How to prune basil for the longest, most abundant harvest ever: a game changer!

how to prune basil

Here’s a clipping from my licorice basil. I think the flowers–also edible, of course–are so pretty.

Sometimes I think about my life before abundant basil (or BAB) . . . Truly it was a sad, colorless time for me. Just a few years ago, for example, I still tried to plant basil in my garden by sowing seeds, in May. *blank stare of incomprehension* If I was lucky–very lucky, gentle reader–three or four plants might germinate, despite my haphazard methods. But I wasn’t even aware of my basil-growing ineptitude at that point. I figured it was difficult for everybody to grow more than just a plant or two at a time.

I would pinch the leaves of the rare few plants that I managed to grow, breathing in the sweet scent of this gorgeous herb, and do a happy basil dance. Little did I know that I was the victim of basil-growing ignorance and also had low (very low) expectations. After all . . . I love basil! It smells so wonderful. It’s great on pizza, in sauces and, of course, is essential to pesto-making, which (of course) is essential to summertime joy. And fall satisfaction. And wintertime coziness. And so forth.

Pesto on pasta. Pesto in soups. Pesto on homemade bread, or crackers when the bread is all gone. Pesto for the freezer for winter pesto-noshing. Yes to pesto. All the time. Yes, yes, yes.

(And, actually–now that I think of it–you can make pesto with all types of green leaves–I’ve made it with nettles and kale, for example, but I doubt I’m the only person on the earth who believes that pesto made with basil is the best-o.)

But back to the garden story I was telling. πŸ™‚ . . . Everything would be just hunky dory, in my basil-fueled happiness, until one day when I’d be strolling past the (admittedly teensy) basil patch, and I’d stop in my tracks. Horrified. My basil had sent up flowers! Yikes! I had read that basil didn’t taste good after it had gone to seed, and so you should keep it from flowering if at all possible, by cutting back the plant before it flowered. (How to anticipate that magic day of flowering was never explained to me, alas.) Lost! All was lost. Apparently.

Extremely disappointed in my slacker self in the basil-growing department, I’d trudge back to the house, knowing that I had blown it again. Because, according to what I’d read, the basil was no longer worth eating. Drat! No more lovely basil-laced meals. NO MORE PESTO. My basil plants, it was clear, were toast. Why could I not grow basil properly?? Why was it so difficult for me?

Fast forward a few years, to the current season. Since those unenlightened years, I’ve learned a lot (through doing, doing some more, reading some good gardening books, and hanging out with my mentor and other farmer types).Β  Today I have easily a hundred beautiful basil plants growing in my garden. Probably more. πŸ™‚ My primary garden (where I planted basil last year, and the year before) even had volunteer basil plants of several varieties pop up (some I transplanted elsewhere, some I pulled): testament to my shoddy fall garden clean-up, or simple good fortune to my basil-loving nature? (You decide.) I grow several varieties every year now. This year I have lemon, anise, Blue Spice, Genovese Red Freddy, Thai, and lime. I harvest a lot of basil for my chef customers in the city, but I also harvest quite a lot for my own use. Happy basil dances all the day long, gentle reader. And sometimes into the night.

how to harvest basil

Here’s my basil bed this season.

There are a couple of simple tips I’ve learned that spell out the difference between basil-growing success and ignominious basil-growing failure. Actually, three. The first is very simple: I sow the basil seeds during the wintertime (I think this year I started in January) in flats like these (they come in lots of sizes) in the house, under fluorescent lights, in an embarrassingly tacky corner of our basement. This works so much better than scattering them willy-nilly in a garden row come May. By planting-out time (mid-May here, usually) I have hundreds of sturdy little basil plants, which stand a much better chance of surviving the vagaries of our eccentric Nebraska spring weather than vulnerable germinating seeds.

The second is: I don’t refrigerate my basil after it is harvested. Basil doesn’t like cold. Many refrigerators are simply too cold for basil and the leaves will turn black, or at least get black around the edges. I harvest my basil straight into a plastic bag (clipping off any leaves with bug damage and the bigger stems) and then give it a spritz of fresh water. It stays on my counter top, and will stay fresh this way, at room temperature, for a week or two. Incredible, but it’s true!

The third tip is the real game changer, if you grow basil and want to have as much of it as possible through the growing season. It’s so simple, though few people seem to know this: you have to harvest and prune it correctly. I didn’t have a clue myself that I was harvesting my basil incorrectly until my mentor Gene took the time to demonstrate the correct way to do it. He’s kind of an smart-alecky herb guy, so I followed him blindly in this matter, of course. πŸ™‚

how to harvest basil

Licorice basil on the left, and a newbie to my garden this summer–Genovese Red Freddy basil on the right.

I’ve been pruning and harvesting my basil this way every since, and my basil patch is lush, beautiful, and ridiculously abundant. Embarrassingly beautiful, if I do say so myself. πŸ™‚ I do have a lot of plants, but even if I had just a few, I’d have a bountiful supply because the more you prune a basil plant, the bigger and bushier it gets! It’s supply and demand, baby.

Here’s how. Once your basil plant gets to be 6″ tall or taller, take your nippers (these are my favorite) and cut the middle stem that comes up between two sets of leaves. It’s quite satisfying, trust me. I cut out a nice big piece of one of my basil plants to demonstrate this. Below is the segment before being pruned. Just pretend that this plant is still in the ground. Are you with me?

You see that there are three main stems coming up from the main trunk of the plant? I’m going to cut the middle stem out. The two side stems will continue to grow, and will make the plant bushier and more beautiful. Trust me on this.

how to prune basil

Here’s before . . . .

The plant that is left behind has two major stems now. The stem that I cut out I will continue to harvest for my own use.

how to prune basil

The two stems left will grow up nice and bushy, and then you can prune them back the same way. . . and so on, and on, and on . . . the more you harvest and prune, the bigger and bushier your plants will become. And basil plants grow very quickly, so you’ll never be without basil again.

Well . . .until the first frost. Basil is usually about the first thing to succumb to frost in the fall. As I mentioned earlier, basil doesn’t like cold.

how to prune basil

Can you see how I continued to prune this plant? I took off the flower spikes, and cut out the middle stems of each of the clusters of stems at the top of the plant, too. I kinda get obsessed with pruning. I have to watch myself.

I do clip off the flower spikes as the plants send them up. It stands to reason that if the plant is flowering, it will decide that its job is done, and we want to keep it believing that there is still good reason to live, right? And live abundantly!

Lazy pro tip:Β If I find myself with a squajillion basil plants covered with flower spikes and only 5 minutes, say, before my soap opera begins (harhar), I take my hedge shearsΒ  and do a quick haircut. Or, hmm, herbcut. It takes me about 2 minutes to do, instead of 200 (which is how long it would take me to cut each one individually, even if I’m doing it with my favorite pair of nippers).

how to prune basil

Here’s what my basil looks like (on the right) when I’ve finished harvesting it for myself or for my chef customers. The little pile of stems and bug-tasted leaves and flowers will go to the chooks.

So that’s it! Three quick, simple tips on how to better care for your basil patch so you never, ever run out of basil again. At least until the weather turns cold, and by that time hopefully you’ve squirreled away enough pesto for the winter.

how to prune basil

Here’s how my basil harvest sits on my countertop. Very smug. Very incognito. Just so.

Here, by the way, is my go-to pesto recipe. I don’t usually use pine nuts (being a tightwad) but I like it with walnuts or cashews, very lightly toasted. And I feel cute if I freeze it in the tiniest little jam jars (like these) though you, of course, might be of a more practical bent and freeze it in zippered freezer bags or in ice cube trays (then popped into freezer bags).

Ingredients:

  1. 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed (can sub half the basil leaves with baby spinach)
  2. 1/2 cup freshly grated Romano or Parmesan-Reggiano cheese (about 2 ounces)
  3. 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.
  4. 1/3 cup pine nuts (can sub chopped walnuts)
  5. 3 garlic cloves, minced (about 3 teaspoons)

And how you make it: Roughly chop basil leaves and nuts. Chop together in blender or food processor basil, cheese, nuts and garlic. Slowly pour in the olive oil and blend until it’s the consistency you deem perfect.

how to harvest basil

There ya go, gentle reader. If you learned something new and/or helpful today in this post, could I ask you a favor? Make a comment below, or share with your friends, or even better, do both. Since my blog was briefly commandeered by Russian hackers, Google has not been trusting it and I have to do some things to win back the esteem that vomitingchicken.com once had. I’ll have to ask for your help with this, and thank you in advance!

*hugs*

32 thoughts on “How to prune basil for the longest, most abundant harvest ever: a game changer!

  1. Diane Young Decker

    I have commited basil-icide so many times in my life and did not know why! Now, with no garden, I learn what I did wrong. Thanks, Amy my dear! That basil pesto recipe had me drooling!

  2. Liz

    How did you know I needed this today! I was out harvesting a bit of basil to take to work with me just this afternoon and found myself wondering if I was doing it correctly. Thanks for sharing!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      You are welcome, Liz! I wish I would have known these tips when I was your age. I have murdered many a basil plant, for sure, over my lifetime of gardening!

  3. Mari

    Basil is my go-to companion plant! This year it is growing with my tomatoes. Not only do they seem to like each other; the basil has taken over. Not the tomatoes, of course, since they are heirloom indeterminates and are growing up over the trellis! They have shaded the roots of the tomatoes so well. I just love to brush up against it as I harvest my tomatoes. Thanks for the tip, Amy. I will now have even more beautiful basil. However, I think this year it has gotten away from me and I doubt even the most judicious pruning will work. I will give it a try, though.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Good luck, dear Mari! I’ve left a lot of my volunteer basils, too, just because I like the way they look and smell, AND the bees like them. (Oh, *swoon* Blue Spice Basil honey. I can’t imagine anything sweeter than that!)

  4. Chef William

    Love Basil but not to the extent of making it look like a runaway mint patch. We have a couple of plants and that is about it for the basil. Rosemary is my go-to favorite herb but we do make a great Kombucha flavored with ginger and basil. Great pictures by the way. And yes, I had heard thru the grape vine or a basil plant that the Russian hackers had picked your farm to zero in on for research. Next thing you know the Donald will be allowing duty free Basil imports from Russia, and we know where they learned to grow it.

  5. Sarah

    Great tips, Amy!! I had no idea how to prune, nor how to store it, properly. I learn so much from your blog, Amy! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Gene Gage

    Amy – you forgot to mention that weather can play a big role in how abundant (or not) your basil is in a particular year. This has been a perfect basil year in SE Nebraska – hot and sunny and steamy with plenty of moisture in late spring. If we get a cool, cloudy May/early June, the plants can/will be wimpy and sparse.

    I compared the Red Freddy you gave me last week with the Purple Petra I planted this year and Freddy is indeed a darker purple and more robust than Petra. Let’s share a packet of Red Freddy seeds next January.

    Here’s a tip for you and your readers: If you like simple vinaigrettes (sp?) for dressing your salads, save all the basil flowers you snip off – especially the purple ones – and toss them into a 1/2 gal clear glass jar of ordinary distilled vinegar along with a few Red Freddy leaves and leave to steep in the garage or some other warm shady place. Add flowers and leaves every week as you prep your chef orders. In September or October, decant into another clean jar using a fine sieve first, and then an ordinary coffee filter. The result is the most beautiful rose-colored – and heavenly smelling vinegar – you can imagine. If you do it early enough – while your basil is still producing – put a sprig of Red Freddy into something like a 1 pint Mason jar, fill the jar with the filtered vinegar, add one of your fancy hand-lettered labels and bingo, you have a lovely Christmas gift! I have made 5 gallons of this Basil Blossom Vinegar every year since 1985 and every household in my multitudinous family, as well as a handful of friends get a bottle of it for Christmas, along with packages of dried Herbs de Provence and Tuscan Herbs. Simple gifts, indeed. (I’ll even share an electronic copy of a little booklet I did many years ago called “Vinaigrettes and Marinades With Herbed Vinegar” so you can print your own gift cards.

    Hmmm – you wanna do this as a mentoring project this fall? Let me know and I’ll order a couple dozen 375ml wine bottles for the finished product. I’ll try to find some photos of past years’ efforts and send them to you.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Yes, yes, yes, Gene! I’d love to do this, make herbal vinegars. They would be really sweet Christmas gifts, indeed! In fact that would make a really nice addition to my shop this fall, I think, too. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ I’m in!!

  7. Sharon H

    Whoa….I wanna be friends with Gene too! I’m only half kidding, Amy….
    This was a great post and I keep thinking I’m going to dedicate portions of my garden space to Garlic and certain herbs….maybe next year!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Sharon . . . get in line, my dear. Get in line! I’ve got a lotta folks quietly (and some not-so-quietly) jealous of my friendship with Gene. He’s a smart fella with a big heart, and I’m really privileged to be one of his friends.

  8. Charlotte

    The previous owner of my house left us, so I thought, two varieties of mint. But now I wonder if one of those is actually basil. I’ve always seen different varieties, but your pictures look like what I have. Maybe fresh pesto is in my future!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      yum! If you could send me a picture, I might be able to help? Although pinching and tasting the leaves ought to be a better hint. Good luck! There are hundreds of kinds of mint, and scores of types of basil!

  9. M.

    Amy, this is most helpful. Despite bugs, the basil here in South Jersey is still going strong. I think I can employ this method for the plants still producing.

    About Gene’s booklet, “Vinaigrettes and Marinades With Herbed Vinegar”, is there any way I can purchase a copy?

    Thank you for this, another excellent, uplifting post. Have a lovely day and God bless.

  10. Janet Dugan

    I missed out on the last few posts – was it the evil Russians? I was busy and didn’t take the time to check your blog.
    I’m glad to find you are still posting!
    Thanks for the basil talk and recipes. You and your family will be in my prayers.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Janet, the Ruskies have been hard at work trying to mess up my coding, but I’ve got my IT guy and brilliant son on their trail! Ha! I think everything is cleaned up and working now. It’s nice to hear from you, as always!

  11. cookinmom

    Your the BEST! Thank you for all your garden secrets! I use all of them including onions in 3’s etc. I have passed this along to friends & they say it works great! Care to share your potting soil mix for seedlings?!? I’m hunting for something inexpensive & easy, haha!

    Congrats on your little ducklings!
    Happy Gardening!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Hmmm Rose, I have been buying a commercial quantity of germination mix, and then I add a little perlite to it to make it lighter. So I don’t really have a recipe, sorry! I used to mix up my own, but it just got to be too much to do.

  12. Becky

    Now I’m missing my old garden from before we moved. I could harvest my basil with a 1/2 bushel basket every week. Ahhh, those were the days. I’m looking forward to using your tips next year. Maybe I can get it right again with a little help!

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