Gardening: With basil, pinching makes the difference

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

I’m growing a ‘Sweet Thai’ basil under lights in my office and every time I walk by and stroke it, it emits an incredible licorice aroma that knocks my socks off.  This new variety from Burpee Seed is scheduled to go into the OPC display garden, but I’m having a tough time giving it up. Thai basil is grown for culinary use as well as display because it produces attractive purple flowers. While the flowers of ‘Sweet Thai’ are not as showy as ‘Queen of Siam,’ the flavor aroma is stronger.

Pinch, pinch, pinch. One of the secrets to growing big flavorful basil plants is learning to pinch, When seedlings are 6 inches tall, pinch the central stem back by half, about 1/4 inch above a leaf axil, to force the plant to branch and make more leaves.

As the plants produce more branch stems, continue to pinch them back to encourage fresh growth.  For a larger harvest, pinch the main shoots back by 1/3. About mid-summer basil plants begin to form buds that then develop into flowers. Once the plant flowers it begins to age – growth slows and the essential oil in the leaves decrease and flavor is reduced. So continuous pinching to prevent bud formation is the secret to great flavor.

Knowing how to harvest makes all the difference with basil.

Many gardeners find pinching and pruning a daunting task and just avoid it, but it is one of the secrets to great gardening and worth the time to learn.  Google “how to prune basil plants”  and “when to prune basil plants” and you will find all kinds of how-to videos that will take the mystery out of this simple task.

When the plants are small, pinching out tender stems using your pointer finger and thumb is easy enough. As the plants grow you might choose to use a needle nose scissors.

If you’re a basil buff and you know how to start plants from seed, today the world is your oyster. Richters’ Herb catalog carries more than 3 dozen varieties of basils in their 2020 catalog. ( ). Basils started from seed in mid-July will ensure a flavorful harvest in fall.

For fresh eating, 2 or 3 plants will feed a family of four. If you plan on making pesto, freezing or drying these herbs plant at least 5 or 6 plants.

The best way to store any leftover seeds is in their original packets in a glass jar in the refrigerator  A layer of rice or the little packets of moisture control granules found in pill bottles will help keep the humidity below 50 percent.

 Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. E-mail her at , Ask Nancy.  You can also read her previous columns at