You may have heard that herbs thrive on neglect. While it's true that growing these flavorful plants is pretty easy, you definitely do not want to neglect your herb garden. Once they are in the ground and growing, most herbs are quickly ready for harvesting, unlike most other edibles that need time to ripen and mature,
The key to keeping them growing is to harvest often. Leaves are the parts of popular herbs most often used in cooking, and cutting them back a bit throughout the growing season will encourage healthy growth, an attractive shape, and keep most producing until frost.
When to Harvest Herbs
When it comes to herbs, harvesting equals pruning and is most often done to encourage growth, especially with fast-growing annual herbs like basil, dill, and cilantro. Snipping new growth causes these plants to branch and produce more foliage. The same holds true for slower growing perennial herbs like thyme, sage and rosemary. There are several good practices to consider when choosing the best time to harvest.
Annual vs. Perennial
Just because an herb is an annual plant doesn't mean you have to take the entire herb to harvest the leaves. In fact, you should never remove an entire healthy plant until the final harvest right before a killing frost. Pinching or snipping stems and leaves will stimulate the growth of more stems and leaves. So as soon as annual herbs are mature enough to withstand a bit of cutting back, it's time to begin pruning for shape and harvesting the foliage you've removed. Your first harvest may be small but if you keep consistent you will be filling a basket before the season ends.
Perennial herbs tend to develop woody stems as they mature. Your harvesting efforts during the growing season should focus on the new, tender green part of the plant, and avoid cutting into the woody parts. New shoots will not grow from wood and doing this will limit your harvest. You can begin harvesting taller stems as soon as they leaf out with 2 to 3 inches of foliage.
Most herbs are harvested from the top or outsides of the plant. Dill, cilantro and parsley leaves and stems can also can be harvested from the bottom of the central stem. Lower leaves on these plants tend to brown out as they age. Sometimes pinching out the the top of the central stem will delay bolting (going to flower and seed.) Keep in mind that some herbs, especially annuals that prefer cooler weather, will have a limited lifetime once hot weather sets in.
The perennial chive plant is harvested by cutting leaves at the base. This is one herb that won't branch out. The chive is a bulb that multiplies rapidly beneath the soil. Harvest chives by snipping leaves from the outside of the plant, leaving the center intact.
Before Getting Started
Regardless of whether the herb is annual or perennial, a tell-tale sign that they need a bit of cutting back is the appearance of buds and flowers. Visually inspect the garden. Are any of the annuals starting to look leggy and droopy? Are your perennials budding or flowering? Whenever the answer is "yes," it's time to harvest.
Equipment / Tools
- Herb snips or small hand pruners
- Harvest basket or trug
Harvesting Stems with Leaves
Edible herbs harvested for their leaves include both annuals and perennials like basil, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, dill, tarragon, savory, cilantro, chives, parsley, mint and more.
Choose a Stem
Look for stems with several sets of lush green leaves and green stems.
It's okay to choose a stem from anywhere on the plant as long as you don't take more than 1/3 of the entire plant at any one cutting.
Keep in mind that you are also pruning for growth so consider how you want to shape the herb for the most pleasing look.
Cut or Pinch Above a Node
Using your snippers, make a slightly angled cut about 1/4 inch above a leaf node.
Alternatively you can use your thumb and index finger to pinch tender stems and to remove unwanted buds and flowers.
Don't panic if you see a flower. Harvest the stem and dispose of the flower or pinch off just the flower. As long as it hasn't gone to seed, the stem will continue to grow.
Harvest for Shape
Continue harvesting all the leaves and stems until your herb plant has an even look with a nicely rounded or mounding shape.
Most herbs, annuals especially, have a rapid growth rate. It's a good idea to check up on your herbs every few days.
End of Season Harvesting
You may harvest an entire annual herb at end of the growing season or prior to a first frost. The plant can be pulled up roots and all or you can simply cut it down to ground level. Although some annual herbs reseed readily, none will regrow from the same root next year.
Perennial herbs can benefit from a hard pruning of up to two-thirds of the plant after the first frost or in early spring. Now is the time to cut back woody parts to reshape the plant. Pruning and harvesting immature plants in the fall directs more energy into developing a strong root system. For mature perennials with established roots, a hard pruning in spring will stimulate growth.