If you grow herbs, basil is probably among them, so you should know the best way to prune and harvest basil so you get the most out of your plant.
Basil is one of the most popular herbs for gardeners and cooks alike. Basil includes a diverse group of cultivars including sweet basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, purple basil, and more. They lend their signature flavors to foods from Southern Europe to Southeast Asia and beyond.
Basil plants are easy to grow in moist, well drained soil. They produce an abundance of leaves for your favorite recipes. And if you harvest correctly, they continue to produce throughout the growing season.
For gardeners, it is important to note that basil is a warm weather annual plant. Annual plants grow from seeds each spring. They complete their life cycle by flowering and producing seeds before the first frost in fall. A hallmark of annuals, including basil, is that they produce only foliage for a short time until they become mature.
Related Reading: No Basil? No Problem! Basil-Free Pesto Is Delicious
Once annuals reach maturity, leafy growth slows as they begin to produce flowers, and ultimately seeds. By pruning basil consistently throughout the growing season, gardeners can effectively delay the flowering phase. Gardeners grow basil for the sweet, spicy leaves, so it is helpful to know how to pick basil so it keeps growing leaves as long as possible.
How to Harvest Basil
To harvest fresh basil, cut back individual stems or branches just above an intersection where side shoots are coming out. Do not leave a long branch stub above the intersection. Regrowth will occur from the side shoots, and the plant will be ready to harvest again within a week or two:
Begin harvesting basil shortly after the seed sprouts and the second set of leaves appear. From then until the first flower buds form it will grow lush, tender foliage. Harvest leaves a few at a time at first. Later, simply clip the stems at the first or second branch intersection below the tips of the branches.
Vivosun Pruning Shears with Titanium Coated Curved Precision Blades, $6.99 from Amazon
Gradually begin to remove 10 to 15 percent of the total foliage each time you harvest. It is important to begin harvesting at this early stage to train the plant to grow full and bushy. Harvesting young leaves also helps to delay maturity. The tender leaves you harvest at this time are excellent in Caprese salads, or added to soups and pasta after cooking.
The first flower buds begin to form when the plant is about 12 inches tall. Beginning at the budded tips, cut stems back to the third or fourth set of side shoots. Harvest about 30 percent of the total foliage on plants that have buds. Use these mature fresh leaves for pesto or at the final stage of cooking sauces, soups, and curries.
Julie Chai, associate garden editor of Sunset magazine, also suggests that home gardeners remove the flowers from basil plants as they appear. By plucking the flowers you are keeping the herb in a prepubescent state, which will taste a lot better, and less bitter, than “older” basil:
You can eat basil flowers too, but sometimes they’re bitter, so give them a nibble first.
How to Preserve Basil
At some point you will be harvesting far more fresh basil than you can use. No need to let it go to waste. You can preserve basil by freezing or dehydrating.
To freeze the leaves, coarse-grind them in a food processor with a drizzle of olive oil. Then pack it into an ice cube tray. Remove the frozen basil cubes and store them in a plastic bag for up to six months.
Dry basil either in a food dehydrator, or by simply hanging the washed stems. Hang them in a place with good air circulation, out of direct sunlight. Wrap them in paper to keep them clean. Crush the dried basil and store it in a glass jar.
There comes a time late in the season when flowering is imminent and leaf production simply stops. Let it happen. Collect the seeds from your best plants to plant next spring.
Header image courtesy of Jozef Polc / 500Px Plus / Getty Images