Why is My Basil Leggy?

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Why is My Basil Leggy

Depending on the cultivar you’re growing, your basil plant should be a full, bushy masterpiece. This is regardless of whether it’s purple or green, small- or large-leaved. So if you take a look at your stork-like plant and ask yourself “why is my basil leggy instead of bushy?”, there’s an issue you’ll need to sort out.

Don’t worry. As long as it isn’t folded over itself with blackish-yellow leaves, it should be okay.

Culinary herbs take some time and experience to cultivate well, and any issue that arises is a great learning opportunity. Below are a few reasons why your plant isn’t behaving the way you’d like it to.

Why is My Basil Leggy? Shouldn’t it be Bushing Outwards?

When a basil plant is described as being “leggy”, it means that the stems are long and spindly, with sparse leaf formation. Instead of many leaves growing together in tight clumps, you have tall, tree-like stems and few leaves at all.

There are three main reasons why basil turns leggy instead of bushy. They are:

  • Not enough sunshine
  • Too much fertilizer
  • Insufficient pruning

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a tender herb that requires a ton of sunlight in order to thrive. Most garden experts suggest a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight a day, but it’ll do even better with eight to 10. This is because it originated in tropical to semi-tropical regions throughout Southeast Asia and North Africa. Thanks to trade (and people’s appreciation for culinary flavorings), it was introduced pretty much everywhere. In fact, thanks to variations in soil, sun, and growing conditions, there are well over 150 different basil cultivars out there!

Regardless of the species you’re growing, all basil plants need fertile soil, such as potting soil that has a fair bit of aged compost mixed into it. Unfortunately, some people interpret the phrase “fertile soil” as “soil that has a metric buttload of fertilizer dumped into it”. They mistakenly believe that more fertilizer = better growth, but nah. The only thing that excess fertilizer will do is make those basil plants shoot upwards. Not outwards. 

Related Article: Why is My Basil Plant Wilting?

You Need to Prune It

Finally, basil needs to be pruned every couple of weeks. This doesn’t mean that you just pull off a leaf here and there. Rather, pruning a basil plant correctly means snipping or pinching off leaf sets about 1/4″ above the nodes. If your botany knowledge isn’t super strong, check out this image as a reference.

People generally start to prune basil plants when said plants reach 8″ in height. If you’re going to try pruning your plant, be sure to use clean, sterile snips or scissors. If there are any contaminants on the blades, they can infect your plant and kill it. Not to be dramatic or anything, but it’s true. This is especially true if you use the same snips to prune several different plant species all in one go. If one of the plants happens to be harboring a pathogen, it’ll be passed between all of them.

As a result, give your snips, shears, scissors, and/or hands a good washing before you do any pruning. Soap and hot water should do just fine. 

Check out this video tutorial on how to prune your basil before you start hacking at your plant. It’ll show you exactly where to make the cuts so as to prune back main stems, thus allowing secondary growth to bush outwards. The key really is to leave a couple of pairs of leaves on every basil branch. Then, every time a new branch has a couple of new leaves of its own, get out your pruning snips again. Every time you pinch it or cut it back, it’ll bush out further.

Don’t worry that you’re causing your basil plant any grief by pruning it. In fact, you’re helping to keep it healthy and vibrant. Furthermore, pruning it regularly will keep it from entering the flowering stage. 

Further Reading: Why is My Basil Plant Flowering?

Bushy basil is tasty basil. You want to keep it in its vegetative growth stage so the leaves stay tender and delicious. As soon as it starts to flower, those leaves will toughen up and lose their scent/flavor.

Trim it often, and use those delectable leaves in soups, salads, baked dishes, and garnishes. Additionally, if you have herbivore animal companions such as rabbits or guinea pigs, they may enjoy an occasional basil leaf as a tasty treat. Just do your research first to make sure these plants are safe for your little friend! When in doubt, hold off until you can consult with your veterinarian.

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