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.
It’s not too late!
Are you eager to plant your own basil this year? Check out the listings on my Resources page for gardening supplies, seeds, and more.
And in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to let you know that I wrote this post while participating in the Sowing Millions Project by Real Food Media on behalf of Seeds of Change. As per my standard disclosures, you can bet that I received product and other goodies to facilitate this post (read: FREE SEEDS!). My thoughts and opinions are my own and not of those of Real Food Media or Seeds of Change.