth keeping around. Well, the answer is yes!
Leggy basil can still be planted in the garden and trained back into the beautiful, bushy herb you’re looking for. The key to fixing leggy basil is pruning it!
If your basil is leggy, don’t give up on it just yet. I’m going to cover all of the reasons your basil might be leggy and what you can do to fix it. I’ll also cover exactly how to prune your basil plants and also propagate new plants from your pruned cuttings.
What is legginess?
When a basil plant is leggy, you will notice that it grows to be quite tall with very long stems. But, it will be lacking in leaves with it only having a couple of leaves per stem.
As basil gets bigger, you want it to start growing outwards in more of a bushy fashion than upwards.
Basil plants that get too tall and leggy will struggle to stay upright and may eventually fall over due to skinny and weak stems. If the stems snap, then your plant could be permanently damaged and likely die.
Weak stems will struggle to hold the weight of water. After a good rain, you may notice that your leggy basil plants are drooping or have fallen over completely. Until you can get your leggy basil plants back in tip-top shape, it’s best to water them as close to the soil as possible.
Reasons why your basil plants are leggy
There are several reasons why your basil plants may be leggy but luckily, all of them can be easily fixed.
Not enough sunlight
Basil needs between 6 and 8 hours of sunlight to survive. For any gardeners that grow basil outside, this usually isn’t a problem unless your garden is heavily shaded.
Many people, myself included, like to grow basil inside their homes too. But, unfortunately, this can often lead to inadequate access to sunlight for your basil plants.
Unless you have a good south-facing window in your home, there’s a good chance your basil is not getting enough sunlight and should be moved outside.
If your basil is in containers, then you can even move the container throughout the day so that the basil remains in the path of the sun.
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Too much fertilizer
Excess nutrients, especially nitrogen, can be another reason why your basil plants have gotten leggy.
If you fertilize your garden, be careful not to overdo it. Excess nutrients can cause legginess among other plants as well, not just basil.
If you notice this happening in your garden, then it’s best to immediately stop applying fertilizer. It may even be to your benefit to do a soil test and check out what the nutrient levels are like in your soil.
You may discover that you don’t need to add any fertilizer at all and your soil is actually quite healthy and fertile.
Sometimes, when the weather gets hot in the summer, certain plants will “panic” and bolt. Here’s what I mean by that.
When plants, like basil, get too warm, it makes them think they are reaching the end of their lifecycle and sends them into a frenzy of reproduction. They can start to grow very quickly and send up flowers as a means to spread their seed and reproduce before they die.
This quick growth over a short period will lead to leggy basil. Also, basil that sends up flowers, also known as bolting, will become bitter in taste and stop producing the leaves that you want. It’s best to prune these flowers to preserve your basil.
If the weather is hot, make sure your basil plants are getting plenty of water to help keep their roots cool. Mulching with something like straw also helps to keep the soil nice and cool.
How to save leggy basil plants
Legginess is not a death sentence for your basil. It’s just your plants trying to tell you that they need some help.
One of the best ways to help your basil plants out is to prune them! Pruning simply means that you trim back parts of the plant to promote new growth. As I mentioned earlier, we want our basil to grow outwards, not upwards. Pruning helps the plant to do that.
How to prune basil
The first step in pruning your basil plant is to get your tool. You don’t need fancy garden shears to prune your basil. A pair of scissors or even just pinching off the leaves with your fingers will work just fine.
You always want to prune your basil from the top and work your way down. If you trim too low and remove the large mature leaves, then your basil might not grow back or the growth will be significantly stunted.
You should snip or pinch off the top 2-4 leaves of the plant. And don’t forget to save these leaves to eat! If your stems are quite long, you can cut them back a couple of inches. You should only be removing the growing tips.
Anywhere that you trim a stem back, two new shoots should start to grow in their place. Essentially doubling the amount of basil you had growing before.
You should also prune any flowers off of your basil plant to help them continue growing and to keep them from turning bitter. You can pinch or cut any flowers in the same way you would the leaves.
Something important to keep in mind is that you don’t want to start pruning your basil plants until they are at least 6 inches tall. Basil that’s smaller than this is too young to be pruned yet and could do more harm than good.
Can leggy basil seedlings still be planted?
Yes, leggy basil seedlings can still be planted. In fact, you can actually use leggy basil plants to your advantage.
Plant your seedlings like you normally would but try not to bury too much of the stem or the stem may rot.
If you’re transplanting your basil seedlings from an indoor setting to an outdoor setting, you may find that the legginess goes away on its own. This is probably because all your seedlings needed was a little more sunlight.
If your seedlings get above the 6-inch pruning mark but still look a bit leggy, go ahead and prune them as I mentioned above. But try to clip your basil with some stem still attached. You can use these clippings to propagate new seedlings!
Prune your basil so that you have cuttings between 4 to 6 inches long. Then place each individual cutting into a small container of water. Just put the stem in the water, don’t get the leaves wet.
In just a few weeks, these cuttings should start to form little white roots. Once you see these new roots, your basil is ready to be transplanted. You can either plant them in a container or put them right into your garden.
Your leggy basil has now been turned into even more basil plants! How cool is that? Propagating plants can be a little hit-or-miss for me but basil has proven to be one of the easier plants to propagate in my experience.
Don’t let your leggy basil scare you. The herb still has a lot of life left in it! Just make sure that your plants have adequate access to sunlight or grow lights, aren’t over-fertilized, and are consistently watered when the weather gets hot.
If, after doing all of this, your basil is still leggy, then go ahead and give it a good prune. But don’t forget to save your pruned cuttings to propagate into new basil plants or to simply eat and enjoy yourself.
Check out these must-have gardening products
You don’t need much to start gardening, but some tools and products will make a difference in how comfortable and effective gardening can be for you. Here are my favorites:
- Garden Trowel. A good garden trowel will last you many years. I love how sturdy this hand trowel from WOLF-Garten is, the metal doesn’t bend and it has a nice grip.
- Trimming Scissors. I use them for delicate pruning and harvesting all summer long, and they’re super handy. These Teflon Trimming Scissors are extra nice because they don’t rust as easily.
- Dutch Hoe. Dutch hoes may seem old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like a quick sweep through the topsoil to get rid of small weeds – no bending required. I love WOLF-Garten’s selection: this dutch hoe coupled with their universal handle.
- Grow Lights. These grow lights from Mars Hydro are super strong, yet dimmable, so they fit every stage of growth. They don’t put out too much heat and are very economical.
- Seedling Trays. There’s an art to choosing the best size for seedling trays so that it holds the perfect amount of water and gives the roots enough room to grow. These germination plugs are perfect when coupled with 1020 bottom trays.
- Liquid Fertilizer. You’ll need to feed your plants from the seedling stage, all the way to fruiting. This organic fish & seaweed blend is a very versatile option. Use it half-strength for young plants and full-strength for established plants.
Browse our list of tools, fertilizers & pesticides, indoor growing products and seed shop recommendations – we hope you find our selection useful and it saves you some time!