I have a 5 year old basil plant growning in my window. Since I don't know much about gardning it has been a small hobby of mine to prune it and keep it alive.

My idea was to create some kind of bonsai basil. Since the 5 year old plant seams to be a bit out of controle, because of bad trimming and pruning, I have made some clones where I tried to be a bit harder when pruning.

One of these clones are now about 2 years old.

Here is a few pictures: My 2 year old basil clone

My 2 year old basil clone

My question is, can I bonsai this plant? And does anyone have any tips or experience doing this? As you can see I have already tried to shape it like a small tree, but my fear is that over some years I won't be able to keep it like this, since the plant is constantly growing. So eventually it might end up looking like my 5 year old basil, which has grown too tall with way too many long and empty stems.

Thanks for any tips or suggestions :)

  • It would be interesting to see a status update on this one! Care to share any links/pictures?
    – Lucubrator
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 10:58
  • 1
    @Lucubrator Sadly they all died two years ago. The oldest went into some kind of phase that made it almost only produce flowers, and I kept trying to cut them all away. But then the entire plant started getting weaker and weaker and slowly died :(
    – Bolli
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 15:05
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    The other ones was in same kind of phase, but died during a vacation. Normally they could easily live out a small vacation like that.
    – Bolli
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 15:05
  • Yeah, that's the normal behavior. It's very cool that you managed to keep them alive for so long. Normally they start producing flowers within a year, and when they do, It's downhill from there. By cutting away the flowers (and at least 1 additional node, 2 if possible) you can keep it alive for a little longer. The earlier one removes the flower, the better. But sometimes, the environmental triggers are too strong, even if flowers are cut away. You must have had a perfect storm of ideal climate, good genetics, and lucky timing with flower cutting.
    – Lucubrator
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 7:38
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    @Lucubrator thanks for the info - I might start a new basil "long term" grow soon again. Actually I found that the sweet basil got kind of bitter after a few years, and then continued to get more better as time past. Still great for pesto though :) If you haven't seen it, I linked some pictures in 16 - on the very last picture you can see the 5 year old plant - and the the one on the right is about 3 or 4 years old at the time goo.gl/photos/xdpiVf3eiQkfmos26
    – Bolli
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 1:17

1 Answer 1


Bonsai means a tree in a pot and, therefore, presumes a woody perennial. Remarkable, what you've done with basil. Since you've done this, you likely can 'bonsai it' by applying some basic principles.

Every plant grows, so there must be a technique to keep the canopy of foliage more or less constant. This means developing ramification: as your view moves from the trunk, one branch becomes two, those two become four, and etc. As the plant grows it extends from the tips and enlarges the canopy. With ramification, segments can be removed from time to time, so that the canopy stays the same size (on average) over time.

Of course, ramification can be by threes or fours, but this often leads to unattractive, knobby nodes and an extremely dense canopy. An extremely dense canopy means no light gets to the interior and, therefore, there will be no leaves inside. So, when you cut back, it will create a 'hole' where there is no foliage. On the other hand, if the canopy is thinned, light can get inside and you can develop short replacement branches before you cut back branches segments that have gotten too long.As long as light gets to the interior, pruning (cutting back) should release latent buds, making new shoots and new foliage closer to the trunk.

With woody plants, stems can be wired (temporarily wrapped with wire) to shape them and to position foliage where you want it to make an pleasing image. This is very difficult to do with herbaceous stems, so you likely will only be able to use the 'clip and grow' technique to create 'movement' in the stems (as opposed to a static, straight stems). Aside from vines, a stem thickens most rapidly by letting it extend uninhibited with all the foliage it can support. Then it is cut back 'hard' (to a fraction of its length) and the let to grow again, directing it by removing buds/shoot going in the 'wrong' directions. This fat 'stub' won't thicken much until the new growth nears the same thickness, at which point you cut it back similarly and start the process over to eventually create a moving stem whose thickness tapers much more quickly and like the scale of your creation.

The last thing I can think of for your technique tool box is figuring out how to best create ramification. There is, of course, the standard of simply decapitating a branch. With Japanese maples, for example, it is best to keep two leaves. With satsuki azaleas and boxwoods, on the other hand, it is better to keep just the terminal leaves and remove all the leaves between them and the trunk - many of the axillary buds will release into new shoots. And, of course, there is complete defoliation - removing all the leaves by cutting through their petioles, individually, and removing the apical terminal. This might also be done by cutting back to remove all the leaves in one snip. You will need to experiment to see how this works out. Since branches are largely autonomous, you can try one treatment on one branch and another on another branch to answer this question in short order (frankly, I would have a hard time not defoliating and eating the trimmings!).

Basil as bonsai - WOW!

There is an abundance of videos showing this techniques being applied to trees as well as blogs and web sites of which www.bonsai4me.com is one dependable resource. But, you are bravely going where man has not gone before, so you won't find anything directly about basil bonsai.

  • Wow thanks a lot for your very well written answer Jim! I was familiar with the branching part, but not in this detail. I have also tried to "train" it with some very small wires, but its hard to get them off again without hurting the plant :) I will check out your link and definitely experiment with your tips! I will wait to mark it answered a few days, in hope that more people can enlighten me! Again thanks a lot!
    – Bolli
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 17:40
  • About eating the trimmings.. I do this all the time, and there are still a lot left. Here are some more pictures also showing how much it produces from one trimming: bit.ly/2bzmqFg
    – Bolli
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 17:41
  • Basil IAS my favorite herb; love pesto and Thai. Wonderful on turkey sandwich - Basil& mayo. Thanks for the additional pix
    – user13580
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 20:22

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