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What could possibly come close to the smell of basil in the summer? Just rubbing a leaf and holding it to your nose can give you daydreams of pasta (or licorice… depending on the variety of your basil). Basil reigns as my favorite herb to have in the garden because it’s super easy to grow, and it usually seeds, so I have volunteers popping up the next spring (win!). And if you’re worried that basil is difficult to grow, there’s no need to fear. I can guide you through the entire process of growing basil from seed, watering, pruning, and finally serving it up in both sweet and savory dishes all in my Basil: From Seed to Table guide. Basil is one of the hardiest and easiest to grow herbs for the summer garden.
- How to Prune Basil
- Why Prune Basil?
- Want to see how it’s done?
- HOW TO GROW BASIL
- Planting Basil & Ongoing Care
- Pruning Basil Seedlings to Encourage Branching
- Harvesting Basil
- Storing Basil
- Tips For Pruning Thyme Plants For Best Growth
- When to Prune Thyme Plants
- How to Prune Thyme
- Learn why and how to prune herbs in this detailed guide. Pruning herbs make these plants productive, healthy, and flavorful!
- Why Prune Herbs?
- Types of Herbs and Pruning
- Pinching Young Plants
- How to Prune Herbs
- Why prune herbs
- Two types of herbs
- How to prune herbs
- Already growing your own herbs? Eager to find recipes for easy and delicious homemade spice blends and mixes?
- Harvesting Basil
- Harvesting Basil for Drying
How to Prune Basil
Whether in a container or in your actual garden, basil can produce an amazing harvest with just one plant. And not only do these fantastic plants provide you with fresh basil leaves, but at the end of the season, when your plant produces tiny white flowers, you’ll be providing the pollinators in your garden with an abundant food source. But before we get there, let’s talk about a crucial element for abundant basil. Knowing how to prune basil will give you the biggest harvest in the neighborhood. Not that growing and pruning basil is a competition, but… it could be, right? Challenge accepted.
Why Prune Basil?
My basil plants haven’t always been abundant growers. I share in Basil: From Seed to Table that after the first few years of tall, skinny basil plants, I finally realized there must be something I’m missing. Other basil plants on tv all seemed huge, but I was stuck with skinny plants. Maybe more fertilizer was the trick? No, though they did certainly grow taller. And despite my watering and hovering, no changes other than height were happening.
Finally, when thinking about pruning as a help for other summer growers (like tomatoes), I caught on to the idea of pruning basil. And wow! What a difference a little pruning can make! Just a few snips per plant makes the difference between one batch of pesto and enough pesto to share with the neighbors. Trust me; your neighbors want you to prune your basil plants. Pruning is beneficial for all types of plants, including tomatoes and blueberries. Pruning gives plants a chance to focus on producing more of what you’ll actually consume, and less of what you don’t need.
So how do you go from paltry to robust with your basil plants? Even if your thumb is closer to black than green, It’s really quite simple! And I’m going to show you how:
Pruning Basil Instructions
- Ideally, you’d start pruning when your basil plant is still pretty small, with only one or two stems (6-8 leaves) off of the main plant. If you’ve waited a bit longer, then I would suggest not pruning all the way down near the base, but rather on a higher stem. First, find a stem that has a leaf on each side and leaves growing in “the middle.”
- With a good set of pruning shears (or your thumb nail if you’re in a pinch), cut the middle growth close to its base. What you’re doing here is encouraging the plant to focus on those two side branches by getting rid of what was in the middle. It’s all about distributing the plant’s energy where you want it to go. The same is true for many plants in the garden, including tomatoes. Find out how to prune tomatoes, here!
- Use the basil that you’ve pruned off for a nice caprese salad or a bright pop to the top of your next pasta meal. If the stem portion you’ve cut off is long enough, you can also put it in a small container with water and let it root. Then you’ll have more basil plants! In the meantime, those two leaves you left behind will grow and flourish. You can see below one of the stems I pruned about a month ago. Both of those side leaves are now growing leaves of their own, and your harvest has almost doubled simply because you pruned with one tiny snip.
- You can repeat this pruning process with several stems, but don’t go crazy, especially if your basil plant is a little larger. You don’t want to shock the plant, so start with pruning two stems, and then in a week or two prune a bit more if needed. On average, I only prune my basil plants two or three times during the season, and as you’ll see in my video below, my basil plants get pretty large. There’s plenty of basil for me and my friends and neighbors!
Our tiny basil plant that we bought at our local plant sale has now blossomed into a full and productive plant, and this is really with only one pruning so far. You can also had rich compost to the soil around your plant to encourage growth as well. With our basil cuttings, we’ve had several caprese salads, and my food processor is begging me to make some pesto, and of course, basil is easy to dry and use later. If you love basil as much as I do, then check out my book Basil: From Seed to Table which will show you what varieties of basil you can grow and how to do it successfully, including pruning, harvesting, and using!
I’d love to know your favorite uses for fresh basil, and if you’ve found pruning helpful for you as well. Happy Gardening!
Want to see how it’s done?
Want to know how to grow basil from start to finish? (Including saving and recipes!!) Grab my book, Basil: From Seed to Table, today! You’ll know exactly what variety to grow, how to make it thrive, and then how to use it in delicious savory and sweet recipes! All for the price of a cup of coffee. It’s the easiest and fastest way to learn all about one of the world’s most popular herbs! Click the image below for all the details.
Basil is an easy-to-grow, versatile, delicious, warm-weather annual herb that should be included in every summer garden! Read along to learn how to grow basil, including tips for harvesting that will create full, prolific basil plants to enjoy all season long.
Just a couple basil plants will provide plenty of fresh leaves to enjoy with your summer salads and sauces. However, if you’re intending to stock the freezer with homegrown pesto or dry your own basil seasoning like we do, it’s best to have a handful of plants, or more!
Make sure to check out the videos within this post! One quickly shows you how to prune small basil seedlings to set them up for success. The other shows a demonstration of harvesting from a large bushy basil plant in the middle of summer.
HOW TO GROW BASIL
Basil is easy to grow from seed, or you can pick up started seedlings at your local garden center. Pick up a few different varieties! Some of our favorites are a classic Italian or Genovese Basil, Opal (purple) basil, Lemon basil, and even Cinnamon! Here is an awesome mixed-variety pack of certified organic basil seeds, or check out these 12 places to buy quality organic, heirloom, or non-GMO seeds from.
When starting from seed, basil likes the same treatment that most garden veggie seeds do. That includes using a light fluffy seedling start mix, maintaining evenly damp soil (especially before sprouting), providing heat to aid in germination, and providing ample light as soon as the sprouts appear.
We start ours in 6-packs in our greenhouse, but other folks often start them indoors. Follow the instructions on your seed pack in regards to seed sowing depth. To read more details about seed-starting best practices, see this post. Before transplanting indoor starts outside, make sure to properly harden them off!
Planting Basil & Ongoing Care
After any danger of frost has passed, plant basil in rich, well-draining soil that has been amended with compost. The recommended spacing is about 8 to 12 inches between plants. We like to plant our basil in clusters of three, in a triangle and each about 6 to 8 inches apart. They’ll grow together into one large bush, which I find attractive-looking and also enables the plants to provide support and shade for one another.
Basil needs at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight. In climates with hot summers, they do benefit from some afternoon shade. One way to accomplish this is by planting basil as a companion between other taller plants that will give them some protection and shade as they grow, such as peppers or tomatoes. Don’t overcrowd them so they get too little sun though! Basil also grows well in containers, so you could simply plant them in a pot in a partially shaded location.
Check out those basil bushes! This was towards the end of the summer, after we’d already removed the tomatoes that were growing in the beds along the wall behind the basil. Each of those bushes is started with a cluster of three basil seedlings.
Water basil when the soil starts to dry out. They don’t need to be soggy, but do prefer even consistent dampness. Basil will wilt a little when it’s dry, which is a great signal that it is past time to water! Don’t worry – they bounce back easily. Keep in mind that potted plants generally dry out faster and therefore need more frequent water than those in raised garden beds or in-ground.
Mulch around your basil to aid in moisture retention. We use compost for mulch. Throughout the season, feed basil plants every couple of months with dilute seaweed extract or compost tea.
Pruning Basil Seedlings to Encourage Branching
Once the basil seedlings are at least 4 to 6 inches tall and have several sets of leaves, give them their first haircut. Using fine trimming snips (or a careful pinch with your finger tips), snip off the top portion of the stem and couple top leaves. Do this just above a “node” – the place where two larger leaves are growing out of the stem. In the crook between the leaves and the stem, you should see tiny little leaves growing. Trim right above those. Afterwards, those little leaves will grow into two new large branches of their own!
Before and during basil seedlings first pruning. In the stem shown, I had three options for where to trim. I could’ve done the very tip, the middle node above my snips, or down where I did. I chose to bring it all the way down to encourage low branching and reduce top-heaviness. The basil seedlings, after they all got a haircut. They all look a tad sad now, but they’ll bounce back and be much more full! All of those trimmings can go into a bowl of water for storage (as described below), or used immediately.
Watch the video below for a quick demonstration of how we prune young basil seedlings, leading to branching and bushy growth!
The secret for big bushy basil is using it! By regularly trimming off bits to use and enjoy, you’re encouraging more and more new growth. Basil is not intended to be grown to a full size and then harvested in its entirety. Plucking off individual leaves is also not ideal. It’s tedious, and doesn’t give the same benefit of promoting new growth.
As the plants grow throughout the season, continue the same pruning practices as described previously for seedlings – but on a larger scale! The cuts can be made along a center stem, or off of a new side shoot, as long as you’re cutting just above a node that promises new growth each time. Avoid chopping off the main woody stalk from an established basil plant, as that part may not bounce back.
If your plant is really tall, you can cut down a little deeper into it, removing several sets of nodes and upper branches. I don’t suggest trimming the very tips only all the time. You want to encourage branching in the lower and middle sections of the plant – making it bush out, instead of getting tall and lanky. When I am harvesting basil, I usually take a little off from various areas at different heights.
It is suggested to pinch off flowers to encourage more leaves to grow. We pinch basil flowers in the early summer, but as the season goes on, we let our basil flower for the bees. If you let those flowers continue to bloom and then dry out, you can seed-save: harvest the seed from within to grow future basil plants!
If you harvest basil and are not going to use it immediately, we have found the best way to store it is by placing it in a bowl or jar with some water, just like flowers in a vase. Put the cut stems down in a little water and let the leaves sit above it, and simply keep it out on the counter. We have had basil stay fresh and perky this way for over a week!
For larger harvests, basil can be turned in delicious pesto and stored in the freezer for up to a year. Check out this recipe for our go-to lemon walnut “Besto Pesto”. Another long-term storage option is thoroughly dehydrating the leaves and crushing them into a dried basil seasoning.
Now that you’re armed with tips, get out there and grow some bushy basil of your own!
I hope you enjoyed this post and learned something new. Please feel free to ask questions, and spread the love by passing it on!
Tips For Pruning Thyme Plants For Best Growth
Thyme plants, like most woody herbs, do best when they are pruned regularly. Taking the time to trim thyme not only creates a nicer looking plant, but also helps improve the amount you can harvest from the plant. Keep reading to learn how to cut thyme so that it grows best for you.
When to Prune Thyme Plants
The right time to trim thyme will depend on the kind of pruning you plan on performing on the plant. There are four ways of pruning thyme plants and they are:
- Hard Rejuvenation – Late fall after first frost
- Light Rejuvenation – After blooming in the summer
- Shaping – Spring
- Harvesting – Anytime during active growth (spring and summer)
Let’s look at why and how to prune thyme in these different ways.
How to Prune Thyme
Pruning Thyme for Hard Rejuvenation
In most cases, thyme plants don’t need hard rejuvenation pruning because they are normally harvested on a regular basis and harvesting prevents the thyme plant from becoming too woody. Sometimes, a neglected thyme plant may need to be pruned back hard to remove woody growth and encourage tender, usable growth.
Hard rejuvenation pruning normally take a few years to complete. In late fall, after the first frost, select one-third of the oldest and woodiest stems on your thyme plant. Using sharp, clean shears, cut these stems back by half.
Repeat the process the next year until your thyme plant has returned to growing younger, more tender stems all over the plant.
Pruning Thyme for Light Rejuvenation
When you trim thyme for light rejuvenation, you are basically ensuring that your thyme plant doesn’t become too woody in the future.
In late summer, after the thyme plant has flowered, select the one-third oldest stems on the plant. Using sharp, clean shears, cut these back by two-third.
This should be done yearly for the best health of the plant.
Pruning Thyme for Shaping
All thyme, whether it is upright thyme or creeping thyme, tends to get a little wild looking if not shaped regularly. If you’re okay with your thyme getting a bit wild looking, you don’t need to cut your thyme to shape it. But, if you want a thyme plant that is a little more formal, you’ll want to shape your thyme plant yearly.
In the spring, after new growth has started to appear, take a moment to picture how you would like your thyme plant to look. Keeping that shape in mind, use a sharp, clean pair of shears to trim the thyme plant in that shape.
Don’t cut the thyme plant back more than one-third when shaping. If you need to cut back your thyme plant by more than one-third in order to achieve the shape that you would like, only do a one-third cut back each year until the desired shape of the thyme plant is achieved.
Cutting Thyme for Harvesting
Thyme can be cut at any time during the spring and summer to harvest. It is best though to stop harvesting thyme about three to four weeks before the first frost. This will allow the more tender stems on the thyme plant to harden off some before the cold comes and will make it so you have less dieback on the thyme plant over the winter.
Learn why and how to prune herbs in this detailed guide. Pruning herbs make these plants productive, healthy, and flavorful!
Your herb garden needs your attention for optimum growth. Of all other aspects of caring for herbs, pruning is also a significant one. Overlooking it can give you a not-so-productive herb garden.
Why Prune Herbs?
- The herb garden will show abundant growth if you prune it routinely.
- Pruning also encourages bushier and fresh growth and to avoid flowering and seeding.
- To keep the plants compact and in shape. It’ll also promote good air circulation and save up space for other herbs.
- For availability of fresh herbs in the growing season or storing them for future use.
- The trimmings can be used for propagating new plants.
Types of Herbs and Pruning
While it’s true that pruning herbs is beneficial but excess pruning can be detrimental. Cut back the plant too much, and it’ll not grow back the same again. It’s best to avoid cutting more than one-third of the plant at one time.
You can give the plant a light pruning or hard pruning–it entirely depends on the type of herb you’re growing. Let’s discuss two kinds of herbs and pruning in details.
Pruning Herbaceous Herbs
Herbs such as basil, stevia, oregano, cilantro, chives, lemon balm, mint, etc. are herbaceous plants and do not have woody stems. Many of these plants do not survive harsh winters (unless you live in a mild climate) and grow with vigor only in springs and summers–they are technically annuals. These plants are most suitable for light pruning. Don’t prune these herbs heavily, trim mainly from the top, skipping the sides. The herbs will grow bushier and productive with each light pruning cycle.
- Simply pinch back the top part along with the first set of leaves, just above the leaf node. This pinching will remove the terminal bud and allow the non-growing lateral buds to grow and the plant will become fuller, forming more stems and side shoots.
- You can trim more growth but with the point in mind–always cut above the leaf node or lateral buds (emerging little stems).
- This type of pruning can be done anytime or when you’re harvesting these herbs, instead of only picking the leaves, apply this method.
- Don’t over-prune these herbs and leave them balanced. Usually, regularly harvesting them is enough.
- Also, snip off the blooms as soon as they appear. It’ll keep the energy directed toward more foliage growth.
Rosemary, lavender, thyme, bay, and sage are some of the herbs that show robust growth without much care and require hard pruning. In other words, the evergreen or perennial herbs in your climate require hard pruning.
Best Time to Prune
The best time for pruning such herbs is at the beginning of the growing season when the herbs start to grow. Wait until you see some new growth, young leaves, and buds forming.
Perennial herbs can go on without pruning. But, to maintain their shape and size and to get new and more flavorful foliage, it’s required.
- Cut back all the dead, decaying, and crossing woody stems. This much pruning is fine for a healthy plant.
- However, if your herb is leggy or overgrown, cut back about one-third of the plant.
- Do not prune these herbs when they become dormant or when they are at the end of the growing season. Cutting this time will spurt new growth, while the plant is getting ready to go dormant.
- Pruning once in a year is sufficient for these herbs. You can also perform slight pruning once after they flower.
Also Read: How to Make Flowers Bloom More Often
Pinching Young Plants
No matter the type of herb, pinching a young plant prevents leggy growth and make it bushier and improve its structure from the beginning. For this, pinch out the stem tips along with the first set of leaves.
- Pinch off the growing tips when the plant is 4-5 inches tall and has grown a few sets of true leaves. This tutorial video here will help you.
- The more explanatory version–Find a pair of buds, you’ll usually find them just above the point where the leaf joins the stem.
- Now easy, remove the growth above the buds and leaves using sharp shears or fingernails. This process will activate those buds, and your plant will start to become bushier.
Also Read: Tips to Create an Apartment Herb Garden
How to Prune Herbs
If you’re growing herbs for more than one use, you likely want them in large quantities. So it’s important to know that you need to prune herbs for the best performance. Before I explain how, though, there’s a few things to understand.
Why prune herbs
Most of the time, you’re growing herbs for their leaves. Pruning helps with two things:
- Makes the plant bushier by encouraging “leafing out” or horizontal growth rather than vertical growth
- Keeps the plant producing leaves by discouraging flowering
Trimming leaves at the top sends a message to the plant that it should grow out at the sides. This produces more leaves and keeps the plant from getting tall and spindly.
Pruning flowers off keeps the plant from putting its energy into reproducing and diverts that energy into producing leaves instead.
Two types of herbs
Herbaceous — These are leafy and must be planted each year. No matter how big they get, their stems remain tender and edible. If you experience freezing temperatures in your area, you won’t be able to overwinter them outside. Examples include basil, dill, cilantro and mint.
Woody — These can be perennial, depending on the climate you live in. As they get older, their stems get harder and more wood-like. Examples include rosemary, thyme and sage, with mint and oregano qualifying as “soft woody” herbs.
How to prune herbs
First, know that you should prune herbs early. It will feel wrong, pinching leaves off a tender little seedling. But trust me, once a plant has 3 or more sets of true leaves on it, it’s ready to be pruned.
If you’re just removing the top set or sets of leaves to encourage bushier growth below, that’s called “pinching back.” When you’re pinching back—and this goes for any plant—always remember to cut ABOVE a set of leaves.
If you look closely, you’ll see tiny little buds in the “armpits” of the plant. When you cut off the upper set of leaves, this encourages those tiny buds below to grow and multiply.
You’ll want to pinch back herbaceous plants at least a few times during the growing season. Woody herbs only need pruning once a year, but you’ll want to use a pair of nice, sharp pruning shears. I like these Fiskars pruning shears with a power lever. Makes cutting lots easier.
- Lemon Balm
If you’re picking herbs to use for cooking, make sure you follow the same rule—always pinch off the leaves that are sitting above a set of new leaf nodes.
When you clip off developing flowers, this is called “dead heading.” Like I mentioned above, this keeps the plant from flowering and will extend the amount of time you’ll get edible leaves from it.
Basil is a great example of an herb that needs dead heading often. Many plants flower in the heat of summer, and basil is no exception. Simply clip or pinch off the flowers with your fingers. Easy! Though I try to leave at least one to flower, since bees loooooove basil flowers and I love bees in my garden.
You might be interested: How to Plan a Pollinator Friendly Garden
Like pinching back, you’ll probably have to dead head herbaceous plants multiple times per season. They’re determined! I finally let them go around August, since I usually have enough to last me through the year by then.
Sage is a woody herb, and woody herbs generally don’t need to have their flowers dead-headed. They’ll continue producing leaves either way, and the bees appreciate the blooms!
In my experience, woody herbs don’t need to be dead headed, really. Whether or not you’re trying to overwinter them, by the time they flower, they’re about done for the year anyhow. And you probably have more sprigs than you need!
Pruning woody herbs
Most woody herbs are perennial, which means they can be overwintered. In fact, it’s their woody stems that make overwintering possible. Sage is often easiest to overwinter if mulched well.
If left outdoors, they’ll need to be mulched to protect them from the cold, but you can also keep them indoors until spring. I keep mine next to a window to give them at least a little sunlight, and make sure they get watered a little bit every week so they don’t completely dry out.
When spring finally rolls around, plants like sage and oregano will mostly look like a mass of twigs with a few little leaves holding on for dear life. But keep giving them water, warmth and sunlight, and they’ll leaf out anew.
Once they’ve come back for the spring, take note of any parts of the plant that don’t regenerate. After several weeks, if there’s still no sign of life, go ahead and prune those off. They’re not going to come back, and getting rid of the dead growth will make room for new growth.
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Nearly all plants can benefit from pruning. While normally associated with trees, this process can improve both vigor and production for many herbs as well. Pruning naturally stimulates plant growth and gives the gardener the chance to control production, plant growth, and shape.
Most gardeners prune new plants in mid- to late-spring and often naturally prune while harvesting throughout the year for leafy herbs.
How And Which Herbs to Prune
Almost all herbs can benefit from pruning. Most ground cover type herbs will generally be pruned as they are harvested. Any herb with stems and tall plant size, especially those meant for seed harvest, will benefit the most from early pruning.
In the early spring, control plant growth in an upward direction by pinching off the new shoots as they appear on the lower portions of the plant. This encourages top foliage and taller growth, which in turn usually leads to a larger, fuller plant later in the year. By controlling the lower stems, you stop the plant from growing outwards in the beginning and force it instead to go up before it goes out.
Thicker plants and plants that are being pruned later in the spring may require cutting rather than pinching. All unwanted growth should be removed, but leave at least half of the plant intact so you do not harm it before it really gets going. Additionally, plants should never to pruned heavily after the summer if they are to overwinter intact. Doing so may cause early shoots to appear and then be killed with the frost, harming the plant and possibly killing it as well.
In mid-spring, if the plant is being grown for seeds (e.g. dill), pruning can direct the plant’s energy towards specific seed stalks and pods. Do not prune away many leaves. This can distract the plant into growing more to replace them, reducing seed growth. Instead, focus on pruning away late-emerging seed shoots so the plant focuses on those it began earlier, making them larger and with more seed.
Dead heading is a common term for this sort of seed and flower control. Pinching or cutting off seed stalks and buds that are emerging late is recommended for all seed-bearing plants.
Perennials that are harvested at the end of the season can usually be cut all the way down. This “mowing” of the plant allows it to stay dormant over winter and re-sprout in the spring. Cover the leftover exposed stalk with mulch at 3-4 inches to keep it insulated. This practice is most common with heavy wooded herbs rather than softer plants.
Using the Pinched Herb Tips
Some herb tips and branches that are pinched off can be dried or incorporated into cooking. They will have a much milder flavor than the full-grown herb, but need not be wasted just for being taken early. If the stem pinched off is long enough, it may also be rooted to grow a new plant. Cuttings are better suited for this than those pinched off, however.
Herb tips that have been pinched can also, of course, be composted or even dropped to the soil beneath the plant as additive to the mulch and soil already there. So long as they are not diseased, these tips will add to the soil.
Want to learn more about pruning herbs?
Growing Herbs: PDF from Alabama Cooperative Extension
Winterizing the Herb Garden from North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
Harvesting basil, biting into tiny sun gold tomatoes, feeling my skin warm under the bright sun, drinking iced tea: these are the things I think of when I think of summer’s bounty. Next to cilantro, basil is my favorite herb. I remember the first time I grew basil. The internet was not really a thing back then, and I couldn’t casually look up the ins and outs of growing and harvesting basil. All I knew was that I wanted this herb to give and give and give some more. I wanted cupfuls of it. I wanted tomato basil soup, basil pesto, and fresh sprigs of basil cut into my summer salads.
So, I planted my humble basil plant in a small container, stuck it outside on my front porch, and watered it often to keep its soil moist. And I watched it grow. Taller and taller it climbed. After it had 5 or 6 sets of leaves, I thought it looked funny — like a skinny, gangly old man reaching for the sun. You see, I didn’t know anything at all about growing and harvesting basil. I thought it couldn’t be that hard, though. Surely I’d figure it out. Everyone said basil was such a resilient plant. If only I had known then what I know now about harvesting basil, I could have had a much more productive plant.
Turns out, I did everything wrong.
As it first started growing, I was afraid to prune it or trim it in any way. I wanted it to “get established.” I had an image in my mind of what that would look like — a healthy, bountiful little basil bush. But it never turned into a bush. It grew taller and taller, like a spindle piercing the sky. Finally, it had enough leaves that I thought sacrificing some to make a tomato soup wouldn’t harm the plant. So, I set about harvesting basil.
Figuring that the top was where all the growth was happening, I decided to cut from the bottom, from the leaves that would soon be turning yellow. I removed the bottom couple of sets of leaves and frowned. It looked even more awkward and tall. Where was my bush? I had done something wrong.
Perhaps it needed more time. Another few weeks went by, and my skinny, gangly, old man basil sprouted flowers. And then it got even more skinny and gangly, growing taller and taller until the weight of this single stalk started collapsing in the wind like a tall grass. And then it died.
The next year, I learned from my mistakes. And now, you can learn from mine. Turns out, harvesting basil is the key to creating that healthy, bountiful little basil bush. So, consider this your how-to.
Harvesting Basil 101
The key lesson here? Don’t be afraid to cut! When your basil plant has 3 to 5 sets of leaves, cut the top off just above the second set of leaves from the ground. The single stalk will now end here, and two new branches will now bud and grow from the set of leaves you left behind. Every couple of weeks, repeat the process, cutting just above the first or second set of leaves on your newest branches. Before long, you’ll have a healthy bush. Harvesting basil this way, you’ll probably be able to get 20 cups of basil from each plant per season!
If the plant should ever sneak some flowers in on you, you’ve reached a fork in the road. You can either prune all the flower buds off before they bloom and keep harvesting basil, or you can let the flowers bloom and watch the plant end its life in a beautiful display of fertility. Your choice. Basil plants are annuals — meaning they only grow one season and then die.
Now that you know that aggressive pruning is the way to go, is there anything you can do to make sure you get the most flavorful, robust basil? YES!
The night before you plan on harvesting basil, give the plant a good soak. The following day, do your cutting in the morning before the day gets too hot and dry. The essential oils are at their strongest then.
What should you do with all your harvested basil?
What if you end up harvesting too much to use immediately? What then? Well, you could always simply dry it, but I find that makes the basil flavor lose a lot of its complexity. I prefer to freeze my basil. There are two ways to do this.
In the first method, you simply place your harvested basil leaves in a zipper freezer bag. They’ll keep for up to a year like this. This is the perfect method for keeping basil leaves for use as an ingredient.
In the second method, you begin by stuffing your basil into a food processor and adding olive oil to cover it. Pulse it a few quick times until blended, then pour into ice cube trays and freeze. When you need basil for pesto or dressings, just whip out the number of cubes you need. It couldn’t be any easier!
You can also use your harvested basil as a cutting to grow a new basil plant. Simply store the cut basil in water, leaving the leaves exposed to air and the stem in the water. Keep it on your counter in moderate sun. Before long, you’ll have new roots growing from your stem. At that point, you can transfer your rooted cutting to soil and treat it like a new little plant.
Already growing your own herbs? Eager to find recipes for easy and delicious homemade spice blends and mixes?
I’ve created a downloadable, print-friendly collection of the 10 homemade spice blends I use most frequently in our home — including MSG-free versions of Ranch Dressing Seasoning Mix, French Onion Soup Mix, and Curry Powder.
(photos by cinnachick (above) and kathrynlinge (below) )
Harvesting basil is as simple as pinching off sprigs, as long as the plants are young and tender.
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Just trace the stem down and pinch it off above where leaves branch out from the main stem. It should snap off easily. Pinch off all the stems that have flower stalks forming at their tips.
Side shoots sprout and branch off from the main stem where the leaves join it.
Later, when the plants start getting woody, it’s easier to snip off what you want to harvest with a hand pruner or a pair of garden sheers. Breaking pieces off leaves jagged edges that can become infected with fusarium wilt.
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Once the plants flower and start setting seed, leaf production stops, so it’s important to keep ahead of the flowers. See Growing Basil for other tips on how to grow basil.
Pick off the leaves, side shoots, and tender flowers, and use them in sauces, sautés, or salads. If you have more sprigs than you can use after harvesting basil, place them in a small jar of water, as you would fresh flowers. Keep them out of direct sun and they’ll stay fresh for a few days.
Harvesting Basil for Fresh Use
No matter how meticulous you are at harvesting basil, the flowers will inevitably win out. When they do, it’s time to make pesto.
Are Basil Flowers Edible?
Young, tender basil flowers are quite tasty—and beautiful in a salad!—but seed capsules are coarse and gritty. To avoid them, strip the flowers only from the tender tips of the flower spikes. Leave the rest for the bees.
Harvest basil when the leaves are at their peak, before a lot of flowers form. You can harvest whole plants, or cut off all but a couple of branches. I like to leave a couple flowering branches for the bees.
To harvest whole plants, cut them off 3” (7cm) above the ground with a hand pruner. Shake the plants to dislodge any bugs, and pick off any dead or yellow leaves near the bottom of the plant.
Strip the leaves, and pinch the tips off side shoots. If the plants have started to flower, strip the tender flowers from the tips of the flower spikes, and be sure to pinch off any small leaves near the base of the flower spikes. They may be small, but they’re the most flavorful leaves on the plant.
“Basil Cubes”, an easy way to preserve some of that fresh basil flavor well into the winter.
Once you have a bowl full of basil leaves and tender shoots, you can either make pesto, or basil cubes. See Steve’s Cinnamon Basil pesto recipe for a variation on classic pesto.
For basil cubes, add a tablespoon of grapeseed or other neutral-flavored oil per cup of leaves, and process in a blender or food processor like you would for pesto. (Don’t use olive oil unless you plan to use the cubes only for Mediterranean dishes).
Process till the leaves are in small bits. Scrape the sides of the processor down and add just enough water to form a coarse paste when you process it again.
Scoop the blended basil into ice cube trays, packing each cell with a rubber spatula or teaspoon to squeeze out air. Fill as many cells as you have basil for, and put the tray in the freezer.
The next day, turn the cubes out into a freezer bag or container, label it, and put it in the door of the freezer, where you can easily grab a couple of cubes.
Use basil cubes individually or a few at a time to flavor curries and sauces during the fall and winter. Pesto can also be frozen this way. Basil or pesto cubes will last 3-4 months in the freezer.
Steve’s Cinnamon Basil Pesto
Place ingredients in a food processor and process till you have a smooth paste. Scrape the sides of the processor down with a rubber spatula and process pesto to an even texture.
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Harvesting Basil for Drying
There’s some debate on the best time for harvesting basil for drying. Some gardeners insist the flavor is best when you harvest at the same time as you would for fresh basil—that is, just before the plants flower, when the leaves are lush.
Others believe letting the plant flower before harvesting basil improves the flavor of the leaves used for drying. Mature leaves are more pungent, with a more intricate mix of essential oils.
I’m in the latter camp, but either way, dried basil from your garden is a huge improvement over anything you’ll find in stores.
It’s much easier to distinguish weak or diseased leaves immediately after harvesting basil, so if you’re planning to dry the leaves, groom the plants before drying. Pick off any yellow or spotted leaves.
Warm, dry shade is best for drying herbs. An attic is ideal, but the top of a cabinet works. Bundle whole groomed plants with garden twine, and suspend the bundles in an attic.
If you have just a few plants, cut whole plants into several pieces and dry in a paper grocery bag placed on it’s side on top of a cabinet, or high up on a shelf.
Leave for 1-2 weeks, then strip the leaves from the stems over an open newspaper. Pick out any twiggy material or coarse stems. The leaves should be dry and crumbly, but don’t break them up too much. Whole leaves store better than crumbled leaves, so it’s better to leave the dried leaves as intact as possible when storing, and crumble them at the last minute.
If any of the leaves are leathery, turn the oven on for 2 minutes, then turn it off. Make sure the oven is off. Place the leaves on a baking tray and put it in the closed oven. Leave for half an hour, then process as above.
Dump the leaves into canning jars and store in cool, dry shade. Warm, dry shade is best for drying, but cool, dry shade is best for storage.
Use dried basil in sauces, marinades, or sprinkled over roasted chicken. Dried lemon or lime basil retains its citrussy edge, and is great in seafood and shellfish dishes.
Basil stored this way will still smell like basil a year later, even if you’ve been opening the jar and using it throughout the year.
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