A couple of weeks ago, I got a virus. It is TERRIBLY unfair to get sick in the summer, especially just as everything in the garden is just ready to start picking. My basil was in desperate need of cutting and so two weeks later it had all blossomed and went wild. It now needed not just cutting but taming. So, I will share with you the process of harvesting herbs.
We need to go back to Botany 101 for just a minute. A plant’s goal in life is to create seed. Most plants bloom, the blossoms are pollinated, and seeds form. In the case of green beans, when the plant forms the pod, but before the seeds are mature, we harvest the pod, snap it and eat it. When we harvest the beans, the plant makes more blossoms in hopes of making seed and the process continues until frost or until the plant wins and the seed is allowed to mature.
In the case of most herbs, it is the leaves that we harvest not the blossoms or the seed. When a plant begins to blossom, its energy goes to making seed so it slows down making leaves. So, when basil starts flowering, it stops making the part of the plant that we so adore.
With all of that out of the way, the best way to continually harvest beautiful fresh herb leaves all summer long is to harvest every few days. Years ago when my babies were smaller, I sold fresh herbs at the Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning. Usually, when I harvest herbs, I harvest just a few plants at a time. I either use them fresh right away or I harvest just what I can pluck off the stem in a few minutes to dry. When I harvested everything I had every Saturday morning, my herbs produced ever so much more than now when everything is done on crisis management.
So, this week, I cut all the Basil, Lime Basil, and Purple Ruffles Basil back and gave it to the chickens. The leaves were all brown and had been attacked by grasshoppers. The blossoms were all prickly and stems all woody. Then I recommitted to my dear Basil to pay more attention to it, daily. As the new stems and leaves grow, I will be more diligent about harvesting them properly.
I grasp the top of a stem with one hand and pull it back enough so I can see down the stem. I want to find a place where tiny leaves are growing on either side of the stem. I find the tiny leaves farthest down the stem and I cut right above them. Now when those tiny leaves take off they will form 2 stems from the one that I cut and next week the plant will be twice as bushy as this week. That is how I harvest all my different varieties of Basil and Sage.
Thyme, Oregano, and Rosemary have leaves all the way up and down the stem. I just clip their stems at the leaves so that there aren’t bare stems sticking up. Just harvest often enough to keep the blossoms from forming, although Thyme blossoms are as delicious as the leaves if they don’t go to seed.
Basil really enjoys hot weather as long as it has enough water. In those conditions, it will produce more leaves than you will know what to do with. However, in our north country, we dry a lot of Basil because the first time that thermometer dips close to freezing the Basil is finished. The sage leaves are still firm and freeze dried when I dig them out from under the snow at Thanksgiving but if the snow gets too deep it is difficult to find them in January when we make our sausage so I dry some sage leaves in the summer too.
I used to have a string run up next to the ceiling in my laundry room. I would tie bunches of herb stems together and clothespin the bunch on the string and pull the dried leaves off when I had more time. Now I harvest as many stems as I have time to pluck and put the leaves on clean dish towels on the bed in the extra room for a few days. I go in every once in a while and stir them around so they all dry evenly. One year as we were about to leave on vacation, H.H. had the idea of enlisting everyone’s help. I cut and they hauled and labeled and we filled the vehicle we were leaving home with herbs to dry while we were gone. It was really funny but it worked really well. When we got back I had a lot of work to do to pick the leaves off the stems but the plants didn’t win that day!
Just remember to harvest often even if it isn’t the whole garden. Together we can stamp out blossoming this summer. Happy Harvesting!