How to Harvest Basil Without Killing the Plant?

Not only do fresh basils work wonders as food condiments, regularly harvesting them helps to keep the plant strong and healthy.

However, the fun may be short-lived when you trim the leaves improperly, pushing back their growth.

Therefore, practicing safe harvesting basil will prevent plant damage and encourage healthy growth for years.

Harvest basil leaf by trimming 1/4 of an inch above the leaf node to prevent damaging the node. Pick leaves from different sections, leaving at least one-leaf pair in each stem to prevent lanky limbs.

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Freshly cut basil leaves
Freshly cut basil leaves (Source: Pixabay)

Many unaware growers may empty an entire stem, pick up young leaves, or accidentally cut the leaf nodes, causing the untimely death of their plant.

Read on if you are one of those young growers looking to harvest basil plants without worrying about doing any damage.

Best Time to Harvest Basil

The right time to pick basil leaves is essential because picking young leaves may push the plant’s growth back.

A stressed plant is less likely to give new foliage or survive the severe weather, causing its untimely demise.

Wait until the plant is mature enough to grow lush foliage. Picking them in spring will guarantee juicy leaves and encourage growth throughout the summer.

Remember, basils are ready to pick around eight weeks after planting the seed.

Harvest a mature plant as soon as they reach 6 to 8 inches tall, and each stem contains around 8-pairs of good-sized leaves.

For potted basil plants, consider picking at around six weeks after planting or when the pot is covered with thick foliage.

Basil Leaves ready to be harvested
Potted Basil plant ready to be harvested (Source: Pixabay)

Attempting to harvest a few young, nimble leaves will likely empty the stem, causing a lean, uneven growth.

Quick Tip: The plant will start leafing out, with 2-3 inches, bright green leaves, once temperatures hit 80°F (27°C) in the growing season. .

Ensure to harvest early morning, when the dew has set and the leaves are at their freshest.

Picking early morning also encourages the plant to use sunlight and the warm temperature of the day to repair the fresh cuts.

Although winter harvesting of leaves is very much possible, consider keeping it to pruning the plant for healthy growth instead of consumption.

If you use basil leaves around the year, consider drying and storing them for up to six months without worrying about offsetting their nutritional benefits.

Things to Remember Before Harvesting Basil Leaves

Here are some vital things to remember before harvesting basil leaves.

1. Wait for the Right Time

  • Wait until your plant reaches 6 inches (15 cm) to 8 inches (20 cm) tall.
  • You can start harvesting the leaves when the tallest part of the plant has reached 6 inches.
  • However, do not let your plant exceed 8 inches (20 cm) before trimming it.
  • Use a measuring tape or ruler to determine whether they have reached their mature height.

2. Pay Special Attention to the Leaves

  • The healthy leaves look light to mild dark green with 2-3 inches in length (The size of leaves may depend on the basil variety).
  • Prune off the leaves that are yellowing or browning, but avoid using them for consumption.
  • Avoid harvesting leaves with severely twisted stems, or look wilted and stunted, indicating the onset of plant diseases.
Basil Plant with Green Leaves
Mature Basil Plant with lush, green Leaves (Source: Unsplash)

How to Harvest Basil Without Damaging it?

As mentioned before, the improper or untimely cutting of leaves will cause severe damage to the plant.

The improperly cut plant will continue to grow tall and leggy, while picking up young leaves or cutting off leaf nodes may push back the growth entirely.

Therefore, be wary about harvesting basil leaves incorrectly.

Here are two basic ways to harvest Basil without killing the plant.

1. Harvesting in Small Quantities

Harvesting basil for a few leaves is relatively more straightforward.

All you need to do is wait for the foliage to open in spring and pinch off a few healthy-looking leaves from the top.

Pick the Leaves

Use your finger to pinch off the stalk 1/4 of the inch above the node. Then, gently pull away from the entire leaf from the stem.

Be gentle to avoid tearing or damaging the branches. Pick leaves from the different sections of the plant to encourage even growth.

Beware About Cutting the Leaf Node

A damaged leaf node will fail to give new growth and make the stem look emptier. In addition, the cut wound on the nodes often becomes prey to various plant diseases.

Use a Pruning Tool

Alternatively, you can use a pruning shear or scissor to cut off leaves at the exact axis point to prevent cutting damage.

You can also use a small pair of scissors, but be very careful not to cut the stem while doing so.

2. Harvesting in Large Quantities

Harvesting a large number of leaves may be slightly tricky because excessive cutting can adversely affects the plant’s health.

When harvesting a more significant amount, consider the plant’s long-term health.

Use a Top-Down Method

Always harvest leaves from the top to down; pick more from the top and less from the bottom. Use your fingers or pruning shear, as per your need.

Never Empty the Stem

Avoid removing entire leaves from a stem as it encourages lanky stem growth.

Leave at least one-leaf pair at the bottom of a stem when harvesting encourages further growth.

Alternatively, you can harvest the entire stem by strategically cutting it above the ground, similar to pruning.

Prune your Plant

Ensure to prune the stem 3-inches above the ground and cut 1/4 inches above the stem nodes to encourage the plant to divert nutrients to this stub and away from smaller shoots that need them.

Always prune the outer stems and leave them as they are, promoting a neat-looking plant.

This harvesting practice will remove the outer layer, leaving smaller shoots underneath to receive more sunlight.

Once removed, you can harvest all the leaves from the stem.

How to Harvest Basil to Promote Growth?

A simple trimming may double your basil harvest by turning single stems into multiple stems.

Did you know trimming your basil plant while harvesting the leaves encourages side shoots and bushier foliage?

Regular harvesting of leaves may be helpful for personal use, but it is less likely to help increase the foliage or overall plant.

Harvesting some of the leaves and trimming the stems will encourage bushier growth.

Here are a few ways to prune back the plant for healthier growth.

1. Cut the Overgrowing Stems

  • Start with inspecting the plant to locate lanky stems that need cutting.
  • Remove just a few stems or cut the plant back by a third to encourage healthier growth.
  • Always cut the stem 3-inches above the ground to prevent setbacks.
  • Harvest basil from the top-down, cutting off up to half of the total stem length.
Overarching Basil stem on the right
Overarching Basil stem on the right (Wikimedia)

2. Trimming Bushier Stems

  • Trim stems to reduce thick foliage to let the sunlight reach inner stems.
  • You want to cut central stems back to a lower set of leaves where two tiny leaf buds emerge from the leaf axil. They’re pretty easy to spot.
  • Pinch the central stem back by half and approximately 14 inches above the leaf axils once they are 6-8 inches tall.
  • Once you decide where you’re going to trim, cut the main stem about a quarter-inch above the leaf buds.
  • Cut right above a leaf pair, but do not leave a bare stem section at the top.
  • It will ensure to keep the form of the plant more dense and compact with branching stems and leaves close together.
  • Additionally, regular pruning the top of stems will discourage your basil plant from flowering.

How to Store Harvested Basil?

The best thing about the basil plant is that you can use every bit of the harvest by properly storing it.

Dry and infuse them into olive oil, freeze them into tiny ice cubes, or keep them in airtight Ziploc to keep them preserved.

The fresh-cut basil leaves will last up to 6 months when dried and properly stored, but they may only last two days when left in a paper towel.

Here is how you can adequately store basil leaves.

1. Drying the Basil

Start with picking fresh leaves and give them an excellent rinse under the tap water.

  • Leave them on a baking sheet and let them dry slowly in the oven at 35°C (95°F).
  • Open and close the oven door a few times to let the steam out.
  • Alternatively, you can use an electric air dryer to dry up basil leaves.
  • You can also naturally dry them in an airy, shady place like an attic room but make sure you are not drying any other vegetables alongside it.
  • Once dried, you can put them in an airtight Ziploc bag or plastic container and use them for up to a few weeks.
Harvested basil leaves
Harvested Basil leaves left out for drying (Source: Unsplash)

2. Blanche and Freeze the Leaves

Freezing the fresh produce is another yet effective way to store basil leaves for a long time.

  • Put the freshly cut basil leaves into a pot of boiling water for five to ten seconds before removing them.
  • Transfer them to a large bowl with water and ice and keep them still for a few minutes.
  • Remove the leaves and lay them out flat on a paper towel before storing them in the freezer, or keep them inside a Ziploc bag before storing.

3. Make Basil Ice Cubes

Start with harvesting the fresh Basil and thoroughly wash them under tap water.

  • Let them dry and finely cut them into tiny pieces.
  • Alternatively, you can process them in a mixture.
  • Now, add them to an ice cube tray with enough olive oil to cover, and freeze them in sub-zero temperature before transferring them to a freezer bag for prolonged storage.
Basil ice cubes
Basil ice cubes (Source: Amazon)

4. Infuse them into Olive Oil

Infusing fresh basil leaves into olive oil is another effective way to store and use Basil to add to meals.

You can drizzle the oil over heirloom tomatoes, pizza, grilled eggplants, and other items.

  • Bring saltwater to a boil and blanch basil leaves for about 5 seconds before adding them into ice water,
  • Once cooled, remove the leaves and place them on a paper towel to dry.
  • Now, puree Basil with olive oil in a food processor and season with salt and pepper.
  • Strain the oil through a mesh and place the filtered solution into a refrigerated jar.
Basil leaves into olive oil
Storing Basil leaves into olive oil (Source: Unsplash)

FAQs About Harvesting Basil

Here are answers to a few commonly asked questions about harvesting basil.

1. Do You Pick Basil from the Top or Bottom?

You should always pick basil leaves from top to bottom.

It allows picking the freshest leaves that are usually on the top.

Moreover, picking the topmost leaves facilitates the plant’s vertical growth but ensure picking leaves from each section of the plant for even harvesting.

Picking leaves from a single stem will leave it empty, causing lanky growth.

2. Do Basil Leaves Grow Back?

When you pick a basil leaf, you encourage the leaf nodes to grow back exponentially.

A single leaf node may grow out multiple leaves after pruning, doubling, or even tripling the produce.

However, ensure to pick them right without damaging the leaf node.

Pinch the leaf 1/4 inch above the leaf node to prevent damages.

3. How Long Does Freshly Cut Basil Last?

When you leave the fresh Basil cut out in the open, it will last only about 24 hours to 2 days before losing its aroma.

When properly stored, it can last from days to 6+ months.

Well-preserved Basil will offer the same nutritional benefits as fresh basils, but it may start losing aroma over time.

Preparing basil leaves to make sauce
Preparing basil leaves to make a sauce (Source: Pexels)


Whether growing Basil for harvest or simply decoration, it is always best to prune back leaves to encourage healthier foliage.

Pruning basil is a Win-Win! Unlike other houseplants, you can use the pruned basil leaves for various purposes.

However, proper storage of freshly cut leaves is essential to ensure their longevity without losing nutritional value.

Please refer to the storage guide mentioned above to preserve your fresh harvests.

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