Clipping with Confidence

Easy ways to harvest your herbs

BY Claire Yezbak Fadden

Herb gardens require considerable effort, but gardeners often receive delicious and flavorful payoff in return. If you are like me, you may have struggled with what to do when your plants are full, bountiful and beautiful. I worry if I trim my basil too soon, it may not grow back. To seek guidance on these matters, I reached out to my favorite gardening authorities for advice. Now I can clip my basil, spearmint and rosemary with confidence. The process is surprisingly easy.

Water first. Before beginning, make sure your plants are well watered. Healthy, happy herbs yield the best flavor, according to the experts at Bonnie Plants. A few hours after watering, grab your gloves, sharp clippers and something to carry your harvest in; then start snipping.

Edibles. Since flowers wilt quickly, harvest the edible ones just before using them, suggests Julie Bawden-Davis, author of Reader’s Digest Flower Gardening: A Practical Guide to Creating Colorful Gardens in Every Yard. “While clipping the blooms, avoid exposing them to the sun and wind. If you must harvest more than 30 minutes prior to using edible flowers, leave the stalks on,” she says. Bawden-Davis recommends placing the edible flowers into an airtight container with water and storing them in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them. Additionally, some edible flowers endure longer than others. For instance, nasturtiums last longer than pansies do. Harvest edible flowers such as dill, lavender and tarragon just after their flowers open. At that point, the heads will be firm and provide maximum flavor. Handle them gently to minimize damage.



Some herbs freeze better than others. Basil, oregano, chives, dill, lemongrass, mint, sage, tarragon and thyme are among those that freeze well, maintaining their flavor and freshness once defrosted. Wash your harvested herbs, pat dry, and spread them in a single layer on a cutting board or a pan and pop them in the freezer.

To freeze herbs for later use, Bawden-Davis recommends cutting them into small sections and submerging them in ice cube trays filled two-thirds with purified water. After they are frozen, she places them in freezer storage bags. “When I want to use the herbs, I simply take out a few ice cubes,” she says. She warns, however, that some herbs—including basil—may turn black when they are frozen. She advises, “The best way to prevent this and similar herbs from blackening is to blanch them by putting them in a colander and then pouring boiling water over them. Let them cool slightly and then freeze in ice cube trays.”

Perennials. Herbs such as oregano, sage and thyme are the simplest to harvest. Cut approximately one-third to one-half of the plant’s height any time during the growing season.

Annuals. Most annuals need periodic harvesting to keep them from going to seed. Clipping throughout the season will encourage new growth and continual harvesting. Basil and other annuals grown for their leaves require regular harvesting during the summer months. By mid-summer, plants are close to their final height.

Seed Producers. Gathering dill, coriander/cilantro and other seed producers requires more careful timing. Watch for the seeds to plump and turn brown. Clip the heads immediately or you could lose your harvest to hungry birds or high winds.

The One-Third Rule. According to Bawden-Davis, “Photosynthesis provides plants with energy that enables them to grow more foliage and thrive.” She advises against harvesting more than one-third of the entire aerial growth at one time so that there are enough leaves left for future growth. The exception to this one-third rule is chives. Chives grow back faster when all its leaves are snipped to within an inch to a half inch from the ground. Catnip, lemon balm and other plants in the mint family regrow better when their stems are harvested at once. Cut above the first or second set of leaves from the base of the crown.

Preserve. To prepare your herbs for cooking, lay the stalks in a single layer on a paper towel and allow them to air-dry for six to eight days. Once the leaves become dry and brittle, store them in an airtight container away from light. Basil does not hold its flavor as well as oregano, dill and many other herbs. 


[ LEARN more gardening tips from Julie Bawden-Davis at healthyhouseplants.com. Check out the vegetable and herb varieties from Bonnie Plants at bonnieplants.com ]