Growing Sweet Basil: Don’t Let Good Basil Go Bad

If You're Growing Basil This Year, Don't Let Any Of It Go to Waste!

Close-up of fresh basil plants in a plant nursery. The leaves of the plant basil is a popular European herb in cooking and mediterranean cuisine. Photographed in horizontal format.

Do you have any experience growing sweet basil? I’ve had a lot of success in growing herbs outdoors, but growing basil has always been our most successful crop. It’s also one of my favorite things to start in the early spring when I’m growing herbs from seed. Do you know when it’s the best time to harvest and use your basil? Take a look at the picture here. Do you see the top of the basil, where tiny leaves are bunching up? They look scrunchy and spiky. Yep, it’s time to make pesto.

You see, basil has a primal need to procreate. As soon as it creates flowers, its mission on this earth is done. It will stop growing, and will soon go to seed and die. But when you’re growing sweet basil, you can prevent that easily by paying a little attention to your plant and enjoying more Italian food.

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Growing sweet basil requires two things: heat and sun. Basil loves the heat. It loves the sun. Like other green leafy plants, it will bolt soon … but unlike other green leafies, simply cutting off the bolting part will keep the plant going. It will just create offshoots and try again. So you cut again. Do this all the way until frost, and you’ll soon have all the pesto you want.

Growing Sweet Basil: How to Propagate the Basil Plant

Some people cut the basil all the way back, leaving just one or two leaves to catch the sun. I like to search down the stem, below the top foliage. Part way down the stalk, you’ll see a large leaf on each side. At the joint of each of those leaves, some other tiny leaves will be trying to grow. Cut the stalk just above that new growth. Now you have a stalk of basil to cook with, and two little offshoots that will just keep on growing and try to make basil babies of their own.


Growing Sweet Basil: Uses for Fresh Basil

Chop or grind into pizza or pasta sauce. Grind up for pesto, adding garlic, olive oil, maybe some Parmesan or pine nuts. Use fresh on top of tomatoes, pizzas, or salads. Mix squished blueberries, a little blueberry jam, some balsamic vinegar, and minced basil for a Blueberry Basil Balsamic Vinaigrette.


Growing Sweet Basil: Preserving Basil

First of all, do not put it in the fridge! Basil can wilt and blacken at temperatures of 45°F or below. Your fridge is in the 30s. To preserve it best, stick it in a glass of water on your counter top, bouquet-style. If you put that glass in the sun, you may find the basil eventually grows roots. Plant it or eat it … your choice.

You can chop up the leaves and freeze them individually in ice cube trays. Choose a liquid such as water, vegetable or chicken broth, or olive oil. Pack the chopped leaves in the trays, then pour in enough liquid to fill in the gaps. Freeze. When the cubes are frozen, dump them into a freezer bag. Take them out later and drop them directly into soups, or thaw them to use in sauces.

Growing Sweet Basil: Basic Pesto Techniques

Recipes for pesto can differ. Some have Parmesan, some have pine nuts. I often don’t have those on hand. I always do have garlic and olive oil, though. To make my basic pesto, I grind up the leaves then mix them with pressed garlic and just enough olive oil to make a liquidy mush. I pack this mixture in flexible ice cube trays I buy at the Dollar Store, freeze, then empty the cubes into freezer bags. The flexible trays really help with the pesto, since oil doesn’t freeze as solid as a water-based liquid will.

When I want to use the pesto, I’ll throw one cube into a pot of simmering marinara or thaw two to toss with my favorite pasta. I also use a lot of it, with some asiago cheese, cinnamon-roll style for a savory dinner roll.

Is basil a staple on your garden herbs list? What is your favorite way to use basil?

Originally published in 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

  • Thank you for letting me know about cutting off the bolts. I have tried that with cilantro and lettuce with unfavorable results. I did not know I could pinch off the bolts of basil abd keep it going until frost. Good information!

  • Love the information on Did not know what to do with all the basil I’m growing! Now I do and don’t end up wasting it. Thanks so much!!

  • My family’s favourite use for basil is in our tomato salad made with homegrown tomatoes, chopped red onion, crushed garlic, feta cheese, a sprinkle of pink himalayan salt, and a drizzle of olive oil and apple cider or balsamic vinegar. We love it with a good amount of chopped fresh basil in it!

  • I grow tons of basil every year and most of it goes to pesto. I freeze my pesto in jars and we consume it all winter. We love it instead of mayonnaise on sandwiches and wraps and of course, with pasta. My pesto is made with pine nuts, parmesan, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Heaven!! Used fresh, the basil is wonderful on top of tomato tarts, salads and soups.

  • This year was my first experience growing basil. I bought a packet of lemon basil seeds to plant near my tomatoes for pest control. I planted the entire packet because I’m not much of a gardener and didn’t expect great results. I think it all came up! My favorite use for it was adding it to a salad. I had so much of it that I didn’t mind when it bolted. I wanted the flowers to attract bees. Now, I have a new crop coming up everywhere. It apparently reseeds itself very efficiently!


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