Harvesting Basil 101

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? Click here to buy organic, non-GMO seeds, gardening supplies, 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.

(photos by cinnachick (above) and kathrynlinge (below) )

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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38 Responses to Harvesting Basil 101
  1. Lynn Mathews Parks via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 12:11 pm

    I love your statement “next to cilantro, basil is my favorite…” because cilantro is so delish!

  2. Food Renegade via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 12:13 pm

    @Lynn — I know! It’s so versatile, too. I use it in everything from salsa to Thai food.

  3. Candyce Byrne via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 12:13 pm

    Thank you for explaining a mystery that has puzzled me for years!

  4. Katherine Kelley via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 12:26 pm

    Glad you posted this. This is my first year growing my own. :)

  5. Chef Shawn
    June 21, 2011 | 12:34 pm

    Great post! My basil is going insane this year with my aggressive pruning. About every two days, I have to harvest, Right now, I am making basil ice cubes for use in the winter, but soon it’ll be pesto cubes, too!

  6. Teresa
    June 21, 2011 | 12:49 pm

    Awesome and very timely information!!! I need to harvest some of my basil. :)
    Do these same methodologies apply to most of the other similar herbs, such as Stevia, Parsley, Oregano, Thyme, and Sage?

    • KristenM
      June 21, 2011 | 1:07 pm

      Teresa — This advice applies to any “bush” herb like thyme or sage. Not so much to parsley.

      • Teresa
        June 21, 2011 | 1:09 pm

        Thanks Kristen! :)

  7. Daria
    June 21, 2011 | 1:19 pm

    Thank you. I’ve been making the same mistake you did, just cutting off a couple leaves here and there as I needed them. I didn’t know I was supposed to cut off the whole stalk!

  8. Lynn Mathews Parks via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 1:31 pm

    I like to eat it straight from the bunch while walking around the farmer’s market. People look at me funny but I have the last laugh because cilantro is so so good for you.

  9. Nisha @ Healthy Mom's Kitchen
    June 21, 2011 | 1:36 pm

    Thanks for this post! I have basil seeds waiting to be planted. Now I feel confident getting them in a pot!! Herbs are totally new territory for me and by the looks of my poor garden, I should be discouraged from furthering any green thumb efforts, but alas, you give me hope!

  10. Resa Gobs via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 2:00 pm

    This is my first year growing it & I did it all wrong, lol.

  11. Jen Flickinger
    June 21, 2011 | 2:19 pm

    So… how many stems should I leave uncut or should I cut them all? I’ve been wondering how get my basil going! Thank you!

    • KristenM
      June 21, 2011 | 2:21 pm

      What’s the #1 lesson? Don’t be afraid to cut! Cut them all, just make sure you’re leaving at least one or two sets of leaves on each stem.

  12. Emily @ ButterBeliever
    June 21, 2011 | 2:55 pm

    This is GREAT! Just what I needed. I was given a pretty hefty little starter of Thai basil, and would not have known that I’m past due to harvest it for the first time! I assume Thai basil and regular basil should be harvested similarly? Hope so, cause I’m about to go a-chopping. :)

  13. Heather Niles Barber via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 3:34 pm

    Thanks! This is my first year growing basil, and I’m going to pick the tops tonight. :-)

  14. Openly Balanced via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 4:25 pm

    Yay! Super helpful – thank you. Of course, this year I can’t seem to get my basil to sprout, so we’ll have to get that figured out first…

  15. Carol Terney Federoff via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 5:26 pm

    So THAT’s what I’m doing wrong…..

  16. Lori @ Laurel of Leaves
    June 21, 2011 | 6:38 pm

    SUCH good information! Thanks for all the tips. Basil (and cilantro! and mint. and thyme. OK-I love them all!) is one of my favorite summer herbs.

  17. Alice Sun via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 8:15 pm

    What about the seeds? How do you harvest the seeds? Every year my basil dies during the first freeze. I’d like to get some seeds out of the thing before it dies so I don’t have to keep buying new seeds.

    • Jassica
      June 22, 2011 | 3:58 am

      Alice, just stop pruning back one of your plants at some point and let it go to seed, then save the dried up seed heads for the following year. Or you can remove the seeds from the seed heads to save. Good luck!

  18. Stephanie Cobbley Ray via Facebook
    June 21, 2011 | 9:26 pm

    Thanks for this! I’ve yet to keep my basil alive for long…

  19. Sarah Smith
    June 22, 2011 | 7:57 am

    Great info! Thanks!

  20. Stephanie
    June 22, 2011 | 4:11 pm

    I’m so glad I found this post! I literally went out just now and cut back all my basil. Thank you for all the great info! Any ideas on how to keep the snails from eating all the basil before we do?

  21. Amelia
    June 22, 2011 | 5:00 pm

    I love this post because I HAVE been doing it all wrong! I have about seven stalks, and one has flowers at the top. Here I thought it was so pretty…darn. Now I know!

  22. Primal Toad
    June 22, 2011 | 9:47 pm

    We are growing 4 plants. All in pots. Heirloom tomato, cherry tomato, kale and Basil. Our basil was awesome last year :)

  23. Andra
    June 25, 2011 | 8:43 am

    I put basil in everything during growing season, I love it. I make sun tea infused with basil, it is so refreshingly different. Good post, the more you snip, the more you get!

  24. Chris@Earth Friendly Goodies
    June 27, 2011 | 5:02 pm

    That’s so funny – I had to learn the hard way too – I had three or four basil stalks that were nearing three feet straight up. I was waiting for golden eggs to fall from the sky but no luck, guess that only works for magic been stalks. :)

  25. Jennifer Holder
    July 15, 2011 | 5:13 pm

    Is this pruning trick for just sweet basil to make it bush? I have the “old man” problem with my sweet basil because I did it wrong, but my spicy globe basil is a nice little bush and I did nothing different. Is this normal for that type?

  26. Madia
    August 6, 2012 | 10:28 pm

    Yay! You just saved my basil from sudden disaster lol.

  27. Amanda
    April 10, 2013 | 3:43 pm

    So glad I found this! My poor basil is growing straight up and is sturdy as can be. I suppose that’s a good thing, but between wanting to cook with it, and wanting it to branch out, I was afraid to do anything to it!

  28. Katy Thompaon
    June 23, 2013 | 9:23 am

    I am soooooooo glad I clicked on your site. This is my first time for growing herbs. the basil was differently ready to be harvested. Can you tell me how to harvest lemon thyme and ways to use it. I bought it because of the aroma. Thanks

  29. Linda
    June 26, 2013 | 8:48 am

    Hi, I’m assisting my grandson on a science lab/research essay and found your site. You are a good writer and have a great “voice.” I was inspired enough to favorite it for ref. when we are transplanting the seedlings in the garden and future harvesting. :) Thanks! My grandson is a hammock fan also. He just daydreams.

  30. lori Rathgeber
    July 7, 2013 | 9:47 pm

    Thanks for this tip about harvesting! I have a hydroponic garden, and this os definitely going to help me supply my restaurant with an abundance of fresh Basil!!!

  31. Ashley
    August 26, 2013 | 9:53 am

    I never actually read up on how to grow basil and I actually came here for the harvesting bit, but I will use this information next year! Somehow my nail plant had become absolutely huge without pruning.

  32. Tim
    October 3, 2013 | 7:08 am

    Thanks for the post. I planted my basil in spring and it’s already have three blooming cycles. It’s roughly 4 1/2 feet tall right now and I have it propped up against a trellis for support. I had no idea you’re supposed to prune so often. Thanks for sharing!

  33. Anna
    January 12, 2014 | 7:54 pm

    Thank you so much for the boost of confidence in my gardening talents. My gangly old man is young and generous again and the leaves are heaps more flavoursome than before. B-)

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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