Homegrown basil is one of my favorite herbs to help me spice up pizza, pasta, pesto, and homemade spaghetti sauce! But how do you harvest and trim basil leaves without killing the plant, and how do you pick basil leaves for the best flavors?
Also, did you know that if you harvest basil leaves the correct way, it makes your basil plant sturdier and more robust?
In this article, we’re going to teach you how to harvest and trim basil without killing the plant so you can enjoy this delicious (and fragrant) herb repeatedly. I’ll also share some of my best basil-growing tips, plus my favorite pesto recipes.
- How to Harvest Basil Without Killing the Plant
- How to Grow Basil for the Biggest Harvest
- How To Use Basil After Harvesting It
- Final Thoughts
How to Harvest Basil Without Killing the Plant
Learning how to harvest and trim basil without killing the plant isn’t too tricky as long as you know which leaves to pick and which ones to leave (pun intended).
To harvest basil without killing it, you should only pick the topmost leaves of a mature plant. When trimming the basil, never take more than 50% of the leaves and try to remove them before your plant can flower.
It’s always best to pick the younger, most flavorful basil leaves from the top of the plant. These smaller, brighter green leaves are the juiciest leaves on the plant and taste the sweetest.
Basil also becomes more pungent after the plant flowers, so harvest what you can before it blooms.
Now that we’ve discussed the basics, let’s get into the details. Here are some of the things you might want to consider when harvesting your basil plant if you don’t want to kill it:
How Old Should a Basil Plant Be Before You Harvest the Leaves?
Timing matters when harvesting basil.
A basil plant must be healthy and mature before you start picking leaves off of it. Generally, it should be at least six or seven inches tall before your first harvest.
If you pick leaves off you a basil plant that is too young, it could die. Plants need their leaves to generate energy; if we take them before the plant matures, it may never reach maturity.
Plus, young plants are vulnerable to pests and illnesses. When we take their leaves, we leave a small wound that might introduce insects or infections to the young plant.
So, ultimately, patience is key when learning to trim basil without killing the plant.
If you care for your plant in its younger months, it’ll be strong and robust enough to produce leaves quickly and fight off infections once it reaches adulthood. Then, later, you can expect healthy growth and a weekly harvest!
How Much Basil Can I Harvest Without Killing the Plant?
When you go in for some of those delicious, fragrant leaves, it’s tempting to pick up your favorite pair of scissors and take off an entire stem. However, the trick with basil – and harvesting basil regularly – is to limit your harvest to only the topmost leaves!
If you’re too greedy during your initial basil harvest, the plant might have trouble rebounding and continuing to produce new basil leaves. That’s why it’s essential to harvest your basil plant slowly over several weeks.
So, to harvest and trim basil without killing the plant, only prune above the first four or five leaves. That way, your basil plant will bush out and have enough green leaves to grow.
Where Do You Cut Basil When Harvesting?
While regular pruning is a great practice when growing basil, you should never remove more than half of your basil plant at a time.
To trim basil without killing the plant, only cut off the top one-third of the stems. The only exception to this rule is if your growing season is quickly coming to an end. In that case, harvest at will!
Still, if you have several weeks or more of growing time – harvest your basil plant slowly. That way, you promote a thicker, bushier basil plant and allow the base of the plant to continue forming new leaves.
In addition to slicing off the topmost basil leaves, you can pinch back the stems to promote a thicker, bushier basil plant.
Still, since basil is an annual plant, there will be a time to harvest the entire plant. You can cut off all your basil stems as soon as you anticipate the first frost of winter. If you don’t cut back the basil stems at this time, the plant will die, and it won’t taste very nice after that.
How Many Times Can You Harvest Basil?
Once you pick your basil leaves, you’ll want to prune your plants around once every 7 to 10 days. Your basil plant will produce roughly one cup of basil per week. So, if you have a small patch of basil plants, expect a massive supply of leaves regularly!
Regular harvesting doesn’t only give you plenty of basil to eat. It also helps basil plants grow bigger, bushier, and faster. So, get on out there and trim away the topmost leaves as often as you want.
I’ve noticed that basil begins to grow vigorously when the temperature reaches around 75 degrees.
So, if you live in a warm climate, your basil may grow even faster. Or, if you live in a chilly climate – your basil may grow slower.
Therefore, there isn’t always an easy timeline for how often you can trim basil without killing the plant. Just leave at least 50% of the plant growing, and it should bounce back.
Can You Pick Basil After It Flowers?
There’s one more thing to remember about how to trim basil without killing the plant.
If you wait too long to harvest your basil, it will begin to flower. Basil only flowers a few weeks before the plant dies, and if it produces blooms, the leaves will stop growing and become bitter. However, you can pick and eat both the basil flowers and leaves after it begins to blossom.
While basil flowers are edible, the taste is slightly bitter, and many gardeners don’t like them.
So, to keep the plant alive and tasty, trim back the little flowers that shoot from the stalks of your basil as soon as you notice them. Removing the flowers should give you more time to harvest the young, fresh leaves.
How to Grow Basil for the Biggest Harvest
Basil is a potent (yet delicious!) annual herb that makes a great addition to countless savory dishes, from yummy Mediterranean favorites to Indian and Thai. It has a long history of being used as a flavoring agent, with its use recorded even in Ancient Egypt.
Basil grows in most climates, and people are even trying to grow it in space!
Like many aromatic herbs, basil is a member of the mint family. Some of its closest relatives include rosemary, sage, lavender, and even catnip!
And, contrary to what you might expect from the title, basil (like mint) is tough to kill! Once the basil plant is mature, you can pick handfuls of leaves off without killing the plant. They’ll grow right back – often like a hydra, sprouting two stems where you cut one!
However, basil isn’t just one of those things you can plant and then ignore for six weeks, returning to a bounty. Basil plants require some maintenance.
Prune Your Basil Flowers
This herb likes to flower – a lot! However, it’s important to clip off the flower buds. Go to town on it.
If you allow the basil plant to flower and go to seed, it will put less energy into the leaves, creating a sparse plant with leaves that aren’t nearly as fragrant as they could be.
But what if you’ve already neglected your basil plant, and you’re just reading this now? What if you’re days too late? Never fear. Basil with flowers isn’t poisonous! I love to put them in my favorite vase by the windowsill. Or you can use the flowers as an edible garnish.
Read More – 8 Useful Herbs That Grow in The Shade
Give Your Basil Plant Plenty of Sunlight
Plants don’t grow as quickly when they don’t have enough sunlight. So, if you want your basil plant to produce the biggest harvest possible, be sure to find a sunny spot for it to grow.
Basil needs six to eight hours of bright indirect sunlight per day to stay vigorous and healthy. However, it can benefit from a few hours of direct sunlight, especially in the morning and evening when the sun isn’t too intense.
This variety pack of seeds includes Cinnamon, Lemon, Opal, Sweet, and Thai basil varieties to add some spice to your garden!
Protect Your Basil Plant From Cold Temperatures
Most of the time, what kills this mighty plant is the cold – specifically, frost. Basil does not like cold weather at all.
Frost can hurt even well-established basil plants. So, if you live in a cold climate, take special care of your seedlings. Basil isn’t used to Northern Europe or Canada and may need to live in a climate-controlled area, such as indoors or in a greenhouse, when grown in colder climates.
To protect basil from the cold, grow it indoors in a small pot by your window. Once established, you can transplant it to a larger container outside and prepare for a flavorful summer.
It’s also possible to keep basil alive over winter if you move the plant to a sunny spot indoors during the colder months.
How To Use Basil After Harvesting It
Basil is one of the most versatile herbs out there. It functions as a delicious leafy green and an aromatic seasoning to add to anything – from dessert to breakfast. I’ve yet to find a food that didn’t pair with basil.
Still, I have some favorite ways to use basil leaves after picking them off the plant, and I’d love to share them with you:
1. Make Some Fresh Basil Pesto
The basil plant is so prolific that you’ll end up with a lot extra unless you cook with it every night.
Pesto is a great way to use your basil. And it’s got some tremendous advantages:
- It keeps for far longer than fresh basil does.
- It’s raw.
- You can add it to just about anything.
So here’s my low-calorie, vegan take on this Mediterranean delight!
My Vegan Pesto Recipe
Pesto is generally an oily, high-calorie dish with olive oil and cheese. Well, I’m vegan, so no cheese, please! And, I watch my weight.
This recipe is my attempt to be plant-based and a bit stingier with the kcals! But I hope, equally delicious as the full-fat, omnivorous version!
The ingredients are pretty simple. You’ve got citrus (I like lime), a nut base (I use walnuts), extra virgin olive oil, some water as a zero-carb oil replacement, salt, pepper, and, of course, a whole lot of basil.
- Nuts. For the amounts given, I use ¼ cup walnuts – about 5-6 nuts if you’re shelling them yourself. Traditional pesto uses pine nuts, but I like walnuts. They’re cheaper if you’re buying and easier to harvest if you’re using your own. You can get fresh walnuts at the farmer’s market and shell them yourself. Shelling pine nuts is, well, an exercise in frustration!
- Citrus. Moreover, in traditional pesto, they use lemon juice. But I’ve got a Key lime tree growing out the door! It’s up to you, but I like the taste of lime with my pesto. You could use lemons. I tend to squeeze 2-3 Key limes into the pesto, but of course, you could use more!
- Oil (and Water). Here’s the calorie skimping! Rather than using only oil, I mix ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil with ¼ to ⅓ cup of water. If you have pure olive oil, don’t bother. You need extra virgin olive oil – that’s the stuff with the flavor!
- Salt and Pepper. For my low-calorie vegan pesto, this is the most vital part. Without cheese and with less olive oil, it can be a bit bland. Salt and pepper give it the flavor that makes it so delicious. Add at least ¼ tsp of salt for the amounts given – or more to taste. With pepper, fresh ground is best, and I tend to turn the grinder like ten times. It’s a lot of pepper!
- Basil. For this recipe, you’ll need ten to twelve sprigs of basil, which is about a cup of basil leaves. Peel off the leaves, but you don’t have to be super careful. For example, if there’s a part at the end with a bunch of small leaves and a small or delicate stem, you can throw the whole thing in the blender or in a food processor. Just keep the woody stems out, as they are tough, chewy, and bitter.
If you’re a gung-ho DIY enthusiast and live in a Mediterranean climate, you can make this recipe using 100% homegrown ingredients!
Citrus is plentiful in places like California. If you don’t grow walnuts, check your favorite produce market – the fresh flavors are worth the legwork. Even pepper trees grow abundantly here, including at some California roadside parks.
If you don’t want to get anything at the store, you need to be somewhere you can grow olives and have access to a facility where you can press your olive oil – which isn’t easy, but it’s possible!
Preparing Your Pesto
For this step, I’m afraid you will need electricity and a blender or food processor to create your basil puree. I am using a NutriBullet.
Throw everything into the cup like so:
- I put the nuts in first and then the leaves, so the leaves are closest to the blade when you turn it upside-down. This helps the nuts push stray leaves into the blender’s blade.
- Pour in the water. Blend briefly. If it doesn’t mix decently, add the oil. If it still doesn’t mix, then sprinkle more liquid into the blend or shake to displace – and blend!
- Once it’s mixing, blend on medium for 30-60 seconds. And voilà: pesto! Granted, getting it all out of the container can be the trickiest part. I need a rubber spatula and a lot of patience. Good luck!
Now, if you have too much pesto on your hand, I have some extra tips.
You can put extra pesto in an ice cube tray and freeze it to make seasoning cubes! Then, you can toss these little blocks of pesto into your pasta sauces, on top of pizza, on garlic toast, or in soups for a delicious burst of flavor.
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Best Basil Pesto Recipes
If you’re serious about harvesting basil and keeping your basil plant alive, you need more pesto recipes!
These are the best pesto recipes we could find after searching our favorite culinary archives. We hope these pesto recipes serve you well:
- Italian Pesto alla Trapanese
- Carrot Top Pesto
- Avocado Basil Pesto
- Basil Pesto
- Walnut Pesto
- Spinach Pesto
- Garlic Scape Pesto
- Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto
- Herb Garlic Pesto
- Classic Basil Pesto
- Freezer Pesto
2. Use Dehydrated or Dry Basil as a Seasoning
One of the best ways to use basil, especially near the end of the harvesting season, is to dry it and crush it for later use.
To dry your basil leaves after harvesting them, all you need to do is:
- Harvest some basil, keeping some of the stems attached.
- Rinse off your fresh basil to remove any stowaways or dirt.
- There are three ways to dehydrate basil. To use the hanging method, hang the basil upside down by the base of its stem in a dry, dark, well-ventilated place. To use the method of air-drying, place it on a baking sheet with a paper towel for a couple of weeks to let it dry. Alternatively, you can use a food dehydrator to speed up the process.
- Then, once the leaves are very crispy, grind them in a blender, food processor, or mortar and pestle.
- Seal the herb powder in an airtight container or jar and store it in a dark, cool place for up to a year. I like to put my basil in a recycled glass spice jar.
Preserving your basil can save you money while also giving you a great seasoning that lasts for months.
My favorite way to eat dry basil is to mix it with olive oil and dip my homemade sourdough bread into it. Delicious!
3. Add Basil and Stems To Broth and Marinades
You can use any part of the basil plant as a seasoning, even if it’s not the sweet younger leaves! Basil stems and older or dried leaves give broth and marinade a slightly bitter, complex, and aromatic flavor that rocks!
You can also add basil stems to pasta water to give your plain noodles an incredible basil-y flavor.
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4. Top Your Favorite Dishes With Basil Leaves
Basil leaves are good for much more than as a simple seasoning or an ingredient in pesto! They are delicious as is.
You can put the entire leaves on pizza, in salads, in stir-fries, as a lettuce replacement (or accompaniment) in sandwiches, and so much more. So, sprinkle a few leaves over rice, try some in your tacos, and pop a few on top of steak! The opportunities are endless.
So, in summary, here’s how to trim and harvest basil without killing the plant:
- Only harvest basil when it is mature, and never take more than 50% of the leaves
- Take the topmost leaves, which taste the sweetest
- Only harvest more basil after it has produced more leaves than you took last time
If you follow these steps and protect your plant from the cold, you should have no trouble keeping your basil alive. But, ultimately, you might even have so much basil you don’t know what to do with it! I hope these recipes can help you out with that.
It’s also fun to experiment with your homegrown pesto ingredients! What fresh garden (and zesty) veggies could you try blending? Experiment until you find the perfect pesto flavor you and your family love!
Thank you so much for reading this article!
If you have basil questions – or basil harvesting tips, please share them in the comments below.
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