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My Herb Planting Trick For Growing Huge Plants

Wise gardeners know that herbs make excellent companion plants. And any gardener who enjoys cooking will surely have culinary herbs among their vegetables each year. But many folks don’t realize they’re forgetting something important before planting their herb seedlings in the garden – pruning them.

Peppermint seedling on top of mulch next to a pair of scissors.

If you want to enjoy bigger harvests (All the pesto! Sage for days! Gallons of peppermint iced tea!) and stronger plants that are less prone to storm damage, then pruning your herbs before you plant them in the garden is the way to go.

Tray full of herb seedlings in the sunshine.

Why It’s Important to Prune Some Herbs Early

Several Tulsi seedlings pruned before being planted.

Many of us prune garden-dwelling herbs when they start to invade where they’re not wanted. And then there are those of us who don’t bother pruning them. (Hi friend, I saved you a seat.) But if you want to set yourself up for success and a bountiful harvest of fragrant, flavorful herbs, the best time to prune them is while they are still small, before the plant is established.  

By pruning certain herbs early and relatively hard, you are, in essence, inhibiting the plant’s ability to photosynthesize. In response, the plant will send out enzymatic signals triggering the plant to grow more leaves.

Sage plant with new growth after a hard pruning.
You can already see lots of new growth on this sage plant after I pruned the tops.

The plant will begin pushing out new growth wherever possible to compensate for the lost leaves.  

This is also the best way to correct leggy seedlings that are stretched a bit indoors. We’ll be cutting them back close to the base of the plant. All of the new growth resulting from this hard pruning creates a stronger, bushier foundation, making for a sturdier plant for the rest of the growing season.

You can say goodbye to tall, leggy herbs and herbs knocked down by heavy rains or windy storms. Doing a little trimming now ensures your plant has a strong, solid base.

What Herbs Benefit from a Pre-Garden Prune?

Many herbs will benefit from being pruned before they’re put in the ground, but not all. I use a simple rule to determine which herbs should be pruned and which shouldn’t.

If the herb grows new leaves/stems where an existing stem meets the central stem, then it should be pruned back before you plant it.

Photo of a hand holding a piece of lemon balm with an arrow pointing to new growth on the stem.

Your mints, basil, sage, lemon balm, thyme etc., all grow in such a manner that new leaves develop at the base of an existing leaf stem. These herbs tend to grow up more readily than out unless they’re encouraged to do so. This vertical growth often leads to leggy herbs all season long.

Herbs, like chamomile, which produce new growth from the center of the plant, like a fountain, won’t benefit from this kind of pruning, and it will hinder their growth.

Hand Pointing to the rosette of a Chamomile plant.

As long as there are new leaves starting at the stems, you’re good to go.

How to Prune Herbs Before You Plant Them

Because we’ll be pruning the plant back pretty hard before planting it outside, it’s important to make sure all danger of frost has passed. You will also need to give the plants plenty of time to harden off, bringing them outside for longer periods leading up to when you plan to put them in the garden.

Ideally, you should prune your herbs a few days before you plan to plant them to give the plant a little time to recover before dealing with the stress of transplant shock. We all know this isn’t always possible, so don’t worry if you need to prune and plant on the same day. Your herbs will bounce back.  

Assess How Much to Cut

Remember, the goal here is to get rid of leggy and weak growth to create a sturdy crown for new growth. Pruning will also stimulate the remaining stem to grow thicker, too.

Tulsi plant with an arrow pointing to the two sets of leaves at the base of the plant.

Take a look at the base of the plant; you will usually see new leaves growing close to the soil as well as a couple of inches up the stem. Look for where the plant really starts to stretch out; you’ll want to remove much of this growth. Don’t be afraid to really trim it back. The plant will recover and start pushing out lots of new growth shortly after.

I’ve found a good rule of thumb is to leave at least two sets of new leaves growing from the remaining stem.

Hand using scissors to cut Tulsi plant.

Depending on how bushy your plant is, you may need to trim one stem at a time to determine how far down to cut. Other times you can make one clean cut across the whole plant, and it’s all set. Try to trim as close to the new growth as possible. The cut will scab over in a day or two, and before you know it, you’ll see those new leaves.

And don’t forget to eat what you prune!

Two Tulsi plants, one pruned and one leggy

Planting and After-Pruning Care

When planting your herbs, add a little compost to the bottom of the hole first. Fluff up the root ball a bit to loosen up the roots and plant the herb at the same level it was in the pot. Add a layer of mulch around the base of the plant to keep weeds at bay and hold in moisture.

Small peppermint plant newly planted in the garden.

Your herbs may look a little worse for wear for a few days, but they will bounce back quickly. By pruning them back, you’ve set yourself up for the bushiest, healthiest herbs. In a few weeks, if you want to encourage them to grow even bushier, consider pruning back taller growth once again. You’ll end up with sturdier plants overall.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,