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Should I Pick Basil From the Top or Bottom?

Basil is one of the all-time favorite kitchen herbs. It reminds us of sunny summer days, it tastes amazing and smells even better. But how can you pick your basil plant to make the most out of the small, but flavor-packed, leaves?

Should you pick basil from the top or bottom? The best way to pick basil depends on whether if you are trying to facilitate growth, or if you only need a couple of leaves for your home-cooking. If you want to grow your plant, cut the stems near the top of the plant. Each stem will produce multiple ones. Alternatively, pick the leaves from the top down after watering the plant.

Whether you are trying your hand at homemade pesto or in need of a few leaves to add flavor to a frozen pizza, basil is your best friend! Find out what is the proper way to harvest your plant below. Don’t forget to read up the extra tips for more flavorful recipes at the end of this article.

How to Pick Basil for Healthy Growth

So you have been watching your tiny basil sprout growing into a healthy, flourishing plant. While basil gives excellent satisfaction to amateur and professional gardeners, knowing how to harvest it correctly is essential. Here are some suggestions on how to pick the leaves off to facilitate its growth and health.

How does basil grow?

Basil is a widespread plant in many households and can grow to be between 30 and 130 cm (12 to 51 inches) tall. If you are starting from seeds, you should plant them six weeks before the last spring frost in containers filled with moist soils. When moving your baby plant outdoors, keep in mind that:

  • Basil is extremely sensitive to cold
  • Direct midday-like sunlight can be detrimental for the leaves’ health
  • Basil thrives in sheltered areas when planted in moist, fertile soil
  • Each plant should be at least 30cm away from the next
  • You can allow for an acclimatization period
  • You should wait until the temperature of the earth reaches between 10 and 21 degrees Celsius to move your plant outside.

Once you get everything ready for your plant to thrive outdoors, keep it healthy by watering it freely during dry periods and exposing it to sunlight for at least 6 hours a day. Regarding the soil, you should ensure that it is moist, yet well-drained.

If your basil is not growing be sure to check our article on why my basil is not growing.

Pruning basil plants

You won’t be able to enjoy the delicious leaves of your basil plant for long unless you prune it properly! This process encourages healthy growth and branching of herbs as well as other species of plants. Start as soon as your baby plant produces its first six leaves. While not precise, this is a good indicator that your plant is ready for pruning, and you can cut the stem above the second set of leaves. Repeat this process every time you notice each branch to have at least six leaves.

Pruning is also an excellent strategy to prevent early flowering of the plant. If your basil plant grows flowers, the taste of the leaves will diminish and become bitter. Instead, when your plant is about six weeks old, cut off the original, central shoot.

When should I harvest my basil plant?

So you’ve been taking the best care of your plant for a while. Now it’s time to enjoy the fruit (leaves, in this case) of your labor. The best time to start harvesting the leaves is when your plant is at least 15 cm (or 6 in) tall, and outside temperatures reach 27°C (80°F). Indeed, summer is the best time to enjoy your plant’s leaves.

To encourage the plant’s growth throughout summer, make sure you are harvesting it regularly, even if you don’t need the leaves for your cooking. Start working your way through from the top of the plant down. When cutting the stems, ensure that you are cutting just above the leaf nodes, not below. Through this method, you can trim your plant back up to less than half of its current length.

Harvesting a basil plant is different from picking one or two leaves for your daily cooking. Of course, while harvesting, you can store the leaves for later and have them ready when you need them. In any case, this process is essential for the plant’s wellbeing.

How to Pick Basil for Your Recipes

Now the juicy part! One of the best features of basil is that you can help yourself freely to its leaves, without causing any adverse effect on the plant’s health. However, knowing when and how to cut the leaves can help you enjoy more flavorful dishes while protecting your basil sprout’s wellbeing.

What leaves should I pick?

Can you see some flowers starting to form at the top of your plant? It means that this is the best time to pinch a handful of leaves. However, you can follow these instructions at any point!

  • The night before picking your leaves, water the plants throughout. Leaves that have absorbed more water are more likely to last longer after picking.
  • Pinch the leaves with your fingers from the stem. Be extremely gentle during this phase as the leaves can easily break. To reduce the chances of damage, pull the leaves from their petiole, the part that connects it to the main stem.
  • You can opt to use a pair of scissors to avoid damaging the leaves.

You can pick any leaves you prefer, but reaping the top ones can facilitate the growth of the plant. However, ensure you have evenly harvested the plants. If you have more than one plant, pick a few leaves off each one rather than all of them from a single one.

How often can I pick a basil plant’s leaves?

Unlike more substantial harvesting, you can pick a few leaves anytime you need them for your recipes. In this way, you can have fresh herbs for your home cooking while encouraging the plants’ growth. However, if you have harvested some leaves the last time you prune your plant, you can store them for up to a week by placing them in a refrigerated container filled with water.

Extra Tips for More Flavorful Recipes

  • Pick the leaves in the early morning when they still bear traces of dew. The oils that add flavor to the leaves are at their highest levels at this time.
  • If your plant is still young and presents only a few leaves, you can roll them and cut them finely. In this way, you can enjoy enhanced basil flavor in your dishes.
  • If you are growing basil to make pesto, pick the Genovese Basil variety (Basilico Genovese). For this recipe, your harvest will need to be more significant.
  • When pruning your basil leaf, use only sanitized tools. Basil plants can be sensitive to diseases and pests.
  • If you have already moved your basil plant outdoors but expecting a drop in temperatures, make sure to bring it inside, in a spot that receives plenty of sunlight.
  • The leaves of your basil are at their most flavorful when you can see the flowers starting to form. Once the flower has bloomed, the leaves tend to be blander and much bitter.

Final Thoughts

If you have planted basil to add extra flavor to your recipes, you should not worry too much about when to pick a couple of leaves. One of the beauties of this type of herb is that it grows healthy and quickly throughout the summer. Ensure to pick the leaves evenly across your sprouts and starting from the top.

However, if you are planning to make homemade pesto for a dinner party, you will need larger quantities of leaves. In this case, make sure to save and store away the leaves after your latest harvest.

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