Nothing tastes better than freshly harvested basil used to create homemade pestos or cocktails. Buying prepackaged or dried basil at your local store for culinary use is an option, but it rarely provides the same amount of flavor and nutrition that homegrown herbs do. In any case, the act of harvesting fresh produce offers its own sweet rewards.
By growing and harvesting basil in your own herb garden, you’re 100% guaranteed freshness, the satisfying “I grew that” feeling, and a sweeter taste to boot.
Here’s our complete guide to basil — including growing care and when and how to harvest basil.
Facts About Basil
- Basil is a member of the mint family and native to southern Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. There are over 20 basil varieties, each with a unique and interesting flavor and scent.
- Basil is famous for its aromatic scent. In scientific terms, this is due to the fragrant molecule called eugenol, which is responsible for basil’s spicy overtones reminiscent of cloves and cinnamon.
- The plant produces essential oils in its leaves, which vary in their composition. Depending on the basil species, the leaves may smell anise-like, with a pungent sweet scent.
- Many basil varieties produce scents that mirror their name: lemon basil, for example, presents a lemon fragrance. The various basils have different scents because each cultivar has a different amount of essential oils in its leaves.
Today, we’ll focus on how to harvest sweet basil since it’s the most popular variety to grow, but there is delicious merit in all the varieties. See a list of the most popular basil types below, which Gardenuity happens to sell…
Basil Large Leaf:
- Flavor Profile: The classic sweet and aromatic basil flavor that is widely associated with Italian cuisine. It has a slightly peppery undertone and a mild licorice-like note.
- Common Uses: Perfect for making traditional basil pesto, caprese salads, tomato-based sauces, and as a garnish for various dishes.
- Flavor Profile: A compact basil variety with a milder flavor compared to other types. It offers a more delicate, subtle taste with less pronounced anise undertones.
- Common Uses: Often used as an ornamental plant due to its compact growth habit, but can still be used in dishes where a milder basil flavor is desired.
Emerald Towers Basil:
- Flavor Profile: This basil variety boasts a strong aroma with a slightly spicy and peppery taste. It has a unique combination of sweet and spicy notes.
- Common Uses: Great for adding a bold basil flavor to dishes and sauces. It can be a flavorful addition to salads, sandwiches, and marinades.
- Flavor Profile: Widely considered the classic basil variety used in traditional Italian cooking. It has a strong and sweet aroma with a rich, slightly spicy flavor.
- Common Uses: Ideal for making authentic pesto, adding to pasta dishes, and as a flavorful topping for pizzas.
Holy Basil (Tulsi):
- Flavor Profile: Holy Basil has a strong, distinct aroma with hints of clove and pepper. It has a slightly spicy and peppery taste, making it unique among basil varieties.
- Common Uses: Highly regarded in Indian cuisine and traditional Ayurvedic practices. It’s often used to make herbal teas and medicinal preparations.
Red Rubin Basil:
- Flavor Profile: This basil variety has a similar taste to sweet basil but with a slightly stronger flavor. It also has undertones of cinnamon and a beautiful deep purple color.
- Common Uses: Adds a striking visual appeal to dishes while providing a familiar basil flavor. It can be used in salads, garnishes, and even in herb-infused oils.
- Flavor Profile: Similar to Large Leaf Basil, sweet basil has a classic sweet and aromatic flavor with hints of anise and peppery notes.
- Common Uses: Versatile and commonly used in various cuisines, including Italian, Thai, and Mediterranean. It’s perfect for salads, sauces, and as a pizza topping.
- Flavor Profile: Thai basil has a distinct licorice and anise aroma with a slightly spicy and peppery taste. It offers a more intense and exotic flavor compared to sweet basil.
- Common Uses: Essential in Thai cuisine, particularly in dishes like stir-fries, curries, and noodle dishes. It adds a unique flavor and aroma to Asian-inspired dishes.
Incorporating these diverse basil varieties into your culinary creations can elevate the flavors and add a touch of authenticity to your dishes, whether you’re preparing Italian classics or exploring the vibrant world of international cuisine.
Basil Growing Needs
Basil loves warm weather and is good for tolerating hot weather. This herb needs well-drained and moist soil to stay healthy throughout the season. Water regularly. For all of the info you need on Basil, check out our Basil One Sheet or our how-to water guide to ensure you don’t underwater or overwater your basil.
Pruning and Harvesting Basil
The branching points and nodes at the leaves on your basil plant are made up of meristematic tissue. This tissue holds highly equipped cells that drive new growth. New stems, leaves, and basil flowers originate at these nodes.
When you prune basil, do so just above these nodes or branching points. If you prune midway down a stem, the opportunity for new growth is lost. Similarly, harvesting correctly will encourage new growth and good flavor.
Here are step-by-step instructions on harvesting basil so you can enjoy your plants all season long!
When to Harvest Basil
Harvest basil as soon as you feel satisfied with the size of the leaves. Then, whenever you need it (for a recipe or a décor piece), harvest away. In fact, regular harvests will increase the overall growth and production of the plant.
We especially encourage harvesting basil leaves in the morning. In the morning, basil leaves are at their juiciest, and the essential oils are captured inside the leaves. If you’re not going to use them right away, put them in a glass of tepid water to keep them hydrated until use.
When to Prune Basil
If your plants start to flower, you need to prune them.
When basil grows flower buds, it’s putting energy into making seeds. You want to keep its energy directed on growing vertically and continuing to produce harvests (rather than making seeds), so pinch those flowers off!
This will encourage your plant to grow more foliage (and therefore more fresh eats).
How to Harvest Basil
Look for the two largest leaves on your basil stem. Just below those, you should see another set of leaves or little nodes growing in between the smaller set of leaves. Cut the stem ¼” above the nodes. Repeat this process on other stems.
Harvesting the lead stem of your basil plant sends a message to the smaller leaves that it is now time for them to grow into their own branches and produce their own harvests.
PRO TIP: For every five stems of leaves, begin at the second level of leaves and cut from there up. It may feel odd to cut back your plant, but it’s okay to cut up to ⅓ of the plant — either for harvesting or pruning. It will grow back!
How to Keep Your Basil Harvest Fresh
After harvesting your basil, keep them in a glass of water. Refrigerating fresh basil can make the leaves slimy and, more importantly, cause them to lose some of their sweet flavor.
Keep your bouquet of basil out of direct sunlight and change the water every other day. Like this, your basil will stay fresh for a week or more. You may even see some roots begin to grow — you can replant these stems in your garden!
If you have more basil than you know what to do with, you might want to try drying your basil harvests. Fully dried basil lasts up to a year in your pantry. There are two methods to dry basil: the hanging method or by food dehydrator.
To hang dry your herbs, cut stems about 6 inches long and bundle them together in small bunches. Punch holes in the paper bag and place around each bundle. Hang the basil in a dimly lit room with low humidity and a warm temperature. To dry your basil via a food dehydrator, lay leaves in a single layer on the rack and allow to dry until the machine stops.
If you need some inspiration on recipes to put your basil to good use, check out our blog on basil recipes!