How to Harvest Basil to Bring Fresh Flavor to Your Kitchen

Get the most out of your basil plants with these simple tips.

Growing your own basil is easy to do in a sunny spot, either in the ground or in containers. Then, you can conveniently harvest basil leaves whenever you need to add flavor to your next meal. Plus, growing your own basil costs so much less than buying fresh basil at the grocery store. And you can grow interesting varieties such as Thai basil and lemon basil, which offer exciting flavor differences. Whichever types of basil you choose to add to your garden, the key to getting the most out of this herb is knowing how to harvest basil leaves without damaging or killing the plant. Here's the best way to harvest basil, plus how to store fresh basil.

bunch of basil
Karla Conrad

When to Harvest Basil

Whether you start basil from seeds or buy a young plant, the best time to harvest basil depends on the size of your plant. You'll know the time is right when you see that the plant has unfurled at least four sets of leaves. Your basil plant should be between 6 and 8 inches tall before you harvest its leaves. If you know when the plant was seeded, you can count on the basil being ready for harvest 60 to 70 days later.

The best time of day to harvest basil is in the morning after the dew has evaporated from the plants. And when cold weather arrives again after the summer, make sure to harvest your basil before a frost kills the plant. You can also move your basil plants inside your home to keep them going into winter.

How to Harvest Basil Leaves

Basil is a fast-growing herb that produces plenty of flavorful foliage. When you just need a few, the best way to harvest basil leaves is to pinch off each leaf at their base, where the leaf meets the stem. Start harvesting basil leaves from the top of the plant where more foliage will quickly fill in. If you harvest the bottom leaves first, the plant will likely look lanky and thin. For the most flavorful leaves, harvest them before the flowers appear.

How to Harvest Basil Stems

When you want to harvest more than just a few leaves at a time, you can remove full stems of basil by trimming the plant from the top down with a small pair of scissors. Aim to cut the stems about ¼-inch above a node (the point where the plant's leaves and side shoots emerge). Remove no more than a third of the plant's total height at a time so that you'll be able to harvest more newly developed basil leaves in two to three weeks. To encourage your basil plant to continue growing more leaves throughout the summer, trim away the flower buds before they blossom. Basil cuttings are also easy to root in water to start new plants.

basil types in glass vase
Kim Cornelison

How to Store Fresh Basil

The best way to store fresh basil for a few days is to clip the sprigs and treat them like fresh cut flowers: place them in water at room temperature up to five days. Basil should not be refrigerated because it quickly turns brown in cold temperatures. You can also dry basil leaves and experience them any time of year. Freezing basil is another option if you're looking to add basil at any time to soups, casseroles, breakfast skillets, and more.

How to Use Fresh Basil Leaves

Growing your own basil right outside your door is a must for enjoying this herb's full flavor, either fresh or cooked. After harvesting basil, you can toss a handful of leaves on top of a pizza or garnish your favorite pasta dish. Also, try adding a basil leaf or two to lemonade to make a refreshing treat.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I plant basil?

    The best time to plant basil outdoors is in early spring, approximately 2 weeks after the last frost. You can start seeds indoors 6 weeks before the last frost, but you will want to wait until the soil has reliably warmed to at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit before planting basil in the ground. 

  • How long can a basil plant live?

    Depending on the climate and growing conditions, a basil plant lasts about 4 to 6 months. If the plant is grown indoors (or without the threat of chilly temperatures), it may survive longer. 

  • Will basil grow back if I cut it to the ground?

    Basil will come back if you harvest it properly, but it will not come back if you cut it to the ground. Be sure to prune from the top down and only trim about one-third of the way down to allow the plant to regenerate. 

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