git Self-Reference

When working on projects with multiple developers following a feature branching workflow, you can end up with a lot of branch laying around. I’ve been trying to optimize my branch cleanup workflow for a while now and had a big breakthrough recently.

UPDATE: I now use a shell script which has the meat of the git-sweep functionality. Thanks to @pengwynn for letting me steal that.

Before we get to that, I must mention git-sweep. It has been revolutionary to keeping branches (both locally and remote) clean. If you care at all about the output of git branch, install that now.

However, there’s another simpler trick I just recently discovered. Deleting multiple local branches with one command.

$ git branch -D old-branch-1 old-branch-2

That’s it! Simply pass as many branches into branch -D as you want and git will gladly delete them all.

But why do you need this?

I just said that git-sweep cleans up local and remote branches after they are merged into master. So, why would we ever need to delete local branches? For one, you might not merge branches into master, but still want to delete them. But more likely, you’ll need to do this after pulling down a colleague’s branch to review. Once you give them the green light, it’s best practice for them to rebase onto master (interactively to prevent accidentally merging !fixup commits). However, you will have one state of the branch locally, but they’ve merged a different, rebased state. This is just enough of a change to fool git-sweep, and git herself, into missing the fact that these branches are the same. Luckily, there is a quick way to identify and remove those branches too.

Handily, git-branch has a super verbose mode which can be shown with the “double v” flag (-vv). This displays the branch name, HEAD commit, remote tracking branch, and HEAD commit message.

$ git branch -vv
* gh-pages 123456 [origin/gh-pages] Show new features on the project website
  master   654321 [origin/master] Merge features/super-new-feature into master

Additionally, super verbose mode will also show us when a remote tracking branch disappears (is deleted). Immediately following the tracking branch name, we’ll notice a “gone”.

$ git branch -vv
* master      654321 [origin/master] Merge features/super-new-feature into master
  old-feature 523621 [origin/old-feature: gone] Users can see the brand new feature

I like to grep for that and filter out the branches which I don’t want to delete. Basically, my whole cleanup procedure goes like this:

$ git branch -vv | grep gone]

  old-feature-1 523621 [origin/old-feature-1: gone] Link to the new account page
  old-feature-2 856956 [origin/old-feature-2: gone] Toggle turtle visibility with feature flag

$ git branch -D old-feature-1 old-feature-2
Deleted branch old-feature-1 (was 523621).
Deleted branch old-feature-2 (was 856956).

And there you have it, removing multiple branches in git with a bonus of finding branches who’ve lost their remote tracks.

Happy branching!!

– Chris


Christopher R Marshall


Enjoys programming web applications; especially in Go and Ruby. Also enjoys playing ice hockey as a goalie and playing the guitar.