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Harvesting Herbs 101 (Basil, Chives, Cilantro/Coriander, Mint, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Tarragon, Thyme)

Confession time: When it comes to planting and tending herbs, are you all prudence and patience, employing optimal growing practices with the greatest care and attention? But then, when it comes time to harvest those same herbs, do you throw caution to the wind? Do you dig in with grubby, bumbling fingers, blindly ravaging your otherwise immaculately cultivated darlings in a rush of panic while the herb’s intended destination—a sauce, perhaps—boils over on the stove?


Hey, we’ve all been there: Growing herbs, especially from seed, requires months of work before there’s much of a payoff, and sometimes you just can’t stomach any more waiting, or for that matter, researching. And sometimes, in the midst of dinner prep, you have to move quickly. But at the risk of sounding preachy: Whoa, Nelly! Indiscriminate harvesting might get the rosemary into the recipe but, ultimately, you’re only hurting yourself. Deliberate herb pruning can actually encourage fuller growth and a bigger yield in the long run. In other words, pick smart now, eat more later.


That said, we’ve all got our own right way and wrong way to harvest herbs. Below is a compilation of recommended methods, but if you do things differently and have a bone—er, a leaf—to pick, by all means, speak up!



Recommended tool: Fingers


Regular harvesting: There are two important rules of (green) thumb here that apply to harvesting most herbs. One, never pick more than one-third of the leaves on a plant at a time and, two, after doing so, let the plant recover before going back in for a subsequent haircut. Beyond these two truths, folks have all kinds of methods for harvesting basil, from selectively picking single mature leaves all over the plant to snapping off entire stems, but we like the following approach best.


Locate a pair of new leaves on the main stem, several inches below the top of the plant and below a decent-sized bundle of larger, more mature leaves. Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch the plant just above the new leaves. The plant will then essentially double its efforts and form two primary stems where once there was one. Nice, huh?


One other tip: When you see a little tower—sort of like a corncob or a fuzzy caterpillar—of tiny green leaves forming at the end of a stem, pinch it! Otherwise, that tower will turn into flowers, and while many folks find basil blooms deliciously intense, nipping them in the bud encourages the plant to spend its energy creating lots of leaves rather than tiny blossoms. And when we’re talking precious pesto, we want quantity!


End of season: Basil is an annual, and while you can bring the plant indoors when temps start to drop, you might be better off harvesting the remaining bounty and making pesto to freeze and use throughout the winter.


Recommended tool: Kitchen shears or pocketknife


Regular harvesting: You can start harvesting when these leaves are at least 6 inches long. Whether you want just a couple for a garnish or you need a bigger batch, always clip from the outside of the chive clump and always cut about half an inch up from the soil. This will encourage the plant to spread out when sending up new growth. One note: Don’t cut midway up a leaf. You might think you’re leaving life behind to flourish, but any partial leaves will wither. On the other hand, if you’re ready to harvest an entire clump, grab it like a ponytail, twist it, and cut half an inch up from the soil.


End of season: Chives are a perennial and can overwinter outside. Just let the plant die back and leave it alone.



Recommended tool: Kitchen shears


Regular harvesting: Cilantro is ready to pick when the green and leafy stems are at least 6 inches long. Snip the stems near the ground. As with chives, you can cut them a few at a time or in a bunch.


End of season: Let any unused seed pods dry out and brown and, voila, coriander! To harvest, clip the brown, seed-bearing stems and let them dry fully in a paper bag. After a few days, the husks will split open and reveal their edible seeds.



Recommended tool: Fingers


Regular harvesting: This one, you can unleash your 2-year-old kid on. (In fact, do! Mint is such a voracious grower, it can withstand, and even benefit from, an enthusiastic picker.) To harvest, just pinch anywhere, anytime. For a mega harvest, wait until you see the first flowers form then cut the whole plant back to the first or second set of leaves. The mint will grow back even bushier. Because that’s just the kind of plant it is.


End of season: Mint is a perennial and will die back when cold temps arrive then return again in spring, in almost any zone. As with chives, you can let it winter in place outdoors.



Recommended tool: Kitchen shears


Regular harvesting: As with garlic chives, select bunches to cut from the periphery—never the interior—of the plant. Cutting the stalks near the base will encourage new, bushy growth.


End of season: Parsley is an annual a biennial, meaning its lifecycle is two years. (Thanks, Mary!) Harvest in bulk at the end of the season and freeze for winter use.



Recommended tool: Kitchen shears


Regular harvesting: As with mint, this one is hard to screw up. Clip at any time, anywhere, on any stem, other than in the woody parts. Leave those alone.


End of season: Similar to chives, rosemary is a perennial and can overwinter outside in the ground, or inside or outside in a pot. Let it die back at the end of the season and then leave it alone. No watering!


Recommended tool: Fingers or kitchen shears


Regular harvesting: If you’re starting sage from seed, wait until year 2 before you go whole hog with harvesting. In year 1, pinch lightly as needed. In year 2 and beyond, you can get greedier, cutting entire stems—especially older ones, since that will encourage new growth. (In other words, sage is the opposite of rosemary: Aim for the woody bits.)


End of season: Sage is a perennial and can last up to five years, especially if you’re good about pruning.



Recommended tool: Kitchen shears


Regular harvesting: With this guy, you definitely don’t want to cut off entire mature stems. Instead, snip newer baby shoots of light green leaves from all over the plant, leaving the woody parent stems behind to produce new growth. To remove individual leaves from a shoot, pinch the shoot and run your fingers down its length, like a zipper.


End of season: Tarragon is a perennial and can yield several years of delicious, licorice-like leaves. At the end of the growing season, simply cut the stalks back to 3 or 4 inches above the crown and let them idle.



Recommended tool: Kitchen shears


Regular harvesting: The method here is similar to tarragon. You want to leave the woody stems alone, but any new green shoots? Those are fair game. To encourage further growth, snip right above a bunch of leaves. (Pun alert: Thyme is a hardy grower. You cannot stop thyme. Insert groan here.)


End of season: In all except the hottest climes, thyme is a perennial. It’ll die back and get its beauty sleep in winter, though gardeners in cold zones might want to cover it with a tarp or tree boughs to avoid—well, killing thyme. (Get it? Killing "thyme"? What? Too many puns?)



Got your own method of pinching parsley? Or have thoughts to share on another herb entirely—lavender, perhaps? Post a comment below and keep the conversation rolling. You might also be interested in the Freezing, Drying, and Storing Herbs 101; the Drying Chile Peppers 101; and the Selecting Seeds and Seed Starting 101s. If you’re a diehard herbophile, you might consider joining the Herb Lovers group. And you can always find more things to cook, preserve, make, craft, plant, grow, and pinch in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.



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Parsley is actually a biennial, but is treated as an annual at least in MI. Plan to experiment with leaving the roots in the ground and see if they come up next spring.

Thanks, Mary! Updated the 101 to reflect your good catch!

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