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Closeup photo by Diane Rixon of basil plant with glossy, bright green leaves
Mmm-mmm. Fresh basil. It's so very fragrant -- the indispensable ingredient in a host of mid-summer recipes.

My basil is lush, green and ready for picking. Okay, I don't have a whole lot of it out in my garden; however, I'm planning on growing a lot more next summer. In preparation for that lofty enterprise, I thought it'd be cool to find out how the expert basil-growers harvest their beloved herb. Here are some tips I picked up:

1. Know your basil. There are lots of varieties out there, and it's always good to know which one you have, as the flavors vary quite a bit between them. Chances are good that, like me, you've got the most common variety: Genovese sweet basil.

Basil harvesting(click thumbnails to view gallery)

Basil prior to harvestingBasil seed headsHarvest timeBasil plant after harvestingThe harvested basil


2. The best time to harvest basil is right before it flowers. You'll know it's about ready to flower when the plant has become big -- about knee-high -- and bushy.

3. Harvest basil as late in the day as possible. Studies have shown that this is less stressful for the plants, and that the leaves keep longer.

4. There are two ways to harvest your basil. You can pick leaves straight from the plant as you need them, or you can harvest the whole plant for a bumper crop.

5. For pick-as-you-need-it freshness, choose the succulent leaf clusters at the tips. Be warned, however, that if you routinely pinch off all the leaf clusters, the plant may respond by sprouting flowers simultaneously with the new leaves. The best approach is occasional tip pinching, followed by regular harvesting.

6. Harvesting refers to cutting the plant back by about half or two thirds. Always cut each stem just above a healthy leaf cluster. This gives you plenty of leaves to cook with or store, leaving the remainder to regenerate for further harvesting a few weeks later. See my photo gallery for a visual guide to harvesting and storing basil!

7. You can harvest basil after flowering -- I did! However, some say that flowering affects the taste of the leaves, making them ever-so-slightly bitter to the taste. Personally, I don't notice a difference.

8. If you don't want the seeds, snip off flower heads as they form. This encourages further growth.

9. The optimal temperature for storing harvested basil is 60ºF -- which is considerably warmer than your refrigerator! Basil keeps longest when stored at (air-conditioned) room temperature in a perforated plastic bag. In contrast, basil stored in the refrigerator keeps only two to three days before turning black.

10. Keep several generously-sized cut stems (about 6 inches) in a jar of water on the kitchen counter. Use a few leaves when you need them: toss into salads, pair with cucumbers and tomatoes, or add to pasta salads. The remaining stem pieces will keep for quite a while if you regularly replenish the water; add a little lemon juice to retard bacterial growth.

11. Roots forming in your jar of stem cuttings? These are next year's seedlings: don't let them go to waste. Plant your rooted cuttings in small pots of potting soil and overwinter them indoors. Next spring, they can be set out in the garden.

12. Freeze the remainder of your harvest for instant basil flavor throughout the year. Wash cut stems thoroughly, checking for bugs. Use scissors to snip leaves off the stems. Blend leaves with olive oil in the food processor: the oil makes for a smooth, manageable mixture, and also helps prevent the leaves from blackening.

13. For your culinary convenience, divide the mixture into a variety of portion sizes before freezing. For example, a couple of cupfuls of basil leaf-oil mixture can be split between an ice cube tray and a few small yogurt tubs, or similar-sized small freezer containers. That way you can just thaw exactly what you need... no waste!

14. Yes, you can make pesto and freeze it. However, some say fresh is best: thaw the basil and oil mixture as you need it, and whirl in the blender with salt, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts (or walnuts) and garlic for fresher-tasting pesto. Check out Slashfood's fantastically easy recipe for pesto!

15. Another use for freshly-harvested basil: vinegar. As with pesto, there are lots and lots of basil vinegar recipes on the Web, free for the taking.

16. Many herbs dry beautifully. Basil, however, is not one of them. Dry rosemary instead, and keep your basil for freezing or vinegar. Having said that, some do keep a little dried basil on hand for enhancing the flavor of winter soups and stews; just don't expect it to have that fresh basil aroma.

17. Harvest seeds for next year's crop, and save yourself some money! Here's how: allow the flowers and seed heads to dry right there on the plant, or bring cuttings inside and hang them upside-down in a bunch. When they're crispy and brown, lay them on a baking sheet, and gently shake or roll the seeds out of their casings. Store the seeds in a paper envelope in a dark, dry place.

18. When spring rolls around, you can pull out your packet of seeds and start them in small containers of potting soil. House your seedlings inside -- or outside in a greenhouse -- where you can protect them from the vicissitudes of Mother Nature.

19. A final piece of advice: don't be afraid that massive cutting-back will kill your basil. This herb is an aggressive grower, and it should bounce right back. All it requires is the right location: full sun and regular watering with good drainage. If your basil fails to thrive, consider a new location first, or perhaps a little fertilizer.

20. Speaking of growing basil... are you already thinking ahead to next spring? There's no shortage of basil-growing advice on the Web. A couple good jumping-off points: this EHow video "How to grow basil," and the Wikipedia entry, "Basil."

We have many more basil and/or herb-related tips right here at DIY Life. Heather can tell you how to make basil butter. Francesca explains how to make an herb garden, while Anna tells us how to build an herb dryer, and Bethany shares her fave new herb storage tip. Oh, and our sister site, Green Daily, has some awesome herb-growing advice, too!

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