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How to properly pick mint, basil, etc?

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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

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