Returning to Our Roots | How to Trim Herbs

Hello happy gardeners!

I planted my garden this year with high hopes of having a giant yield of herbs! I just love them. They were the first plants I ever grew from seeds on my dining room table just a little over a year ago. Isn't it funny how time works? It feels much longer ago than that and so much has changed since then. This year, we are currently growing 16 different types of herbs, each with differing varieties. We actually have four varieties of basil growing right now! If you're curious, which I feel you are, here's exactly what we're growing:

  • Lemon Balm
  • Cilantro
  • Rosemary
  • Dill
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Lavender
  • Summer Savory
  • Basil (Genovese, Sweet, Lemondrop, Purple)
  • Parsley
  • Chamomile
  • Sage
  • Yarrow
  • Spearmint
  • Chives
  • Tarragon

Our herbs have truly flourished this summer, and I waited eagerly for the moment that they would be ready to trim and harvest for our use. When I first planted them, many were starts that I purchased at the local nursery, I wasn't sure when the perfect time was. I let them grow for a couple of weeks before going out to trim. Early this spring, I purchased two rosemary plants. Rosemary is my absolute favorite herb of all time. I like to stick a sprig in my coffee every now and then, and it leaves the most delicious flavor! It's a really great trick to use around late autumn and winter. That evergreen taste is just perfect. I let both of my rosemary plants grow for a bit to become established before sneaking out into the garden one morning and trimming one of them for my coffee. 

I realized when I was out there, kneeling with my scissors in hand, that I had no idea where to trim from! I didn't want to kill it... but what was the point of having the herbs if I didn't trim off stalks? That's how they looked in photos. My naivety led to killing off one of my rosemary plants. Ugh! I'm still sad about it. There are a few things about proper herb care and pruning that I think every new gardener should know about so that they don't end up killing their plants! The more I learn about growing plants and keeping them alive, the more I am discovering it is about either having a lack of knowledge or overwhelming a plant. I don't want you to make that mistake!

While it's a little late in the season to plant new herbs or herb starts outside, you can plant them in pots indoors anytime. Or if you have a shady porch with pots, that works, too! It's almost time to start planning and planting for a fall garden. Most herbs do well to start as seeds or transplants once the weather starts to cool off. That's usually about 8 to 10 weeks before your first predicted frost. You can read more about planning a fall garden here!

Let's say that you have some fairly well established herbs right now. You planted them, and you want to start trimming. There's a few things to examine before you begin! For the most part, you don't want to start harvesting your herbs until they are at least six inches long. That means you'll be looking to the maturing leaves and stalks of the plant and determining if the leaves have had the time needed to get large and mature, and if the stalks look sturdy enough to continue supporting secondary branches. As you can see in my photos above, my herbs have large green leaves and are very bushy. This is good! If you want bushy herbs, which means they grow wide and lots of leaves, then I'll help you figure out where to cut. It's also important to know that you want to continually harvest herbs so that they don't go to flower. While there are some herbs like basil and chives that have excellent tasting flowers, other herbs can start to turn bitter when the flowers have arrived!

The second thing to note is that you never want to remove more than 1/3 of the plant you are harvesting/pruning. This goes for any plant: flowers, vegetables, vines, etc. If you harvest more than that, there won't be much plant left, and it will not have any more leaves or fruit to concentrate on growing. This is where I messed up with my rosemary!

There are different ways to harvest different herbs, which should really come as no surprise. Herbs grow in all different ways, so you'll want to remember to look out for signs to either pinch, clip, or cut. 

Above, I am clipping lemon balm. This herb has absolutely taken off in my garden! I started trimming it properly a couple of weeks after I planted the starts, and you can really tell that the clipping has made all of the difference in how it has grown. To harvest lemon balm and other herbs that have stems growing branches, you'll want to clip in places that are just above the secondary branches. As you can see above, I have my scissors placed right above two branches. Trim right at the base of those, and the two branches will form entirely new stalks that you can trim later after they've matured. This results in much larger, bushier herbs. You can do the same for basil, or you can pinch off individual basil leaves. It's really up to you and what you are cooking. For pesto, I go out and trim off entire stems. It's always smart to trim or pinch off a basil stem in place where new, tiny leaves are beginning to form. These will turn into two primary stems as well! That means more pesto!

For herbs with woody stems, you can trim like crazy if you want! These includes rosemary, mint, and thyme. You can clip anywhere on the stem, though avoid the woody parts. If you clip too close to the bottom of the plant and snip off that woody stem, it will no longer continue to produce. Looks for the fresh green shoots to trim. Just the same as the herbs above, it's always smart to trim right above two new leaves/branches, as this will encourage them to turn into new stems.

If you have chives, cilantro, or parsley, you'll be cutting them from the stems. This means going all the way to the bottom of the plant, about half and inch from the soil. You'll want to harvest from around the outside of the cluster of plants and start trimming there. If you're wanting to do a mass harvest, just gather up a clump of herbs and hack them off. Make sure that you don't trim too far up the stem, as this can result in the plant not growing back. By trimming near the soil, you are encouraging new growth for these types of herbs. Cutting here is a great way to encourage chives and parsley to spread out while they grow. 

There are other herbs that prefer to be pinched. Chamomile is one that you have to pinch to harvest it properly. Gather your fingers directly underneath a flower head and pinch it off. This should happen easily. Be careful not to pull or tear; doing so could result in uprooting the planting or tearing the fibers of the stem. If a plants stem is ripped, it can invite in disease, which you definitely don't want! Just pinch with a gentle hand, and you'll have an abundance of chamomile blooms. Every single day I go out to harvest them, there's more!

I hope this guide was helpful and simple to understand! There's really not too much you can do to mess up when it comes to trimming herbs. Just take it slow and only take what you need from the plant. If you are harvesting for bulk amounts, you'll definitely want to just plant more of the herbs and less trimming of them. I think that's a major part of why kitchen herbs don't work out for some people - you feel like you need to harvest it all at once! They just don't work that way. Take what you need when you need it, and you'll always have plenty of fresh tasty herbs to cook with. Happy growing!

xoxo Kayla