How to Harvest Basil

Get the most flavorful leaves while helping the plant grow and thrive.

White male hand with ring cutting basil flower with garden tool

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Popular basil is easy to grow, but can be temperamental to pick. There are secrets to harvesting basil without killing the plant while still getting the most flavorful leaves for all your favorite dishes. It’s important to keep an eye on your plant, know the right time of day to harvest, and be aware of how — and how much — you clip.

When to Harvest Basil

Basil is an aromatic plant that loves warm weather. It’s grown easily from seed outdoors in the ground or in container gardens. Basil likes a sunny location and likes its soil — but not its leaves — to be kept well-watered.

You can start picking basil leaves when the plant is about six to eight inches tall. For young plants, just pick a few leaves. As the plant grows, you can pick more leaves, as well as the tips of the branches.

The best time to harvest is in the morning. That makes for the juiciest leaves. But you can pick basil whenever you need it. Each time you harvest basil, it encourages the plant to make more leaves.

Each time you harvest, try not to pick more than half of the plant. That gives the basil plant time to regrow. It takes about 2-3 weeks for the plant to develop more leaves. 

How Much to Harvest

If you only need a small amount, then pick a few leaves off a few different branches or plants. Don’t cut off an entire stem or it might not grow back.

When you need a large amount of basil, start at the top and work your way down. Don’t harvest from the bottom. Always make sure to pinch or cut above a pair of leaves, rather than leaving a cut branch.

Encouraging Basil Growth

To help your basil plant thrive, prune or pinch off the tips each time a branch has six to eight leaves. Prune the center shoot of the plant at about six weeks. This will make a bushier plant and give you more leaves to harvest. Simple pruning like this also can lead to more aromatic basil.

For the best flavor, harvest leaves before flower buds form. Pinch and remove flower buds as soon as you see them. If you leave them on the plant, they may change the taste of basil, making it somewhat bitter. Regularly removing the buds also can help lengthen the life of your basil plant and your harvest season.

When Cold Weather Comes

Basil plants love sunny, warm weather. But cold temperatures can damage the plant and stunt its growth even when it's just 50 degrees. Be sure to harvest all your basil before the first frost or if you think it’s going to be cold.

Pick off all the leaves. You can either cut the stems all the way to the ground and add them to your compost pile. Or you can dig up the plant, roots and all, and put it in a pot inside to grow through the winter. 

How to Clean and Store Basil

After you’ve harvested basil, remove the leaves from the stems. Throw away any leaves that have spots or don’t look healthy. Rinse leaves thoroughly and let them air dry or pat them dry.

If you’re not going to use bail right away, you can keep a stem fresh by putting it in a glass of water at room temperature, just like you would flowers from your garden. Don’t put fresh basil in the refrigerator because leaves can change color and lose taste.

Fresh basil doesn’t last long. Because it has a lot of moisture, it will mold if not used quickly. If you have a lot that you can’t use right away, try drying it

If you don’t have a food dehydrator, tie small bundles of cut basil stems and leaves together. Place them upside down in paper bags. Punch small holes in the bags and be sure to tie the tops tightly. Hang them in a dark, well-ventilated place for a week or two. Once dried, crush the basil and store it in air-tight jars at room temperature.

You can also freeze basil to use later in pesto or sauces. Clean the leaves and chop them in a food processor with a bit of water or oil. Freeze the mixture in ice cube trays and thaw them when needed.

How to Use Basil

Fresh basil can be used to season all sorts of dishes, including soups, salads, pizzas, and appetizers. If you have a basil bounty, you can use it to make pesto. Just find your favorite recipe that combines basil leaves, garlic, cheese, and nuts for this traditional pasta topping.

Get creative with your basil. Try using it to infuse vinegar or sugar, make compound butter, or mix it in a cocktail. You can seep it in tea or use it to make potpourri. There are endless ways to use this fragrant, flavorful herb.