How to Trim Your Herbs — and Why You Need To
I confess that, in terms of the garden, I am not a big flower guy. I love growing things, but what really excites me is growing things that I can use...not just decorative plants. And high on my list, even higher than growing actual food, is growing herbs. Few things make me happier than the reappearance of perennial herbs in the spring, or planting a new bunch of annuals. It lets me know that another winter has passed, and I can start using herbs by the handful again. It's a huge thrill knowing that my meals are about to take a huge step up in terms of flavor.
Herbs are, for the most part, ridiculously easy to grow. Most of them hardly need you to intervene in their growing process. A little water, sun, and maybe some fertilizer now and again — that's pretty much it. Right? Well, actually…
There is one requirement that all herbs have. And it took me a long time to accept this as the truth. The requirement? Herbs not only like to be cut, they LOVE to be cut — they DEMAND to be cut. If you cut them correctly, and often enough, they will reward you by growing exponentially. The plants will be fuller, lusher, and almost unbelievably more productive with regular pruning. It was hard for me to believe that the more I cut my plants, the faster and better they would grow. However, when I finally gave up my opposition to that rule, my herb garden shocked me. It began growing almost too fast for me to use. (Don't worry, I got over that.)
I don't know a single herb that grows as well when left uncut. Basil, for example, can produce at least 4 crops over the course of a season if it's trimmed frequently. Rosemary grows fuller and bushier if it's snipped, with softer greener leaves. But don't forget, when you cut herbs, it's not like pruning other kinds of plants where you throw away what you trim. Oh no, with herbs, the trimmings make all of your meals better! If you somehow end up with some you can't use right away, freeze them or dry them, or become everyone's favorite neighbor by sharing the bounty.
It's one thing to say "trim your herbs," but it's another thing altogether to figure out how your various herbs prefer to be trimmed. So here are a few suggestions to help you get going.
Cut chives about ½ inch above the dirt. And if you ever happen to have some of the gorgeous chive blossoms, cut the whole tough stalk, again about ½ inch from the dirt, and break up the flowers over top of anything that would benefit from more chive flavor, and lovely purple color.
Oregano is an herb that can be cut pretty haphazardly. Pretty much anywhere you cut it, more leaves will appear. But, I'd suggest trimming around the edges because oregano will spread out like crazy unless you keep it tidy. Also, if any tall straight stalks appear, cut them to prevent flowering.
Similar to oregano, thyme can be cut anywhere. But also like oregano, it will spread wildly...so trimming the edges will help contain the spread. As any tall stems appear, cut them to thwart flowering.
Sage is just happy to be cut. You can take off whole stems, or cut just about anywhere, being sure to leave a few leaves lower on the stem.
Similar to chives, cut whole stems about ½ inch above the dirt. If a stem gets too heavy with leaves, it may flop onto the ground; cut it because it won't be happy for long.
If your rosemary has produced tall firm woody stems that you want to use as skewers (for grilling) cut close to the dirt. But if your rosemary is bushing, you can simply cut what you need anywhere on the plant.
This is a bit of a tough one. If you live anywhere that the summer gets hot (I'm in NY, not exactly the desert!) cilantro will bolt...fast. So my recommendation is that as soon as you start getting enough leaves to be useful, cut and use them. There isn't a huge window of time. During cooler months, cut the stems like parsley, about ½ inch from the ground. And remember, the stems are tender and packed with flavor; don't toss them away!
Just like cilantro, dill will bolt in the blink of an eye. So cut stems near the ground, and utilize your dill a lot before the heat of the summer strikes!
Mint can be snipped anywhere, or you can take out whole stems. Just remember, plant mint in a container unless you want it to overrun your entire yard. And, if you see a stem crawling out of the container towards the ground, cut it. It's trying to escape and get to the ground.
Like chives, tarragon is one of my harbingers of spring. Cut it frequently, anywhere on the stem. Be aware, the roots of tarragon are rhizomes; therefore, they can spread underground and appear as new "plants."
Basil is probably a lot of people's favorite herb. The perfume alone is intoxicating, and then there's the singular flavor — a little mint-y, a little anise-y, and a whole lot indescribable. And the varieties are seemingly endless, from Thai to chocolate basil. Like all herbs, basil loves to be cut — but it loves to be cut in a very specific way. It won't die if you don't cut it this way, it just won't produce as excessively. However, once you learn the "right" way to trim, it will become second nature.
Find some leaves you want to harvest. Go down an inch or so on the stem to a spot where there are 2-3 leaves coming out together. Just above that area, make your cut. That way, you should get 2 new sets of leaves emerging from the cut. If you do this frequently, basil can produce a seemingly endless crop of deliciousness until the night time temperatures get below 50 degrees F. Also, if you see flowers starting to emerge at the top, cut or pinch them off. If your plant gets away from you and you need to trim more than you actually need for dinner, I'd highly recommend whipping up a batch of pesto.
I hope these suggestions will answer some of your herb questions. I'd honestly love for everyone to experience the joy I feel with my herbs. There's a lot to love: they grow like weeds, they will exponentially raise your cooking game, and they're almost as happy in pots as they are in the ground. Please, just don't wait as long as I did to accept that trimming herbs does not make them unhappy...it allows them to grow!