Basil is an aromatic plant that loves warm weather. It’s grown easily from seed outdoors in the ground or in container gardens. Basil likes a sunny location with at least six hours of sunlight per day and likes its soil (but not its leaves) to be kept well-watered and well-drained. That’s why it does so well in containers.
Once the weather gets consistently hot, above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the plants will start getting bushier and leafier. You can pick basil leaves when the plant is about six to eight inches tall. For young plants, just pick a few leaves by pinching them off, as close as possible to the stem. As the plant grows, you can pick more leaves, as well as the tips of the branches.
The best time to harvest is in the morning, as that makes for the juiciest leaves. But you can pick basil whenever you need it. Each time you harvest basil, it encourages the plant to make more leaves. Whenever you harvest, try not to pick more than half of the plant. That gives the basil plant time to regrow. It takes about 2-3 weeks for the plant to develop more leaves.
If you only need a small amount, then pick a few leaves off a few different branches or plants. Don’t cut off an entire stem or it might not grow back.
When you need a large amount of basil, always start at the top and work your way down. Don’t harvest from the bottom. Make sure to pinch or cut above a pair of leaves, rather than leaving a cut branch sticking out the top.
Encouraging Basil Growth
To help your basil plant thrive, prune or pinch off the tips each time a branch has six to eight leaves. Prune the center shoot of the plant at about six weeks. This will make a bushier plant and give you more leaves to harvest. Simple pruning like this also can lead to more aromatic basil.
For the best flavor, harvest leaves before flower buds form. Pinch and remove flower buds as soon as you see them. If you leave them on the plant, they may change the taste of basil, making it somewhat bitter. Regularly removing the buds also can help lengthen the life of your basil plant and your harvest season.
When Cold Weather Comes
Basil plants love sunny, warm weather. But cold temperatures can damage the plant and stunt its growth even when it’s just 50 degrees. Be sure to harvest all your basil before the first frost or if you think it’s going to be cold.
Or you can dig up the plant, roots and all, and put it in a pot inside to grow through the winter.
How to Clean and Store Basil
After you’ve harvested basil, remove the leaves from the stems. Throw away any leaves that have spots or don’t look healthy. Rinse leaves thoroughly and let them air dry or pat them dry. You can also spin them in a salad spinner. The less moisture on the leaves, the less discolored they will become. If you can avoid washing altogether and simply wipe down the leaves, they’ll look greener and fresher.
If you’re not going to use basil right away, you can keep a stem fresh by putting it in a glass of water at room temperature, just like you would flowers from your garden. Don’t put fresh basil in the refrigerator because leaves can change color and lose taste.
Fresh basil doesn’t last long. Because it has a lot of moisture, it will mold if not used quickly. If you have a lot that you can’t use right away, try drying it. If you don’t have a food dehydrator, tie small bundles of cut basil stems and leaves together. Place them upside down in paper bags. Punch small holes in the bags and be sure to tie the tops tightly. Hang them in a dark, well-ventilated place for a week or two. Once dried, crush the basil and store it in air-tight jars at room temperature.
You can also freeze basil to use later in pesto or sauces. Clean the leaves and chop them in a food processor with a bit of water or oil. Freeze the mixture in ice cube trays and thaw them when needed.
Alternatively, fill bags with whole basil leaves and put them in the freezer. Immediate freezing will prevent the leaves from losing flavor. They will still be good for adding to soups, pasta sauces, and stews, but not so attractive anymore for garnishing dishes.
How to Use Basil
Fresh basil can be used to season all sorts of dishes, including soups, salads, pizzas, and appetizers. If you have a bountiful harvest, you can use it to make pesto. Just find your favorite recipe that combines basil leaves, garlic, cheese, and nuts for this traditional pasta topping, and eat fresh or freeze. Pesto is delicious in place of tomato-based pizza sauce, as well.
Try using it to infuse vinegar, sugar, or simple syrup, make compound butter, or mix into a cocktail. You can seep it in tea or use it to make potpourri. It’s delicious in lettuce and grain salads, vinaigrettes, marinades, toasted tomato sandwiches and wraps, omelettes and scrambled eggs, layered in eggplant parmesan or lasagna, and more.