Six Tips for Easy Basil Plant Care
I love basil, especially the good ol’ homegrown stuff. To me, garden-fresh basil is the taste of summer.
I have rows and rows of basil in my pollinator garden. I grow it in containers. I plant it anywhere I can, and you can do the same. Basil is easy to start from seed, it grows prolifically, and you can keep coming back to harvest more each week.
Here are six tips on how to grow and harvest your basil to encourage more leaf growth and get the most out of each plant.
Tip number one
Harvest from Your Basil Plants Regularly
Basil tends to grow tall and narrow and produce flower spikes quickly. Our goal, however, is to get big, bushy basil plants because a bushy plant equals more basil leaves. You can encourage this herb to branch out and be bushier through careful harvesting. (Some people call it pinching off, some people call it pruning, but I just call it harvesting and eating it because that's what we're gonna do.)
It’s best to work harvesting (and eating) into your schedule once a week or so as soon as your basil plant is established, for as long as it’s still growing. I like to harvest on Saturdays or Sundays.
Tip number two
Use a Clean Pair of Pruners to Harvest Your Basil Leaves
I use needle nose pruners, but you can also use a sharp pair of scissors or snips. Clean them with a little bit of rubbing alcohol before you head out to harvest to avoid transferring disease or fungus or anything gross to your beautiful basil plants.
Tip number three
Harvest Your Basil Plants at the Right Time of Day
The morning is the best time to harvest leafy greens and herbs from your garden. They’ll have more water in their leaves, they’ll taste sweeter, and they’ll preserve easier.
Also, make sure that your plants aren’t wet. If you’ve had some rain or if your sprinkler has sprayed your plants, wait until the leaves have completely dried before you come out to harvest and prune your plants.
Tip number four
Encourage Your Basil to Grow New Stems
When harvesting from your basil plant, avoid cutting too deep, like all the way down to the soil level. Always leave some green so the plant can keep on producing. Those big leaves near the bottom of your plant might look like the most tempting ones to take for tonight's pesto, but the plant really needs those leaves for energy.
The goal is to instead focus on the top of the plant and encourage each branch to fork.
To do that, find a leaf node (where leaves or stems are attached directly opposite from each other) and cut right above that. When you come back next week or the week after, you'll be able to tell where you've harvested from your herb before because you'll now see two new stems branching from the original.
You can keep encouraging your plant to branch out more and more throughout the basil growing season by using this harvesting method.
In the picture below, you can see where I just made a cut in the picture above. I'm taking the tops off of each stem just above the leaf nodes to encourage two new branches.
Tip number five
Pinch Off Basil Flowers Until You Want Basil Seeds
Harvesting regularly can help you to prevent your basil from going to seed and cease producing leaves. Flower heads come at the end of the basil’s lifecycle, but we can slow the seed head formation process and redirect the plant’s energy to leaf production by pruning the flowers, also called pinching them off.
At the end of the season, you can let your plants go to flower and get tons of basil seeds for next year. (Here's how to save your own basil seeds.)
Tip number six
Grow Basil in the Right Conditions
You can harvest your basil plants perfectly every time, but you still won't be able to maximize your leaf production if you're growing basil in less-than-ideal conditions.
Basil likes to grow when the temperatures are mostly in the warm season, so above 60 degrees, all the way up to super hot temperatures. Basil can handle the heat. It likes plenty of water but does not appreciate being over-watered and having wet roots. Make sure your plant gets lots of sunlight so it feels like it's back at home in the sun-drenched Mediterranean.
If your plant starts to produce flowers, that’s your basil plant signaling to you that it’s a little stressed out, which usually means it’s not growing in its optimal conditions. Add a bit of compost around the base of the plant to ensure it has the nutrients it needs.
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Now It's Time to Use Up All Those Basil Leaves
The best part about harvesting all of this basil? It’s not to throw away or toss on the compost. We get to bring it inside and use it year round.
On harvest days, I try to use up as much of the basil as possible. My family will have a caprese salad for lunch, maybe pizza or pesto on noodles for dinner. This easy herb garden flatbread is another family favorite.
... Or Store Your Basil Leaves for Later
Whatever you don’t use right away can be dried, which is the simplest way to store your excess herbs. Hang the stems upside down in a cool, dry place and let them dry over a few weeks before storing. Dried basil can add a little taste of summer to winter dishes.
Alternatively, you could turn your basil into an oil to use on pasta by cooking it down and then blending it with an oil (like EVOO, avocado oil, grape seed oil, etc.). Store your blend in the freezer. My mom likes to pour her oil and basil into ice cube molds for easy defrosting later. Of course, if you’re into canning, you could always preserve your basil for later.
So, my friends, basil has so many different uses in the kitchen, and, again, growing herbs is one of the simplest ways to get started in your own kitchen garden. Once you find quick success growing basil, you’ll be excited to branch out to other herbs (check out four other herbs that are easy to start from seed), leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits.
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