Growing and Harvesting Basil So it Produces All Season Long

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Growing basil, how to pick basil leaves, how to use basil. It’s all right here, folks.  Years ago an old farmer told my young boys that when they started dating, a big bunch of sweet basil in the car would win a girl’s heart. Now, I don’t know about that, but growing and harvesting basil is one of my favorite summer garden activities. The fragrance definitely makes me happy!

Have a big bunch of basil? Try making my family’s favorite pesto recipe!

italian basil

Sweet basil is a culinary herb used frequently in Italian cooking and is the base for our favorite pesto. It’s not the only type of basil, though. There are dozens of different cultivars to choose from. Some are purple, some are ruffled, and some, like Thai basil, are favored for specific cuisines. Pictured above is my African blue basil.

Basil is one of those wonderful garden plants that just keeps on giving. Unlike radishes and beets that are done once you harvest them, basil plants provide their pungent goodness for months if you treat them right. Harvesting basil so that it produces all summer long is easy.

Growing basil

Basil likes warm weather, tolerates heat, and prefers well-drained but moist soil. Direct sow seeds after your last frost date, once the ground has warmed. Trust me; trying to get a jump on it by planting too soon will just waste basil seeds. If you opt to start basil seedlings for transplanting into the garden later, a grow light and a heat mat to increase the soil temperature will greatly improve your odds. Plant basil seeds or seedlings in full sun. Water deeply and regularly, and side dress with compost or well aged manure.

Basil varies in height a bit based on variety, but most basil plants grow about one to two foot tall.

Varieties of basil to grow

There are numerous varieties of basil to plant in the garden. Genovese basil is the popular heirloom that many of us plant in our gardens (it’s a favorite for making pesto), but there are a dizzying number of other basil varieties to choose from. There’s large leaf basil, curly leaf basil, frilly basil, and purple basil. Then there are basil varieties that feature other flavors, such as lemon basil, cinnamon basil, clove basil, and lime basil.

different types of basil, from above

Basil varieties to look for include:

  • Genovese basil
  • Thai basil
  • Cinnamon basil
  • African blue basil (perennial in warm climates, shown at top)
  • Holy basil
  • Lemon basil

There are many named varieties of basil from different origins. You can see more here.

 

Harvesting basil

These rules for harvesting basil apply for growing basil indoors, too, though an indoor basil plant might not need to be trimmed as frequently since it’s unlikely that it will grow as vigorously inside as it would in a sunny garden bed. Basil can also be grown as microgreens!

When to harvest basil

You can harvest basil from a healthy, mature plant just about any time. Harvest the basil leaves you want to use in recipes as you need them.

When flower buds start to form on a mature plant, it’s time to really prune your basil. If the plant is allowed to flower, it will put energy into trying to regenerate itself by making seeds. Pruning basil prevents that, so you’ll have a basil harvest all summer long.

If you see flower heads beginning to form on a young plant, pinch them off. Pinching the flower heads off prevents the plant from putting energy into producing seeds, allowing it to grow more foliage.

Harvesting basil - 3 panels showing the steps of how to pick basil leavesHow to pick basil leaves for continued growth

Harvesting basil needs to be done regularly. Regular harvesting inhibits flower production on growing basil plants so the plant will continue to produce leaves and provide an abundant basil harvest.

Here’s how to trim basil: Simply use scissors to prune off the upper leaf clusters. Make your cut close to the set of leaves below. No scissors? It’s perfectly okay just to pinch the basil from the plant with your fingers. Often, you’ll need to cut more than one leaf cluster, and that’s okay. Just be sure to snip right above the set of leaves you’re planning to leave on the plant. New growth will sprout from that point, allowing you to harvest throughout the season.

You’ll want to make sure to leave some green growth so that the plant can do its photosynthesis thing, but the plant will be noticeably smaller. Prune basil every week or two, to keep your plant healthy. The cut stems and leaves are your basil harvest.

I have almost a dozen plants and these provide enough basil every time I harvest to make two batches of pesto – one to eat fresh, one for the freezer.

Besides girls and pesto and Italian food, here’s another reason to grow basil: Bees.

basil leaves

Bees love it when you grow basil

While we humans love growing basil for its pungent leaves, the bees love it for the flowers.

Trouble is, in order to maintain a continuous harvest of sweet basil leaves growing all summer long, the flower heads need to be removed. Allowed to flower, the plants will go to seed and stop producing those fresh lovely leaves. Luckily, there’s an easy solution. Plant several extra basil plants. Once you’ve harvested the first batch of leaves, allow a few plants to go into flowering mode.

The bees will appreciate it, and you can continue harvesting leaves from the plants you’ve designated as “yours.”

dry seeds on a plant, and in a human hand up close

Saving basil seeds

 

I’ve had good success with saving and replanting basil seeds for a sustainable basil harvest, year to year. If you want to gather seeds, choose one basil plant as your seed producer. Let it flower and watch as those flower heads turn to seeds. Allow the seed to brown on the plant.

If wet weather threatens, you’ll want to clip them and bring them inside to dry. Pull the dry seed pods from the stem. Roll dry pods around in the palm of your hand to remove the small black seeds.

Seal fully dried basil seeds in a paper envelope and store in a cool, dry place. Saving heirloom seeds from year to year is easy to do and will save you the expense of buying seeds.

Using your basil harvest

Growing basil in my garden means I use fresh basil leaves all summer long snipped into in salads, wraps, sandwiches, and for flavoring soups and pasta. By far, though, our favorite way to use it is to make pesto. We spread pesto as a base for wraps, on egg salad sandwiches, and of course, use it in pasta dishes. I freeze pesto in small glass jars for use all through the winter months. I love adding spoonfuls of it to soup! Check out this collection of 25 basil recipes for more ideas.

This post about growing basil and harvesting basil was originally published in July, 2011; it has been updated.

young green leaves of plants from above

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

67 comments… add one
  • Alexandra Jul 6, 2011, 10:15 am

    I’m jealous. My basil plants are barely half an inch tall.

  • Betsy Lane Jul 6, 2011, 1:25 pm

    I also make pesto for the freezer–it keeps perfectly all year, until the next year’s basil is ready. I also make cilantro pesto, just substituting cilantro leaves for basil leaves. Both versions are delicious!!!

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 14, 2011, 9:35 pm

      My husband would love cilantro pesto.

      • P Dheerendra Apr 22, 2018, 12:54 am

        Yr write up is very informative

    • Bryan P May 23, 2014, 1:39 am

      Love cilantro pesto. Don’t forget garlic scape pesto, too.

    • pix Aug 11, 2019, 8:13 am

      I also make pestos from other herbs. I use a neutral oil when olive oil would have a limiting flavor profile.

  • Liana Jul 7, 2011, 8:34 am

    I have the hardest time growing basil though I see it growing like a weed elsewhere. Too high and wet?

    • Vickie Jun 9, 2015, 3:11 pm

      My daughter grows amazing basil plants in a pot and usually it gets ignored because she has a 2 and 3 year old. Oh and the 2 year old is rough on that plant and it is just thriving away and huge! I have mine in the ground and most of the time, if it doesn’t get rain it won’t get water unless I happen to think about it and it is huge. For me I think they are like geraniums they like to be ignored, left alone and a minimum of water. Can’t be ignored forever of course but many herbs will grow in poor soil and in the hottest sun with a minimum of water.

      • Kris Bordessa Jun 15, 2015, 7:05 am

        They do seem to do well in hot, harsh conditions!

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart Jul 7, 2011, 11:32 am

    My basil is pretty puny still, but I am taking several leaf clusters each night to put in our fresh salads.

  • Jane Boursaw Jul 7, 2011, 12:01 pm

    I should really make pesto. I love love love basil, but mostly just because I love the lovely aroma.

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 14, 2011, 9:32 pm

      Pesto = super easy.

  • Melanie Haiken Jul 8, 2011, 2:02 pm

    Wow, your basil looks so healthy and fresh; mine’s a tad wilted in the heat! My favorite thing is a caprese salad with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella — as soon as my tomatoes fruit I’ll be eating it all summer long!

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 14, 2011, 9:30 pm

      Heat is not something we’ve had to deal with yet this summer!

  • sarah henry Jul 12, 2011, 2:09 pm

    I’m with Melanie, above, love basil in a Caprese salad and we’re big fans of putting pesto on everything over here: pasta, potatoes, bread.

    Just had some Thai basil fried in a rice bowl dish that was divine.

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 14, 2011, 9:28 pm

      My son came in the other day with pesto, kalamata olives, and feta on toast. Good taste, that boy.

  • MyKidsEatSquid Jul 13, 2011, 10:00 am

    Basil has to be my favorite herb. I love all of the different varieties too–Thai, purple.

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 14, 2011, 9:24 pm

      We once stopped at a farm stand and the old guy there suggested that when my boys got to dating age they only had to remember to tuck a bouquet of basil in the back seat and their dates would fall in love. 😉

      • Orit Apr 15, 2020, 3:54 pm

        so they are dating already? did they try the suggestion? LOL

        • Kris Bordessa Apr 18, 2020, 1:21 pm

          LOL, as yet, they haven’t tried it, though I remind them of the tactic once in awhile. 😉

  • Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi Sep 6, 2011, 12:48 pm

    My basil seems to go from barely sprouted to bolting. SO FRUSTRATING. I’m trying a different varietal this year-lettuce leaf basil. I’m hoping I’ll have better luck with it. It’s supposed to be great for pesto.

  • Ideastoplaywith Jun 9, 2014, 9:46 am

    I made my first batch of pesto using these tips on how to harvest basil.  Great tips, less than a week later my pesto is as bountiful as before I made the cut!

    I put a twist on the original pesto recipe.

    You can find my Basil Pesto with Lemon Thyme recipe here:
    https://ideastoplaywith.com/homemade-pesto-with-lemon-thyme-recipe

  • Kathy Jun 10, 2014, 12:29 pm

    Thats absolutely one way to go about it! I tend to find that successive planting works better for me – Id much rather have a little bit all the time than huge dumps of basil that I then HAVE to make pesto out of. Ive got this great infographic on successive planting here: https://bit.ly/SSHdYv Happy Growing!

  • Yaya Jun 13, 2014, 10:37 am

    I love to take a couple basil leaves, roll them and take my kitchen shears and cut thin strips and then put them in a salad or on a sandwich. It just takes it up a notch. 

  • Janet Jun 13, 2014, 7:18 pm

    I live in Utah. It’s hot and dry. Tried growing basil in the ground, in pots and in the house. It either goes to seed and/or the leaves get skinny and sparse. Does it like hot, sun, cool, shade? Where are you growing it? If I try again, I will follow your pruning suggestions.

    • Kris Bordessa Jun 13, 2014, 7:56 pm

      I find that it likes warm/hot summers but steady moisture. Most all of my basil these days come as volunteers from plants I’ve let go to seed. I’m growing in Hawaii, but it’s done really well for me in hot northern California summers, too.

  • Allison Aug 16, 2014, 8:24 pm

     Hi! Im fairly new to gardening and i found your article helpful. Im just wondering why do you want to harvest your basil before it starts flowering? Or what happens if it flowers ? 

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 16, 2014, 9:47 pm

      You use basil for its leaves. When it starts to flower, the plant puts less energy into making leaves. The bees like the flowers, though.

      • Allison Aug 17, 2014, 4:28 am

        Thank you!

  • victor Oct 13, 2014, 9:14 am

    i usually freeze most of mine since it lasts so long in the freezer — i’ve heard a year though it never lasts in my house.

  • Paula May 20, 2015, 4:49 am

    For the area below where you pinch off – do you ever harvest that too? Or just leave it? Harvest single leaves? Thanks

    • Mary Aug 22, 2015, 3:26 am

      I just cut it right above any two leaves and you don’t take those. Enjoy!

  • Elicia Jun 26, 2015, 7:05 am

    I have several beautiful basil plants growing. My family loves pesto but I’ve never made it. Does anyone have a good pesto recipe or a link to a good recipe? Thanks :0)

    • Bev Oct 8, 2016, 5:49 pm

      I mix basil, garlic, olive oil process and coarse shreds of parmsean at end. Put in ice cube trays, freeze and knock them out in baggie.

      • Greg Jun 24, 2018, 6:42 am

        I use a similar recipe, basil, garlic cloves, toasted pine nuts, grated parmigiano reggiano, pecorino Romano, & olive oil.

  • mary Aug 22, 2015, 3:24 am

    I have basil growing in a glass jar on the window sill, just add water daily. I also like adding lots of it to salmon pasta salad.

  • Loriel Aug 30, 2015, 4:10 am

    What happens if your basil flowers?

  • Anne Feb 22, 2016, 10:15 am

    Basil is one of my favourites. I grow it every year by sprinkling seeds around the garden, near the tomato transplants. They do well and I harvest often to make “basil boats” (an appetizer). For winter use, I use scissors to cut leaves directly into ice-cube trays, top up with water, freeze, then double bag. So easy and delicious in spaghetti sauce, just like fresh-from-the-garden. Thanks for sharing the proper way to take cuttings.

  • Janet Aug 18, 2016, 7:05 am

    My basil is getting eaten by some bug!

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 20, 2016, 9:33 am

      Your bugs have good taste! 😉

    • Errica Jun 9, 2017, 3:24 am

      Flea beetles (leaves lacy looking damage) are destroying all my basil. I started dusting them with DE, but I just read its harmful to bees. so..

  • Donna Lorusso Oct 2, 2016, 11:42 am

    I have so much basil, that I cannot possible eat it all. how can I keep basil for winter months?

  • Rkwalks Jun 28, 2017, 4:41 am

    I use strawberries and basil in 2nd ferment of my kombucha
    fastastic flavor of summer!

  • Nada Jul 10, 2017, 1:11 pm

    You didn’t mention how many times should we water the plant?

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 4, 2017, 8:23 am

      Just as much as is necessary to keep it from completely drying out.

  • -D Pettit Aug 29, 2017, 6:11 am

    I make basil jelly. Very nice on crackers and over cream cheese

    • Joyce T Jun 17, 2018, 8:00 pm

      Basil jelly? Sounds divine! Care to share your recipe….I would be so grateful. Many thanks~

  • Kathy Sep 19, 2017, 2:51 pm

    How would you make pesto from chopped frozen basil ?

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 14, 2017, 8:36 am

      I’ve never done that! I suppose I’d try to figure out how much frozen basil is equivalent to the require fresh basil and then combine with remaining ingredients.

  • Michele May 7, 2018, 6:20 pm

    Something you may want to do this summer: go to the dollar store and buy those old fashioned ice cube trays. Snip basil and fill each cube area and gently pour filtered water to full. Freeze. Once solidly frozen pop the cubes into a zip lock, repeat……when it comes time for making a sauce or some-such that requires basil, throw a cube or three into it and voila- as though you had summer all year long. YUM!

    • Kris Bordessa May 15, 2018, 2:38 pm

      Good idea!

  • Marsha Jul 14, 2018, 5:42 am

    I just started growing basil and you have been very helpful. I grow basil in a pot on my patio. I love The smell and taste.

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 16, 2018, 9:41 am

      Glad this was useful!

  • Marsha Jul 14, 2018, 5:44 am

    Thanks so much this was very helpful

  • Patti Aug 1, 2018, 3:51 pm

    I grow basil in my pots. The leaves seem to get wrinkly and I have trouble with powdery mildew. Something eats my basil leaves too. I’ve tried a natural insecticide that I made and a vinegar spray. Nothing works. I love basil, but have such a hard time with it.

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 5, 2018, 4:35 pm

      Basil likes HEAT. Vinegar can kill plants, though, so use caution with that.

  • Sunita Aug 12, 2018, 3:38 pm

    Thank you so much for the tips. This was the best explanation I’ve seen so far. My biggest question was about the bees, because I love seeing them in my garden. (Bees are rare these days) Great idea to just have another basil plant for the bees to enjoy. Thanks!

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 16, 2018, 8:33 pm

      Glad it helped!

  • Shelley van hoy Aug 20, 2018, 2:16 pm

    This is my second year growing basil. I’d like to continue my plants’ growth to keep producing leaves as long as possible but still make the coming year’s pesto supply in one go. I’ve only made pesto with fresh leaves. If I prune all season to keep the plants producing, how do I store the fresh cut basil until I’m ready for processing?

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 22, 2018, 6:07 pm

      I can’t think of a way to keep them “fresh” to do that. You could try freezing the leaves, but I’ve not done it that way.

  • Charlotte Anderson Nov 25, 2018, 11:58 am

    This is an awesome post. I really plan to get my “herb growing” on deck next Spring. And my honey bees will like to too! Thanks Kris.

  • Nikki Byrnside Jul 17, 2019, 9:45 am

    My Purple Basil has already bolted is flowering,, but there appear to be still plenty of leaves to harvest. Is it still good to harvest leaves after the plant is flowering? Look forward to growing them indoor during the winter. Still have a couple months of warm weather to grow though.

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 22, 2019, 2:53 pm

      Yes. You can use them. But you can also cut the plant way back (use the leaves) to send out another flush of green leaves.

  • Amy G Aug 10, 2019, 1:53 pm

    I trimmed my basil earlier in the week, wrapped it in a damp towel in n stored it in the refrigerator. It looks like the leaves are turning purple/brown—but they are not dried out or mushy. Are they okay for pesto?

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 25, 2019, 12:34 pm

      Sorry; I’m probably too late for this batch of pesto! Use the freshest leaves possible, of course, but you can often salvage limp basil by transforming it into pesto.

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