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How to Harvest Basil

Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a beginner, harvesting basil can be a simple and rewarding process. In this article, we will provide you with some tips on how to harvest basil in a way that promotes growth, keeps the plant healthy, and discourages it from flowering.

A pair of hands harvesting basil leaves.
Harvesting basil.

Harvesting basil

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a versatile and flavorful herb that is very rewarding to grow at home if given the right care.

Harvesting basil is a crucial step in ensuring that your basil plant grows healthy and strong. Not only can regular harvesting help to promote new growth, but it also helps to prevent the plant from flowering too early, which can negatively affect its flavor.

>> Related post: How to harvest basil seed

How to harvest basil without killing the plant

To ensure that it continues to thrive, there are a few steps you should take when harvesting your homegrown basil to avoid damaging the plant. This means using the right technique, getting the timing right, and not harvesting too much in one go.

When to harvest basil (timing and frequency)

Basil is a versatile herb that can be harvested at any point in its growth cycle. However, it is best to wait until it reaches maturity before starting to harvest it for the best flavor basil, and to ensure the plant is strong enough to survive

For sweet basil, the most common variety, it is best to wait until the plant has developed at least 6-8 leaves per stem. This usually occurs when the plant is 6-8 inches tall.

The leaves should be plump and dark green, and the plant should have a strong aroma.

Once your basil plant has reached maturity, you can harvest the leaves as often as you like if you just need a few for cooking. In fact, harvesting the leaves regularly will encourage the plant to produce more leaves and keep it from going to seed too quickly.

Woman harvesting basil plant

How much can you harvest?

When harvesting basil, it is important to avoid harvesting more than a third of the plant at once, and allow it to regrow before taking a significant harvest again.

Basil grows as an annual plant in most regions, and so the whole plant can be harvested at the end of the growing season (as soon as you see flower buds start to appear). Cut the basil back, harvesting the entire stem.

Technique – pruning vs. picking

There are two main approaches for harvesting basil: pruning and picking (or pinching). Pruning involves cutting back the stem of the plant, while picking involves just removing the leaves from the plant.

Picking basil

Pinching is best if you just want to harvest a few basil leaves for your recipe. It is fine to pinch what you need off from the top of the plant as and when you need it.

This technique is also best for younger plants that are still growing and developing. It will encourage the plant to produce more leaves and prevent it from becoming too tall and leggy.

Hands picking basil leaves from the plant.
If you just need a few leaves for a recipe, you can just pick them gently off the plant.

Pruning basil

Pruning basil means cutting the stems. This approach is best for older plants that are becoming woody or overgrown, or if you want to harvest more than a few leaves.

If you want to harvest a larger amount, then the approach you take is important for the long-term health of the plant to ensure it grows back.

If basil isn’t cut regularly or correctly, it can start to grow tall and ‘leggy.’ You will notice the space between the leaves on the branches increasing, and the plant gets too tall to support itself.

If this happens, then pruning the basil by trimming the stems will encourage it to grow more densely.

How to harvest basil so it keeps growing

When pruning basil, cutting it the right way will promote new growth, and encourage the plant to grow with a more compact form. To do this:

  1. Harvest the stems from the top down. This means removing the top part of the stem, always leaving at least one leaf pair at the bottom of the stem.
  2. You should make a cut right above a leaf pair (i.e. growth node), do not leave a bare section of stem at the top. This encourages the stem to branch at the point it was cut, resulting in a bushier plant.
Basil plants showing that cuts should be made directly above a leaf-pair.
Pruning basil to promote growth

As a bonus, regular harvesting of the tips of the stems discourages the basil plant from flowering. Once flower buds appear, regrowth will stop, and the plant will begin to lose its flavor. So regular trimming also prolongs its growing season.

>> Related post: What to do with basil flowers

Tips for storing basil

Before storing your basil, it is important to clean it thoroughly. Rinse the leaves under cool running water and pat them dry with a paper towel or a clean kitchen towel. Be gentle so as not to bruise the leaves.

Alternatively, you can use a salad spinner to remove excess water from the leaves.

  • Store basil fresh. Store fresh basil leaves in the refrigerator for up to a month, either standing in water, or between two damp paper towels. Refresh the water as needed.
  • Dry basil. To dry basil, give the leaves a quick wash to remove any dust, then pat them dry. Spread them out between two sheets of parchment and leave them in a warm dry place until they are bone dry. Store in an air-tight container in a cool place.
    >> See How to dry basil for more details
  • Store basil in the freezer. If you want to store your basil for a longer period, freezing is a great option. To freeze basil, chop the leaves and place them in an ice cube tray. Cover the leaves with water and freeze.

Some other ideas

>> For more details, see our article on how to store basil.

Hands holding freshly harvested basil leaves.

FAQ & Tips

How do you harvest basil so it grows back?

Basil should be harvested from the top of the stem down. Remove the top of the stem with as many leaves on as you want, but ensure you leave at least one leaf pair at the base of the stem. You should make a cut right above a leaf pair, do not leave a bare section of stem at the top.

How do you know when basil is ready to pick?

Basil will be ready to pick and use around 8 weeks after planting the seeds. Each stem should have around 8 pairs of good-sized leaves.

How do you harvest basil without killing the plant?

Harvesting basil leaves from the top of each stem will ensure that it can regrow after harvesting. You can remove up to half the height of the basil plant, but be sure to leave at least one pair of leaves at the base of the stem. This will encourage the basil plant to sprout new branches and increase its vigor.

Will basil regrow after cutting?

Yes, in fact regular cutting of basil will help to keep the plant healthy over the long term.

Can I let my basil flower?

When basil flowers, the flavor of the leaves begins to decline and the plant grows more slowly as the energy of the plant is going into flowering. You can let it flower and still eat the leaves, but just be aware that the flavor will start to fade as the plant’s energy is going into producing flowers. If you are cultivating the plant for the leaves it is best to remove the flower buds as they appear.

Should I pick basil from the top or the bottom?

Always pick basil from the top. This technique removes the growth tip and encourages the plant to become more bushy and dense.

How to Harvest Basil

A pair of hands harvesting basil leaves.

A step-by-step guide to harvesting basil.

Active Time 5 minutes
Total Time 5 minutes
Difficulty Easy
Estimated Cost free

Materials

  • A basil plant

Tools

  • Sharp scissors or secateurs

Instructions

  1. Inspect your basil plant to find a long stem.
  2. Cut the stem between a third and halfway down, just above a leaf pair using sharp scissors or secateurs to make a good clean cut.
  3. If you are harvesting the basil for leaves to use, continue until you have sufficient basil, or until you have cut the top section off every stem on the plant.
  4. If you are harvesting basil to improve the condition of your plant, continue to prune until you have cut all the long leggy stems back.
  5. Place the basil plant in a sunny location and keep watered to ensure it will regrow.

Notes

  1. If you have harvested a large amount of basil and you don't want to use it right away, store it in the fridge or stand the stems in a glass of water.



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