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How to properly pick mint, basil, etc?

Hi all,

I am a relative novice at gardening. Although I used to sell tons of bedding plants and my mom and I kept an eclectic range of things in a "garden" when I was a kid, I've only recently started growing herbs - mostly because it's so much cheaper than buying them. :D

Anyway, I was wondering if anyone had any tips on what parts of plants (particularly mint and basil) to pick when I'm gathering stuff for dinner. I noticed last year that if I picked the larger, fuller mint/basil leaves from the bottom, then the stalks seemed to get woodier and thicker, and the plants continued to grow - but I'd think that the height that they eventually attained actually hurt them and kept them from growing as much as they could have. My concern is that if I pluck the top parts off (with all the fresh small leaves), then I'll somehow stunt their growth?

Thanks in advance!

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  1. I don't know the official right way to pick them, but I'll tell you how I do it. I use scissors and clip off the whole stem at the bottom. This is the way we prune other plants, and it makes them grow fuller, so I decided to try it with herbs, too. (I just started growing my own herbs this year, too.) So far, so good, too. My parsley is really full. I use it quite a bit, so I have "pruned" it several times. Good luck, and have fun!

    1. Harvest your herbs by cutting the upper third of the plant. Go down to where 2 leaves are growing on the stem and cut just above the leaves. That's where the new growth will start. Don't cut more than 1/3 of the plant at a time.

      1. On the contrary, picking from the top actually increases growth by encouraging side shoots and more bottom growth. For mint and basil, always pick from the top. That will remove the growth/bud ends and encourage bushy growth. If you just want a few leaves, just pinch off the first two pairs of leaves. If you want to make pesto, which I generally do towards the end of the basil plant's life, I cut off entire stalks or branches, knowing the plant is about exhausted. Cutting or pulling from the bottom results in leggy plants that won't put out new growth except at the very top, whereas removing the top growth tips encourages more shoots from below.

        For parsley it is better to cut entire stalks near soil level from the outside of the plant to the inside, so growth will continue from the inside buds.

        Thyme I tend to cut off branches from the outiside of the plant, but then thyme is not an herb one usually uses a great quantity of, so trimming a few branches from the outside doesn't affect the shape much and still leaves plenty of branches for new growth.

        Rosemary can be cut by removing an entire stalk/branch, or just removing the top growth; I believe both ways encourge branching and fuller growth.

        For dill and cilantro I just clip what I want; both are rather short-lived so it's not uncommon to use/remove the entire plant (cilantro especially - it's often sold in Asian markets with the roots intact). I usually do succession planting of dill, cilantro and basil, and parsley to some extent, to ensure a steady supply throughout the growing season.

        For sage I remove individual leaves from the top down.

        You'll learn from experience, and your experience from last season has demonstrated that a different approach may work better!

        1. Even though I've gardened for 25 years I still keep learning new stuff, and a better way to pick basil is one of them! Last year I read somewhere that you should pick about HALF the basil stalk (instead of just pinching back the flower growth, or cutting the entire stalk) as that both slows flowering (when the flavor starts to go bad) dramatically and yet also leaves you with plenty of basil to regenerate, for later harvesting. I tried it last summer and it worked beautifully!

          1. And many experts (I am not one!) recommend picking early in the morning when the dew is still on the leaves for best flavor.

            1 Reply
            1. re: DonShirer

              Interesting - I'll have to taste-test that. It sounds more like something you'd brag about on a menu: "blah blah stuff with dew-scented basil picked from the chef's own garden." :D

            2. In my experience, I find that the method presented by Gio works well. I never pick off leaves by themselves, I cut the whole stem off right above the lowest set of leaves. That set of leaves end up becoming a junction and bushes the plant out while leaving the stalk and leaves tender.

              The method by janninecooks doesn't work well for me; the picking from the top. One of the things that people say is to cut or pinch off the tops when they start to flower. This doesn't work well for the reason that more grow every day, and the plant keeps using nutrients and energy trying to grow them back. If you don't keep up with it, you end up with woody basil and tough leaves.

              So all in all, when I use my basil, I go around the plant cutting off the longest stems above the bottom two leaves and then letting them split into two branches, growing bushier and bushier. This is the only way I have been able to keep the plant producing sweet, flavorful leaves for as long as possible. I have been doing trial and error this way for YEARS.

              1. With basil or, especially mint, even aggressive harvesting of foliage will not slow them down

                3 Replies
                1. re: BiscuitBoy

                  Should I pluck the mint at the end of the leaf or the stem

                  1. re: Gardening

                    It's better to use a dedicated scissors rather than pinching the stem. In the garden snip a stem just above where two leaves are growing. When inside and using mint in a recipe pluck the leaves from the stem.

                    1. re: Gardening

                      What Gio said, tho I never have the snips with me! Depending on the plant it will also encourage more growth

                  2. i just cut the stem according to how much basil i need at the time. plant is bushy, too. cutting encourages growth.

                    1. Last time I was able to have in-ground garden (too many critters now), planted 6 little basil plants right off my deck... one step off the ground. By the time we got to about this time of the summer, it was like 2 big HEDGES! The aroma coming thru screens was heavenly.

                      When I wanted basil... I just picked it... sometimes a few leaves at a time, sometimes a top off one of the plants. Cutting entire top off seems to FORCE plants to get fuller below that spot?!?

                      When weather started getting chilly... ONE frost and basil is history... I had to deal with not being willing to just ignore it & watch it freeze outside. I cut off 2-3 entire plants within a few inches of the ground. Gave plants a GENTLE shower with hose, a shake to get rid of extra h2o and found a place to hang (upside down)... garage worked fine for drying. Once sufficiently dry/crunchy/crispy, I spread an old sheet under plants and just squished away with my hands till I couldn't stand it any more.

                      Did something different with remaining 2-3 plants. Started by cutting plants off close to ground and hosing off. I picked all the leaves off into a sink of cool/cold water to clean up. After running thru a salad spinner, stashed some in a zip bag in fridge... they lasted a decent amount of time (just leaves) before looking a little sad. I had a sink FULL of nice, fresh leaves to do something with. Some I buzzed up in food processor, portioned into ice cube trays and added maybe a T or so of water before into freezer. Once rock solid, popped out and into a freezer bag for easy retrieval. These cubes could be dropped into soup or sauce as needed. The rest became "deconstructed" pesto sauce... geez, I dislike that buzz word! Just the basil and enough olive oil to make a paste, measured into ice cube trays and into freezer. Because of the oil, they don't get ROCK hard... would put them in a container that I lined with wax paper and more WP between layers.