How To Harvest – Sweet Basil

Sweet Basil is one of those plants in your garden that needs to be mindfully tended, otherwise you’ll find a Super Basil Bush growing as fast as it can!  If you like Basil, this is really not such a bad thing and the neighborhood bees will love you for it.

Sweet Basil can be harvested for two types of usage: Fresh or Dried.

Fresh Basil is used in cooking, either added to the dish directly or steeped in oil or vinegar, and as a home remedy for a variety of maladies.  If using your Basil as a home remedy, please research the methods of preparation and use very carefully.

Dried Basil is used mainly for cooking, but some people also use dried Basil to make tea.

The best part of growing your own Basil is that you can have both Fresh and Dried Basil as your Basil plant(s) will produce enough leaves during the growing season for all your Basil needs!

When to Harvest your Basil

Basil grows two leaves on opposite side of a stem.  As the leaves mature, two small leaves will sprout at the base of each leaf.  Left alone, these smaller leaves will from a stem and start producing leaves along this stem as well as the original steam.  Eventually, you have a huge bush that starts producing flowers at the end of the stalks that will draw bees and butterflies and eventually produce a ton of seeds.

Sweet Basil Bush in Bloom

Sweet Basil Bush in Bloom

Leaves that are large and a healthy green color can be picked using your fingernails or sharp scissors at any time for use right away .  Rinse the leaves gently and tear them instead of cutting them to get the best flavor.  Use these in soups, with roast meats and vegetables, in salads, in pesto or just about anything!

Once the stalks starts to develop the flower buds, you will need to pinch these off to keep your Basil producing leaves.  In the picture below, you will see that there are clusters of leaves at the tops of the stalks and a compact bunch of tiny leaves in the center at the base of the opposing leaves.

Sweet Basil Bush with flower buds

Sweet Basil Bush with flower buds

Pinch out the flower buds as close to the mature leaves as you can, but if you miss some, you can get them later.  what you want to avoid for most of the growing season is this:

Flowering Basil Bush - time to do some harvesting for sure!

Flowering Basil Bush – time to do some harvesting for sure!

I have several Basil Bushes in the vegetable garden as they provide some defense against mosquitoes and flies and I do let them bloom so that they attract bees, but they quickly get out of control!

Since Basil grows at the end of it’s stalk, once you pinch off the flower bud the stalk stops growing and those small leaves at the base of mature leaves start to grow into stalks.  So, by getting rid of one flower bud, you will soon have two that are taking its place!  Eventually, you find that every day you spend more and more time trying to keep your Basil from going to seed.

By cutting the stalks back near the base of the plant, you sort of reset the bush back to a manage size.

Harvested Basil with new growth

Harvested Basil with new growth

Even though it feels pretty drastic, in a week or two, you will have a large Basil plant once again.  You can see in the picture above that the woody stalk has sent out some new stalks as well as where I cut back the older stalks.

After a large harvest of Bails stems and stalks, the most practical thing to do is to dry the basil leaves as Basil does not stay fresh for very long.  Here’s a photo of a harvest of just half of one of my Basil plants:

Harvested Basil to be rinsed

Harvested Basil to be rinsed

That’s a lot of Basil!  All of the Basil plant can be used, but the stems take a while to dry out completely, so I just dry the leaves.  Pinch off the leaves that are not chewed by bugs and that are a nice green in color.  Leaves that are damaged or are discolored are sent to the compost heap along with the flowers and the stems.

Put the leaves in a bowl with some water and gently agitate them to get the dust off.  Since I don’t use any pesticides or chemical fertilizers, I know that my basil is as organic as it can be.  I do live in a large city, so rinsing also is getting rid of any airborne pollutants that may have settled on my Basil plants.

Rinsing Basil Leaves

Rinsing Basil Leaves

After a quick bath, remove the leaves and lay them out to dry on clean dish towels in a single layer.  This should be done in a sheltered, but well aerated, space that does not get a lot of sun.  Drying in the sun may seem faster, but the sun leaches out the beneficial properties of the Basil as well as reducing the flavor.  I use the dining room table, which means that we eat outdoors for a couple of days when I harvest.  If I picked in smaller batches, I could use the kitchen counters.

Basil laid out to dry in a single layer.

Basil laid out to dry in a single layer.

Laying out the leaves is rather tedious!  Just remember how much you would be paying for an ounce of dried Basil ($7.57) at the store.  How long would you have to work to buy as much basil as you are harvesting today?

Basil will shrink as it dries, but it is important that the leaves are not touching as they can mold instead of dry if they are overlapping.  In two or three days, depending on the temperature, you can reorganize your leaves and they should take up about half the space as before.

Basil is dry when the leaves don’t really flex any more, usually around 5 days after harvest. They crack when bent or they are somewhat flexible, but still quite stiff.  At this point they should be stored in airtight containers.  I find that ziplock style bags work quite well as long as I label the bag, although I also use mason jars.  I keep the dried herbs in a cupboard to keep them out of the light.  Try not to break too many leaves as this will release the aroma faster and the aroma is what we are trying to preserve by drying all those leaves!

Dried Basil and some onions

Dried Basil and some onions

A typical season harvest of Basil for me is about 4 gallon bags of dried Basil from two plants.  I use a lot of fresh Basil during the growing season and I give or trade 3 gallons of the Basil away to friends and family members every year.  I do have 6 plants in the garden in 2015 and I think I will be giving a lot of Basil away!

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