Good Question: When Can I Harvest My Basil?

One of the most frequent questions we've noticed during Garden Month is a general one about cutting herbs. Since herbs are one of the easiest things to grow indoors or in a container, we expect that many of you have small pots of basil, rosemary, or other herbs.

But several of you have wondered something like this:

A lot of my recipes require fresh herbs. But I hesitate to cut too much off my herbs for fear of killing them. How can you harvest enough herbs to cook with without harming your plant?Also, there was this similar question: How soon after my herbs begin to grow can I begin to use them. I'm afraid to cut them too soon, but I'm anxious to use them.

We're going to just choose basil as a common example, but each herb differs. Google "harvesting [herb here]" to find some answers on other herbs.

Basil is one that we find actually benefits from frequent cuttings. When we leave it alone it gets tall and leggy and stretched out. Cutting helps it spread out sideways and develop healthy green leaves.

There are lots of answers on when you can actually start cutting your young plants; we looked to the Herb Society of America to help straighten us out and they had lots of conflicting advice too: Basil Harvesting at the Herb Society. Some sources say wait until the plant is 12" tall; others say wait until it has developed a few sets of leaves.

We start our basil from small seedlings; we rarely start it from seed. The small, young plants you usually get at the nursery are usually ready almost immediately for some plucking. Using scissors or your fingers, pinch off the top couple inches of stalk and leaves. Don't level the plant down to the ground, but feel free to raze off much of the top of the plant. Leave it for a week between cuttings when it's young, but you should find it growing back quickly.

As it gets strong and robust, spreading out with many shoots and stalks, you can cut off several cups of leaves at once, always snipping the whole stalk - not just the leaves.

Also, make sure you snip off any flowers that you see as the summer progresses; if you leave these the plant will go to seed and get woody and tough.

Here's a photo of our plants from last week, before any pruning or cutting:

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Now, after we took enough basil for a couple pizzas this weekend:

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You can see we were in a hurry! The stalks aren't well trimmed. Also, we could have taken substantially more - down another level of shoots at least.

Any more tips for harvesting basil?

Related: How To: Make a One-Pot Indoor Herb Garden

(Images: Faith Hopler)

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