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9 Ways to Get a Much Bigger Basil Harvest (Tips)

A basket full of freshly harvested basil.

Are you sick and tired of never having enough fresh basil? Do you find yourself running out to the store to get more basil while your plants at home grow slowly? Boy do I feel your pain! I’ve been there.

 There’s nothing more frustrating than planting seeds and only getting a “meh” harvest, right? When we green thumbs put in the work of preparing the soil, clearing the area for growing, and diligent watering, we expect results! 

You may even be as intense as me, and draw/write out maps of your garden to make sure you pick the perfect spot for each different plant and crop. My family makes fun of my planning, but it helps me think it out and envision where everything will grow best.

When it comes to planting and growing basil, there are a handful of simple things you can do to get a much bigger harvest. You don’t want to rush its growth, but you can definitely coax it along to help it grow more effectively. So get ready to take some notes…here we go!

1. Choose a sunny spot

A group of basil plants in direct sunlight.

OK, I know we all know this, but plants need sunlight. Basil specifically needs six to eight hours of full sunlight every day. It does fine in partial daylight, but since we are looking at ways to maximize our basil harvest, try to find a spot in your garden that is not impeded by shade at any point in the day. 

If you don’t have eight hours a day to watch for shadeless spots in your backyard, consider setting up a camera you can speed back through, or leaving out a test plant in different spots around the yard to see where seems to be the most ideal location.

2. Maximize soil drainage

A basil plants in a steel raised bed.

Basil does just fine in the ground, but basil grows better when the soil is well drained. Before you plant your basil, consider building a container or raised bed to achieve maximum soil drainage. It’s pretty straightforward to build a raised bed, and could make for a fun weekend project! Another benefit of a raised bed is that you can move it around the backyard if needed.

Like I said, if you can’t or don’t want to do this step, the basil will still grow in the ground. You’ll just want to make sure you’re not overwatering your plants, and that there is no risk of flooding the area where the basil is planted. Whether you plant the basil in a raised bed or in the ground, make sure the pH of the soil is between 6 and 7.5. 

3. Be careful with how you sow the seeds

A small cup with basil leaves and a shovel in soil.

The seeds actually need to be relevantly shallow in the soil. Plant them no deeper than ¼ inch and leave about 10 to 12 inches between seedlings. You can expect each plant to grow 12 to 24 inches high. 

If you are also planning to grow tomatoes in your garden, you should know that they make excellent neighbors for basil! I love that basil and tomato taste delicious when paired together in recipes, and they grow well near each other in the ground. They’re two peas in a pod, so to speak. 

4. Plant the seeds in soil that is 70ºF

A woman planting basil sprout in garden soil.

First, it’s important to know that basil only grows outdoors in the summer and only once the soil is warm. Ideally, you’ll plant the seeds indoors 6 weeks before the last spring frost. You can look up the local frost dates online to plan accordingly. 

It is preferable that the soil will have warmed up to 70ºF. You can start planting seeds as soon as the soil’s at 50ºF, but remember, we are aiming for a maximum harvest! Be patient, and wait to plant until it’s closer to 70ºF. The warmer soil helps the basil grow better.

The temperature of the soil at nighttime should not fall below 50ºF. Once the seeds have sprouted, you can transfer them outdoors if you are working in an indoor garden and want to get a head start on growing the seedlings.

If you have never taken your soil’s temperature before, it’s actually quite easy to do. First, dig the soil a few inches deep. Since basil is planted rather shallow, you won’t need to go more than three inches. Then, simply take a soil thermometor and position it to a side across the perimiter of the hole. Leave it for a few minutes, and note the temperature reading.

You will want to take a couple readings just to ensure accuracy. After awhile, you’ll be able to guage whether the soil is warm enough, but it’s nice to have the soil thermometor as a backup so you can check if you’re ever uncertain. 

5. Keep the soil moist

A hand holding a moist soil.

Basil plants love moisture. If you live in a hot climate, keep mulch on hand to help retain moisture and discourage weeds from growing. When it’s dry in the peak of summer, you can water the plants freely. As long as the soil is draining properly, you can water as often as you think is needed. 

You will only need to fertilize a few times (sparingly) throughout the season. Be sure to use 5-10-5 fertilizer. I included more about fertilizer in the FAQ section below, so be sure to keep reading to the end!

6. Harvest early in the morning

A farmer harvesting basil using scissor.

After a few weeks, you’ll start to see your basil growing! This is the most exciting part to me; it never gets old seeing fresh crops and herbs start to come to life. As soon as your basil plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, you can start picking the leaves. 

The leaves are juiciest in the morning, so try to do your harvesting at that time of day. Picking off leaves regularly will encourage better growth throughout the season. This will help to maximize your harvest, to ensure you are getting as much growth out of your basil as possible.

Be consistent about picking leaves off, even if you don’t need basil that day. You can store the extra leaves, or even give them to a neighbor who may enjoy them. 

7. Harvest from the top down

A woman's hand cutting basil leaves using scissor.

When you just need a leaf or two for a recipe, it works just fine to pinch them off from the top of the plant, but when you want to harvest a larger amount (which is what we’re focusing on here), then be sure to start at the top and work your way down. 

When I say to harvest from the top down, what I mean is that you should cut off up to half of the total stem length. Make the cut right above a pair of leaves. Doing this encourages the basil to start more growth, and helps the plant to grow bushier leaves close together, as opposed to sparse branches with only a few leaves. 

As you work your way down the plant, make sure to always leave at least one leaf pair at the base of the stem. If you don’t have scissors, it is perfectly fine to pinch off the basil with your fingers. Make sure you are harvesting at least once a week. You may even want to set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget!

8. Pinch off flower buds

A Thai basil with small purple flower buds.

If you allow your basil plant’s flowers to bud, this will take away from your basil harvest. I know it sounds counterintuitive – you’d think flowering means it’s growing, right? Wrong! When a basil plant flowers, it suddenly focuses its energy on producing seeds (to regenerate itself) instead of growing more basil. 

As soon as you see flower heads starting to form, pinch them off. This will help keep the basil focused on growing basil, and not seeds. 

9. Plant more basil midsummer

A woman planting basil under the heat of the sun.

 

If you want to extend your basil season, you can plant some younger/new basil plants at midsummer. This will help give you bulkier basil plants later in the season/early fall before it starts to get cold. 

Where I grew up, the hottest part of “summer” was actually late September/early October. It was the weirdest thing, but it meant that gardening could last much later into the year than normal. So if you live somewhere that has a longer than typical summer, and it stays relatively warm into October, this could be something to consider to maximize your basil harvest for the year.

However, if you are living somewhere with short summers, such as Alaska, this probably wouldn’t work for you. I would recommend having an indoor garden in addition to your outdoor garden, or planting more basil plants to maximize your season. 

FAQs

Does it matter which types of basil I grow?

A healthy Genovese basil plant with flower buds.

There are many different kinds of basil (thai, lemon, Genovese…) and it actually does not matter which kind you plant, they all grow similarly. You are not going to get a bigger harvest if you plant one versus the other. What’s important, as I’ve said before, is how well you are watering and trimming your basil plant. This matters more than anything else!

How many basil plants should I grow?

Now, obviously, the more plants you grow, the bigger your harvest will be. If you are wondering whether one basil plant will be enough to grow, think about what you’ll be using your basil for.

If you’re a big fan of Italian food or will be making pesto regularly, you’ll want to grow several basil plants. Otherwise, if you’re just using it as an add-in herb for occasional cooking, one or two plants will be sufficient. 

What type of fertilizer should I use for the best basil harvest?

As I mentioned above, you’ll want to use (sparingly) a 5-10-5 fertilizer for your basil plants. When it comes to feeding basil plants, less is more. Too much fertilizer will compromise the quality and taste of your basil. No one wants a poorly flavored pesto sauce, am I right?! 

You may not even need fertilizer if you have rich soil, but if you think you need it, 1-2 times over the entire season will be sufficient. 

Will indoor vs. outdoor gardening make a difference to my basil harvest?

An indoor basil plants in two small pot.

Basil can be grown in either an indoor or outdoor garden. It really just depends on how consistently you’re pruning and harvesting it. I bought my niece (who lives in an apartment) an indoor aero garden, and she’s got a lovely basil plant she uses for cooking. 

If you’re growing it outside, make sure it’s getting plenty of sunlight and water, and that the soil is draining properly. The same principles go for an indoor garden; make sure you have it growing under a good plant light for 8 hours a day. Most lights even come with a timer, so you can be sure it’s getting all the light it needs. 

Can I harvest basil seeds?

Absolutely, my friend. You’ll want to use a fine colander to collect basil seeds. I love my mesh colander for this because its holes are so small. To collect the seeds, cut off the flower heads and let them dry out for a few days.

Crush the heads over the colander and pick out the old petals. And voila! You have new basil seeds to replant next season, or even midseason, if you want to extend your harvest.

How many times can basil be harvested?

After basil develops six pairs of leaves on a branch, the flavor and aroma will be at its peak. It takes about 50 to 75 days to reach this point, so you can probably harvest twice if you’re waiting for it to peak.

However, if you’re only picking off a few pairs at a time, then you will be harvesting more often. For example, harvesting every time there are four pairs of leaves would mean you’d be able to harvest every three weeks.

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