I harvested the herb garden again this weekend. Although I didn’t blog about it at the time, the last harvest was three weeks ago, so the herbs were in need of a good trimming. While I think i did a good job with placement of the herbs when I planted the garden, the marjoram has a little difficulty between the two towering basil plants after only a couple of weeks. The basil grows faster than all of the other herbs and it doesn’t take long for it to create a bit of shade for the marjoram, which wants more light. I know it is time to cut the herbs when the marjoram starts looking really leggy because of the increase in shade.
This and the next few entries will go step-by-step through the harvesting steps to help out anyone brand new to growing, harvesting and drying herbs.
How to Harvest Basil
Basil is an easy herb to grow, especially in Texas, because basil loves sun and heat. It is a member of the mint family and is considered by many herb aficianados to be the “king of herbs”. I have had success growing basil on an East facing wall so that it gets sunlight from 8 AM – 2 PM and shade thereafter with regular watering two times a week.
Our neighbor grew basil this summer, but did so in the open and didn’t appear to trim it at all. It didn’t take long for the basil to go to seed this way. When basil goes to seed, the stems turn woody and the plant stops producing all of the essential oils which make the leaves taste good. Therefore, if you want to keep your basil tasting great, do not let it go to seed. Instead, give your basil a regular trimming and you’ll be rewarded with a bushier, more-productive plant that you can harvest many, many times. In fact, I harvested the basil every two weeks throughout the summer, which has slowed to every three weeks now that we’ve entered autumn. With two plants, you’ll have all the pesto, dried and fresh basil leaves you and your family can handle.
Basil is grown as an annual in most of the United States and Texas. It is very intolerant to frost, so I do not expect the plants to last the winter, but I’m going to try to see how long I can make them stretch with continued mulching. Perhaps being shielded from the house and being next to the warm foundation will help it survive a little longer. As such, I’m treating mine as a perennial.
As far as harvesting herbs go, there are two general rules of thumb: 1. if growing as an annual, never trim more than 50% of the plant at any given time, and 2. if growing as a perennial, never trim more than 33%. Since I treat mine as perennials, I never harvest more than one-third of the plant at any given time. Even still, I have more than enough basil at any given time.
Another tip I learned is to spray the plant down with water the afternoon or evening before trimming to wash any debris away and give the herbs time to dry off before trimming. At first, I tried washing my herbs after picking them and they were difficult to dry that way. This method works much better. Harvesting the basil first thing in the morning ensures the highest concentration of oils in the leaves as the oils withdraw into the stems and branches throughout the warmth of the day.
Before I begin cutting, I size up the plant then visualize the plant with one-third of the top cut off. Then I go to work, stem-by-stem, shaping the plant to fit my visualization (you know, kind of like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid). Basil produces long stems from the main branches, which prove helpful in hanging and drying, so I generally pick a stem and follow it down to the joint, right above the leaves, then I cut there (be sure that you use clean scissors so you don’t spread any germs or disease). This cut will force the plant to develop those two leaves, which will fork off and create more stems that I’ll later trim. This creates a bushier and more-productive plant.
To give you a better idea of how much basil this is, here it is spread out:
The basil is now ready to use fresh in a salad or dish, to create homemade pesto, or dry for later use. Basil dries slower than most herbs because of its high water content, and drying also diminishes and alters the flavor some. I dry mine clipped to hangers upside down in a dark, ventilated closet for several days. Drying in this manner uses gravity to pull the essential oils out of the stem and into the leaves.