How To Harvest Basil Without Killing the Plant

Here’s how to keep the harvest coming.

Cutting Basil Plant
Photo: Getty Images

From pesto to Caprese salad and cocktails to pasta dishes, basil is a favorite ingredient in the kitchen and a must-have in any Southern herb garden. When temperatures consistently stay in the 80s, this annual herb really takes off. But to ensure you've got a steady supply all season long, you need to know how to harvest basil without killing the plant.

First, make sure your basil stays healthy by giving it full sun, which is at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Morning sun is preferable because it benefits from afternoon shade in the hottest months of the season. Basil also prefers to remain somewhat moist (not sopping wet). Stick a finger into the soil, and if the top inch or so of soil feels dry, give it a long drink. Basil grows equally well in pots and beds, but pots tend to dry out faster, so check them daily during hot, dry spells.

There also are many different cultivars, or cultivated varieties, you can grow. You're probably familiar with the classic Italian variety, 'Genovese,' which has large, rounded, dark green leaves. But there are numerous other types ranging from the burgundy leaves of 'Dark Opal' to the small leaves of spicy 'Sweet Thai' to 'Everleaf Thai Towers,' a new variety that grows in an attractive columnar form.

No matter what kind you grow, here's the best way to harvest basil to keep it coming:

How To harvest Basil

If you only need a few leaves, pinch them off where the leaf meets the stem. Harvest from the top of the plant so more leaves are produced. If you pick from the bottom, it will get lanky and scraggly-looking.

For larger amounts, trim off full stems of basil from the top of the plant down. Use your fingers or a small pair of scissors to remove the stems if they're thick. Cut about ¼-inch above where leaves are coming off the main stem. Don't take off more than a third of the height at once, and snip from different parts of the plant to encourage branching all the way around. As your basil keeps sending out new growth, continue to prune it the same way.

When To Harvest Basil

The great thing about basil is that the more often you harvest it, the more it will produce. You can start snipping off individual leaves when the plant is 6 to 8 inches tall and has about six to eight leaves (not counting the baby leaves that first emerge near the bottom of the plant). It grows quickly and will push new growth that can be harvested within a week or two.

Should You Cut Off the Flowers on a Basil Plant?

By mid-summer, most basil plants develop flowers on the tips of branches. Pinch these off as you see them so the plant continues to grow new leaves and doesn't go to seed. Some cooks also say the flavor of basil changes and becomes bitter if you don't remove the flowers.

Can Basil Survive a Frost?

Basil is cold-sensitive and won't survive even a light frost. When temperatures are forecast to drop into the 40s, harvest the entire plant or bring it indoors and set it on a sunny windowsill. You also can keep full stems in water at room temperature for a few days (not in the fridge, where basil will become dark and mushy quickly), or you can let it root to start new plants.

How To Preserve Basil

If your plants are producing in a big way, save your bounty for later use by placing individual leaves in a dehydrator, then storing them whole or crushed in an airtight container. Or puree the leaves in a blender with a little water or olive oil, freeze in ice cube trays, and pop them out and store in plastic bags. This way, you'll enjoy fresh basil from your very own garden all winter long.

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