How to harvest basil – to harness its delicious fragrance and flavor

Follow these tips on how to harvest basil so you can enjoy this versatile herb all season long

Basil
(Image credit: Alamy)

Learn how to harvest basil and you can instantly transform salads, pasta and all manner of other homemade dishes. This delightful and distinctive Mediterranean herb really packs a punch of flavor and can be used to make fantastic sorbets and ice creams as well as savory delights. 

It's quick and easy to grow basil from seed, so there are no excuses for not raising your own, what’s more the pungent leaves, laden with essential oils, are a natural deterrent for pesky flies and aphids, and it's one of the best wasp-repellent plants, too. Knowing how to harvest basil and when to harvest basil will also ensure you can continue to reap the rewards of this tasty herb.

Whether you choose purple, green or one of the many other tasty varieties, knowing how to harvest the leaves without damaging the parent plant is key. Follow this expert guide, detailing all you need to know, so you can enjoy and get the most from your herb garden ideas with confidence.

‘Most keen cooks would agree that basil is a leader amongst herbs for its fragrance, charisma and addictive taste,’ states Judith Hann, author of Herbs: Delicious Recipes and Growing Tips to Transform Your Food (opens in new tab). ‘It is synonymous with visions of sun-baked Mediterranean landscapes, but is in fact used in recipes from around the world.’

How to harvest basil

Deliciously fragrant, basil is a lush and tender herb that is hugely versatile. With over 40 different varieties available – each with their own distinctive flavor, including cinnamon, anise and lemon, plus the bonus of purple or deep green leaves – it’s an attractive herb to grow too. 

With each leaf containing a high concentration of essential oils you don’t need much to flavor a dish, but it is well worth knowing how to handle this delicate plant to prevent it from becoming damaged.

Note, harvesting can be akin to pruning basil, so you may want to combine the two jobs in one. 

‘When it is growing strongly you can harvest the basil,’ continues Hann. ‘Pinch out the main stem to encourage the growth of side shoots. Pinching out the tips will also prevent flowering, which is important because some flavor is lost if the plant runs to seed.’

How do you pick basil without killing the plant?

You can pick basil without killing the plant. In fact, do it right and you can make your basil plant bigger and bushier, too. 

‘Start from the top of the stem and work your way down until you find a spot where two sets of new leaves are growing. Just above this intersection is where you cut using scissors or gardening shears. 

'Later in the season, when you have more branches, repeat this process on each branch. Always cutting the top crown,’ advises professional home economist Getty Stewart (opens in new tab)

Do you pick basil from the top or bottom?

Always pick from the top down of your basil plant. You can cut or pinch out leaves to around a third down always doing so above two new leaves; this will ensure your basil continues to grow. 

‘Be sure to leave some large leaves toward the bottom of the plant, at least two sets of leaves. These are the plant’s solar panels and are necessary for the plant to convert the sun’s rays into the energy it needs to continue to grow,' says home economist Getty Stewart.

How long will basil last after you start harvesting?

How long a basil plant lasts really depends on your climate, whether you are growing the plant under cover or outside and how frequently you harvest the leaves. A tender annual, basil will easily flower and run to seed if left unattended. Once this happens the parent plant will then die off.

Can you store or freeze basil?

You can store and freeze basil after harvesting, and there are few different techniques to try. Blitzing or pounding the leaves with oil, salt and parmesan to make a pesto is one easy option, that needs very little preparation. 

Another method is to blanch whole leaves – popping them into boiling water for two or three seconds before plunging them into ice water. You will then need to drain them and place between greaseproof paper before freezing. Once frozen, delicate basil leaves will darken and lose their bright green color, but the flavor will still be present.

Jill Morgan
Jill Morgan

Jill Morgan has spent the last 20 years writing for Interior and Gardening magazines both in print and online. Titles she has been lucky enough to work on include House Beautiful, The English

Home, Ideal Home, Modern Gardens and Gardeningetc.com. Although much of her career has involved commissioning and writing about reader homes and home improvement projects, her

everlasting passion is for gardens and outdoor living, which is what she writes about for Homes & Gardens.