Harvesting Basil

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When it comes to harvesting basil, anytime is a good time. You can begin picking the basil leaves consistently when the plant is 6 inches tall.

In our own garden, we usually can't wait to harvest the first basil leaves because for us, it really symbolizes that summer is right around the corner.  Our first basil leaves of the year are usually muddled and steeped in a pitcher of strawberry lemonade, possibly with a little bit of booze added, depending on the day.

Basil Plant

It's usually best to harvest the leaves at the top of the plant first. Only pick a few leaves at a time off of each plant, depending on the plant's size. The larger the plant, the more leaves that can be harvested. The plant will continue to grow and produce more leaves. You need to leave enough foliage on the basil plants so that they can efficiently produce more leaves. A healthy basil plant will continue to produce leaves throughout the growing season, as long as you keep harvesting.

We find that for the first couple of weeks, we are able to pluck off a couple of leaves from each plant.  Slowly, that amount grows and by the time we've been harvesting for a month or so, we're getting 5 times more leaves than we did at the beginning of the harvest.

Basil leaves are harvested by pinching them off of the stems with your fingers. Simply grab a leaf firmly and pluck it off the plant. The closer the plant is to blooming, the more flavorful the basil leaves will be. If you see a flower bud forming on your basil plant, it's the best time to harvest the leaves. You should also go ahead and pinch off the flower bud - this will help the plant to focus its energy into more leaf production. If you can keep the flowers from forming, more useable basil leaves will be produced.

Lemon Basil

At the first prediction of the first frost in fall, even a mild one, go ahead and harvest all of the remaining basil leaves. At this stage, you can go ahead and pull the entire plant out of the  ground and then trim of the root ball with a pair of garden shears.  After that, you can hang the entire plant upside down to dry if you wish.  It's this time of year that we get most of the basil that we use throughout the winter and spring months.  Up until this point, most of the basil that we pick while the plants are still growing is used for a variety of things.  When the first freeze nears, we pull the plants out of the ground and hang them up in the garage to dry out.  Once the plants are dry, we pluck off the dry leaves and then grind them down into flakes or chop them up and add them to a jar of tomato sauce that we're canning.

After harvesting basil, it can be dried, frozen or eaten fresh. To dry basil, remove the leaves from the stems. Put the leaves in a food dehydrator until they are completely dried out. They can then be chopped up and stored in an airtight bag at room temperature for up to 12 months. Or, if you don't have a food dehydrator, you can hang the basil branches upside down in a protected area like we do in our garage. The leaves will dry out in 10-14 days.

Basil leaves can also be frozen. Place a couple of basil leaves in each segment of an ice cube tray. Fill the tray with water and freeze. Place the ice cubes in a plastic bag. When fresh basil is desired, thaw as many ice cubes as needed.

Basil can also be kept fresh on your kitchen counter for several days. Simply place a cut stem with several leaves on it in a vase of water like you would a flower and pluck the leaves as needed.  This is typically what we do with our sweet basil in the summer time.  We harvest a stem every week or so and keep it in a small vase on the widow sill above our kitchen sink.  We then pluck off the leaves as needed.  We find that when the basil is readily available, we end up using it in all sorts of ways.  Marcus has been known to tuck a few basil leaves in between slices of smoked turkey on a sandwich.  And we'll add chopped basil leaves to things like scrambled eggs or a chef salad.

Now that you're done harvesting basil, it's time for some of our favorite basil recipes.

Greek Basil

Click here for some of our favorite basil recipes

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