Basil is one of my favorite herbs to help spice up pizza, pasta, pesto, or homemade spaghetti sauce! But – how do you harvest basil leaves without killing the plant?
In this article, we’re going to show how to harvest 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 insights – plus my favorite pesto recipes.
Also – did you know that if you harvest basil leaves the correct way – it makes your basil plant sturdier – and more robust?
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Follow these tips for the best results with your basil.
Harvest Your Basil in 5 Easy Steps
Follow this simple 5-step basil harvesting game plan to enjoy your basil without killing the plant.
Step # 1 – Wait for a 6-Inch Basil Plant
For basil gardeners – timing is everything.
When your basil plant gets around six or seven inches tall – it’s ready to harvest.
It’s tempting to pick up your favorite pair of garden scissors and slice the entire basil plant at the main stem.
But, the trick with basil – and harvesting basil continually – is to limit your harvest to the topmost leaves!
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Step # 2 – Prune the Topmost Leaves
If you’re too greedy during your initial basil harvest – it’s much trickier for your basil to rebound and continue producing new basil leaves.
Instead – harvest your basil plant slowly over several weeks.
When harvesting, prune your basil plant above the first four or five leaves only. That way – your basil plant will bush out and continually grow.
Step # 3 – Limit Your Harvest!
Whatever you do – never remove more than half of your basil plant at a time. Instead, limit your harvests to the top one-third of the plant.
(The only exception to this is if your growing season is quickly coming to an end. In that case – harvest at will!)
But, 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 also pinch back the stems to promote a thicker, bushier basil plant.)
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Step # 4 – Harvest Regularly
Once you start harvesting basil – you’ll want to prune your basil 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 basil. On the regular!
I’ve noticed that when the temperature reaches around 75 degrees, basil begins to grow – vigorously.
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.)
Step # 5 – Timing Your Harvest
There’s one more thing to remember about harvesting basil. If you wait too long to harvest your basil, it will begin to flower.
Nearly every gardener I know loves to harvest basil before it flowers!
You can still eat the basil with flowers – basil flowers are edible. But the taste is slightly bitter. (Yuck!) And many gardeners don’t like them.
Food for thought!
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More Basil Harvesting Tips – Plus My Best Basil Pesto Recipe!
To some people, it means beach vacations, but what about if you’re more of a homebody? There’s no reason to run away when the weather gets warm! Summer is the perfect time for you to make the most of your vegetable garden.
There are so many delicious (and savory) things that you can grow right at home – and eat food that’s as fresh as you can get – while saving yourself countless trips to the store or farmers market (and a fair bit of money, too).
But, here’s a little-known garden goodie that can also save you some cash – fresh herbs!
While herbs can cost upwards of a dollar a bunch at Whole Foods or Safeway, growing your own will guarantee you such an abundance that you’ll be giving your extras away to family and friends!
Or, you can cut the plants back in the autumn to dry and preserve for colder months.
That’s why basil rocks – it’s so versatile! (And ridiculously easy to grow.)
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What Is Basil, Anyway?
Basil is a potent (yet delicious!) 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!
And, contrary to what you might expect from the title, basil (like mint) is tough to kill!
Caring for Your Basil Plant
However, basil isn’t just one of those things you can plant and then ignore for six weeks, coming back to a bounty. Basil plants require some maintenance.
Pruning Your Basil Flowers
The thing is that basil likes to flower – a lot! Clip off the flowers. Go to town on it. As mentioned, basil is a very hardy plant that’s quite hard to kill. A little bit of pruning isn’t going to defeat it.
Cut those basil flowers back – ideally before they reach this state:
Honestly, though, that’s fine. You can clip those off and keep a fresh and good-tasting plant.
So why bother? If you allow the basil plant to flower and go to seed, it will put less energy into the leaves, creating a plant that’s sparse and whose leaves aren’t nearly as fragrant as they could be.
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What if I’ve Already Got Flowers?
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 them in my favorite vase by the windowsill. Or you can use the flowers as a garnish – yes, they’re edible.
But you want the leaves. Why? Because basil is so prolific that there’s only one way to keep up with it. Turn it into pesto!
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It’s Pesto Time
The basil plant is so prolific that, unless you’re cooking with it every night, you’re going to end up with a lot extra. There are only two things you can do at this point:
- Cut sprigs of it and hang it to dry, finding a place where it won’t bother you, and then dealing with the dried basil (such as crumpling it without making a mess) a week or so later.
- Or make pesto!
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.
Here’s my low-calorie, vegan take on this Mediterranean delight!
Pesto Recipe – Vegan and Light!
Pesto is generally a pretty oily, high-calorie dish. Traditional pesto has a lot of 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.
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!
For the amounts given, I use ¼ cup walnuts – about 5-6 nuts if you’re shelling them yourself.
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 use a mix of oil and water.
- ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil.
- ¼ to ⅓ cup 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!
For the amounts I’ve put here, you probably want about this much basil:
In other words, about ten to twelve sprigs. 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 some very light, watery stem, pinch it off and throw the whole thing in the blender.
Just keep the woody stems out; the rest is blending!
How Much is Home-Grown?
If you’re a gung-ho DIY enthusiast and you live somewhere with a Mediterranean climate? Then it’s possible to make this recipe using 100% homemade or home-grown 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. (That’s why I love this nut!)
Even pepper trees grow abundantly here, including at some California roadside parks; you can harvest and grind your local peppercorns.
For salt, you could probably replace the water in the recipe with boiled seawater from the ocean!
If you don’t want to get anything at the store, you need to be somewhere where you can grow olive trees (like Spain, Greece, or California) and have access to a facility where you can press your olive oil – which isn’t easy, but it’s possible!
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Preparing Your Pesto
For this step, I’m afraid you’re going to need electricity and a blender to do it my way. (I have 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. I think this helps the nuts push any 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!)
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And enjoy with your favorite spaghetti.
Best Basil Pesto Recipes
If you’re serious about harvesting basil and keeping your basil plant alive – then you need more pesto recipes!
These are the best pesto recipes we could find after searching our favorite culinary archives.
Thanks for reading – and we hope these pesto recipes serve you well!
Best Pesto Recipes:
- 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
It’s also a ton of 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 that you and your family love!
How to Harvest Basil Without Killing the Plant?
So, does anything kill basil – or is does it keep growing no matter what?!
Well, as long as you only harvest up to one-third of the topmost basil leaves – you should be good to go – and your basil will continue to grow!
Didn’t I mention that it’s darn hard to kill? You can chop chunks of it off, and they’ll grow right back – often like a hydra, sprouting two stems where you cut one!
However, there is a way to kill basil, and it’s something you want to avoid. What kills this mighty plant is the cold – specifically, frost.
Frost can hurt even well-established plants! But this is a problem in the spring when you’re just getting it started. If you live in a cold climate, take special care. Basil isn’t used to Northern Europe or Canada. (Remember, it comes from South Asia!)
Grow it indoors, at first in a small pot by your window. (Or maybe not even that close to your window if you’re still getting freezing night temperatures!)
Once established, though, you can transplant it to a larger container outside and prepare for a flavorful summer.
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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