How to harvest basil???

berkeleyluddite(z9 ca)June 21, 2005

I just got a bed of 10 basil plants and I'm ready for my first harvest. What are the proper procedure to ensure vigorous strong growth after harvesting? Everyone tells me to either cut back, pick the big leaves or combination of both. Please tell me exactly what to do it since I'm a beginner...


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No talent or special knowledge required.

Close your eyes and chop where you want. Make sure children's fingers and dogs' noses are out of reach. I use hedge-cutters because my plants are large, you may prefer scissors. If you cut from the top, you'll encourage bushier growth of your plant. If you cut from the bottom or sides, you'll encourage a taller, more slender plant. Don't chop more than one-third of total growth at any one time.

If your plant is still very young, just pick off a few leaves from the top. I prefer to cut off whole stems - bare stems on a plant look ugly, don't you think?

If drying your basil, leave the leaves on the stems until they are nice and crunchy - they are easier to remove from the stems once dried. If freezing your basil leaves, line up your scissors (or a sharp knife) along the stem and chop whole rows of leaves at once. That way - no stems attached!

If using fresh for casseroles etc, leave the leaves on the stems and fish out the 'tree' before serving, just as you would a bay leaf. No chopping!

Oh, and you can eat the flowers, too.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2005 at 6:35AM
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BL: Daisy has it pretty much covered. But what I do specifically is this:

I sit on an inverted red plastic milk carton and get up close and personal with my basil.

Using a pair of sissors, I snip of all the flower buds along with the top couple of sets of young leaves and tenderest parts of the stems. I use some of the purple colored flower buds for garnish and grind the rest up for pesto or take it to a friend who makes pesto for his restaurant. That's why I'm only after the tenderest parts of the plant ... so the blender won't get clogged up with woody stems.

I totally snip out all the flowers to stimulate vigorous new growth to spring from the side shoots that are peeking out of the first few leaf crotches just below where I snipped off the tops.

Then I pinch or snip off any lower leaves that look like they are threatening to turn less than vibrant green on me. I get them off before they discolor so that I can use them in pesto too. A little yellowing doesn't deter me from adding them to the pesto, but I discard anything that is blotchy grey or has black spots.

Then I snip off any lower side branches that are gangly or unruly or growing over into an adjoining basil plant, or otherwise does not generally conform to my anal rententive vision of how my extremely crowded patch of basil should look (little bushy shrubs all in a row).

Then if I need more volume to fill out my pesto-destined bag of herb, I sit there and pinch off individual leaves as if plucking stray hairs from my Shih Tzu's mustache.

And to think that in another thread I actually poked fun at Daisy's vision of getting squashed by a bus!?! Oh well, we all have our little foibles.

1 Like    Bookmark   June 21, 2005 at 7:51AM
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Your advice is fabulous! Thanks for educating this newbie.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2006 at 12:25PM
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nygardener(z6 New York)

The only thing I would add to those mouth-watering descriptions is that basil tastes better before it flowers  so be sure to include in your harvest any stems that have flower buds forming at the ends. The buds look like miniature green Chinese pagodas. Even better, get 'em before the buds form.

To ensure a continuous supply of nice leafy basil, sow or buy some more every couple of weeks from spring to midsummer.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2006 at 8:44AM
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**How TALL should be plant be before harvesting? **

Reviving this thread, because I have one small question to add.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2009 at 12:11PM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

General rule of thumb for any plant that you want to have keep growing, no more than 1/3 of the living plant at any time. Let it recover before repeating.


    Bookmark   May 30, 2009 at 2:33PM
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I just bought some basil plants. I wondered if the rabbits and chipmunks will eat it?

    Bookmark   May 30, 2009 at 6:42PM
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ksrogers(EasternMass Z6)

Chipmunks now, they like fruits, berries and nuts. Rabbits my cgew though. Basil comes in all heights from teh short bushy Genovese to teh 5 foot tall mammoth with huge leaves. Always pinch off the flowers. They make more limbs that way. I usualluy snip whole branches off because the plants usually have several main stems. The stems can also root in soil too.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2009 at 7:04PM
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Daizy chops them, but I pinch them off just above the nodes/paired leaves. This way two more branches will grow above the leaves. Also they will get bushy. Of course, if you have planted a lot of them, very close to one another, You can thin them by pulling out, when you need basil. Sooner or later the remaings should be harvested. Pinching, cutting of branches works for me. At the end of season I pull them out one at a time. You get a lot of woody stems/branches and fewer fresh leaves out of them.
I also let few flower and produce seeds. I like the fresh , unripend seeds; They are even more flavorful than the leaves.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2009 at 11:24PM
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snip off leaf bout 1 cm back from end of leaf on stem, clean, eat. =)

    Bookmark   May 30, 2009 at 11:43PM
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I'm new at this too and I'm a little confused about "what" to pinch/cut when harvesting my Basil. I've been just plucking off the large leaves. There are about 4 large leaves and then a small grouping of tiny leaves on top of the 4 big ones. Do I take the entire top off? Including the tiny leaves? I want to make my plant bushy. I'm afraid of cutting off too much, or the wrong thing, and wasting good growth or keeping it from growing.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2009 at 10:10PM
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A stupid question - if I pluck the flowers before they bloom will the taste of the leaves still be compromised? Darn plants are DETERMINED to flower!

    Bookmark   June 7, 2009 at 11:31PM
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Some people say the flavour is bitter if you allow the plant to flower. I've never been able to tell the difference. But then - I've never been able to stop the wretched things from flowering profusely either! The only reason I chop off the flowers, is because the plant becomes top-heavy and branches break off with the weight when it rains. That's here in the subtropics, mind you, where the plants become very large indeed.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2009 at 3:36AM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

I too have never noticed a taste difference.

And of course the basil plants will try to flower. It is their purpose and one mission in their short lives - to perpetuate their species.


    Bookmark   June 8, 2009 at 8:22AM
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Yes, the Basil will be bitter if the plant is flowering at all when you pick it.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2009 at 11:36AM
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caryltoo Z7/SE PA

I've always found that if I pick regularly, especially at the top, it keeps it from blooming.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2009 at 1:59PM
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How long does a basil plant last? I just got mine a few weeks ago, it's pretty small. Will I be able to bring it inside at the end of the season, or will it die off with the tomato plants?

    Bookmark   June 13, 2009 at 6:09PM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

Your regular culinary basil is an annual. You can always try bringing it in but it is pretty much spent by the end of the summer.


    Bookmark   June 13, 2009 at 8:56PM
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I use my thumb and first finger to pluck off the little growths. It looks like a pair of leaves, but with a common stem. Sometimes in the middle of the leaves a new bloom is happening - pick them before it gets big. it leaves a lovely basil residue on my fingers - I smell good all day!

    Bookmark   June 14, 2009 at 12:09PM
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My question deals more with after you've harvested the basil. I have a dehydrator, should I dry the leaves first, or just harvest and use?

    Bookmark   July 26, 2009 at 1:50PM
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I would imagine it to be very difficult to dehydrate BEFORE you harvest!

In any case, IMO basil is best frozen, not dried, for future use.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2009 at 6:58PM
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I try to have at least a few plants in my garden that I let flower, it's an absolute bee magnet. I counted 30 or more bees once (*til I couldn't keep up) on one plant. They come in swarms. of course that's great for everything else in my garden too :)

Every year, I say I'm going to get it all harvested in time, and wham comes a frost.

In fact, I need to get some more plants put out!!

Basil is the best!!

    Bookmark   August 1, 2009 at 7:00PM
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I chop my basil leaves in my small chopper with a little olive oil and put in small containers and freeze, works great for any recipe and love to just pop it out of the container into a kettle of soup.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2011 at 10:46AM
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opal52(z7b GA)

Hi Doris Foster, I do the same as you, only now I use the full size food processor to make quicker work of it. I freeze the basil in ice cube trays, filling some sections fully and others half full so I can better choose the "correct" amount for whatever I'm preparing. It works great and you get the taste of fresh basil in your soups and other recipes in the winter season.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2011 at 2:07PM
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LMoon310(8B/9A- border)

That's a good idea. I should have read this a little bit sooner, I just spend all night making pesto. :)

    Bookmark   June 24, 2011 at 10:41PM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

I don't consider harvesting basil as a one-time thing. Just walk out and grab some leaves when you want to put them in a salad, recipe, or on a sandwich. It's something I do daily.

I think the myth that basil tastes bitter after it starts making flowers is that by the time this happens, there are usually many very big leaves. The big leaves never taste as good as the smaller ones and the presence or absence of flowers does not seem to be a factor in this. When you want some, whether you pick the leaves off individually or if you cut entire stems, use only the smaller, more tender leaves for the best flavor. Do not eat the petioles (leaf stems.)

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 11:35AM
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Dehydrating basil is no problem - it loses its color but the jar, when you open it, has a fragrance you would NOT believe! Just put the dehydrator on its low/herb setting, and dry away.

Freezing maintains its color and its flavor - but uses up freezer space and power.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 3:51PM
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Flowers and large leaves are irrelevant; if your basil is bitter it's because it's not sweet basil; you need to buy sweet basil next time; sweet basil is not bitter it's sweet, hence the name sweet basil.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2011 at 1:21PM
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I was under the impression that flowering is a sign that the basil is reaching the end of production...?

    Bookmark   August 29, 2011 at 4:15PM
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DMForcier(8 DFW)

No, not at all. Flowering *IS* its production. In order to support the flowers it grows leaves. The fact that you prefer the leaves to the flowers makes no difference to the plant - it will keep producing both as long as it can.

Btw, I've carried basil indoors and had good leaves until mid-December. The more vigorous the plant the longer it will last.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2011 at 5:08PM
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What bad advice I received! I have been plucking the flowers off as they appear :(

    Bookmark   August 31, 2011 at 9:05AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Gary, I do have sweet basil but the big leaves don't taste as good to me. And they are too "chewy." The flavor changes as the leaf ages. It may not have as much to do with size as it does age. I don't know and I just don't eat the big leaves. The curled leaves don't seem to taste as good, either.

The flowers are tender and delicious in soup, meatloaf, or a marinade. They also make a great garnish. But that's the fun of growing your own. You can eat whatever parts you want, whenever you want. And this discussion is proof that there's more than 1 way to "do it." Basil is very fun and easy to propagate from cuttings too.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2011 at 11:04AM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

I've found that if you let the flowers start to fully develop then the new leaves that form will be much smaller and the stems will start to get woody. The plant also cuts way back on its growth.

In order to keep the plant producing heavily all season I simply cut off the flowering tops every couple of days. I don't pick foilage off from the lower parts of the plant until late in the season when I finally just harvest the whole plant and make a giant batch of pesto to freeze over winter.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2011 at 1:33PM
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Freezing is a great idea, I don't know why I have never done that before, but I will tomorrow. I use basil fresh in any dish containing tomatoes and dry it for winter use. Dried herbs are always stronger tasting. I always have plenty of plants, because I find that it is the best companion plant for tomatoes to deter pests in an organic garden and both plants seem to grow better and BIGGER when planted together, so I plant a basil between the tomatoes or is it a tomato between the basils?

    Bookmark   September 10, 2011 at 6:51AM
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I dry my basil in the dehydrater, it is heavenly! I harvest by cutting the basil above the nodes, I start with several stems of basil. Then I remove the leaves from the stem, I keep the leaves whole, but cut out the vain (it helps the drying process). I store it whole in glass jars, and crush as I use it.

I grow several types of basil and I mix them together to dry them. The flavor is the best I've ever tasted and smelled! It's is so good I've considered approaching a local restaurant to see if they would be interested in my blend.


    Bookmark   September 13, 2011 at 2:14PM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

Actually, I would prefer to get packets of named (and very wonderful) varieties of basil, from the reputable seed vendors like the one noted below. All the packets of basil seeds from this particular vendor are selling for around $2 a piece. It's a much better deal than the $8 "can of basil" you are trying to spam us with.


Here is a link that might be useful: Baker Creek Seeds - Basil

    Bookmark   September 23, 2011 at 7:33AM
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OK, now quickly tell me how to preserve what I have cut! I've got lots and lots of basil and I want to use it this winter and I'm unable to find a solid preservation tip for this. I'd like to use it in spaghetti sauce and other cooked meals rather than garnishes.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2011 at 4:26PM
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I'm bumping this thread because I, too, would like some ideas on preserving and using basil. I love the chop w/ olive oil and freeze idea that was mentioned above. What is your favorite way to preserve basil? To use it?

    Bookmark   April 21, 2012 at 7:05PM
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agmss15(zone 4)

Ideally I would harvest most herbs when the plants are a good size but before they flower. While the plants are small I try to control myself by taking a handful of leaves at a time. Life is rarely ideal though. :>) If I wait too late the taste is stronger and it's more work to remove the woodier stems and flowers. An early but necessary batch of pesto slows down the harvest...

I've used dried basil but I much prefer freezing the basil/olive oil mix. You can preserve other herbs the same way. My mom makes lots of hot sauces that way too. Use very clean jars, pour a layer of oil over the top to keep out air. And remember it's a fresh food product when you thaw it with a limited shelf life. A week or two maybe.

I also love making pesto with or without the cheese. Adding the cheese fresh tastes better. It's so nice to have that fresh summery taste in the winter. I have also been given basil tea for upset stomachs by friends from Mexico and Honduras - it's okay. I also love lemon basil, thai basil etc..


    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 12:25PM
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Two questions:
1) How do you freeze the basil in oil? Oil doesn't freeze, does it?

2) My basil got huge in the heavy heat and I've been plucking off flowers forever. I need to cut it back, but I don't understand. Can I just cut the stems back 1/3? It seems odd to pick the big lower leaves off first. I thought I read that somewhere earlier in the thread. That can't be right, can it?


    Bookmark   July 11, 2012 at 10:59PM
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^^ 2) its fine. You can harvest either the bottom or top at anytime but not both together if you want Basil to regenerate.

Since I already resurrected an old thread, I might as well add my two cents to the flowering discussion.

Generally, when flowering occurs, the leaves most immediate to the flower begin to lose their nutritional uptake. In many flowering plants (i.e. determinate tomatoes), this is visible as Browning of surrounding leaves. In Basil I guess its loss of flavor. Plants have basal metabolic rates proportional to their size, meaning that they can only conduct an X amount of metabolism at any one time. Flowering stresses the metabolism beyond normal basal metabolism, and because its a reproduction attempt (survival of the species through seed production), the priority is given to flowering (reproduction) over maintaining leaf physiology. Cutting the flower buds diminishes the flowering temporarily and gives resources back to the leaf as the plant attempts once again to develop flowers.

In controlled environments, you can sustain vegetative growth indefinitely and inhibit flowering by setting a specific temperature and light hours. That's climate control, indoors under artificial lights.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2014 at 7:54PM
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If the flowers can be eaten, do I just take off the buds including the ones that are in flower? It sounds time-consuming to just remove the flower corolla.

Can I use them the same as the leaves?

    Bookmark   August 28, 2014 at 7:50PM
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