Growing culinary herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary, and parsley is essential if you’re a gardener who loves to cook. Most herbs are easy to grow in garden beds and containers and can be harvested throughout the summer months. Harvesting herbs isn’t difficult; it’s just a matter of knowing when to harvest to preserve maximum flavor and how to harvest to encourage fresh growth. Keep reading to find out more about how to harvest herbs.
Types of culinary herbs
When learning how to harvest herbs it’s important to think about the part of the plant you’re going to harvest. For culinary herbs, there are typically three parts we harvest – the leaves, the flowers, or the seeds. Some herbs like cilantro/coriander and chives are harvested for multiple edible parts.
- Leaves – Common herbs harvested for their leaves include types of oregano, basil, thyme, parsley, sage, dill, chives, and cilantro.
- Flowers – Herbs grown for their edible flowers include German chamomile, chives, borage, calendula, and lavender.
- Seeds – There are many herbs grown for their edible seeds. Popular choices include coriander, dill, anise, and fennel.
When to harvest herbs
To maximize flavor from your herbs, especially if you’re planning to dry or freeze them you’ll want to harvest when they have the highest levels of essential oils. This means harvesting at the right time of year and the right time of day.
Time of year – When I first started growing herbs like basil and oregano, I would wait until the end of summer and mass harvest the plants for drying. Now I know that by the end of summer the plants are tired and most of the flavor is gone. Instead it’s best to cut herbs when the oils responsible for the flavors are at their highest levels. For foliage herbs like basil or oregano that’s just before the plants flower. With flowering herbs like chamomile, that’s when the blooms just open. Harvest herbs grown for their seeds like coriander, when the seeds have matured and dried. If you’re not growing herbs to dry or freeze, but just wish to have a steady supply for summer cooking, it’s fine to harvest whenever you need a burst of flavor.
Time of day – It’s not just time of year that you need to consider. It’s also important to harvest herbs at the right time of day. Herbs have more flavor early in the day before the heat from the sun dissipates their oils. Plan on clipping herbs in the morning once the dew has evaporated. This is particularly important if you plan to dry or dehydrate the leaves, flowers, or seeds. If you’re just grabbing a handful of basil to sprinkle over your pasta it’s fine to harvest as needed.
Tools for harvesting herbs
You don’t need special equipment to gather herbs from your gardens and containers. There are three tools I reach for when it’s time to harvest from my herbs: my fingertips, herb snips, and hand pruners.
- Fingertips – Using your fingers is a handy way to pinch off fresh sprigs of herbs like basil, chives, parsley, and cilantro. Don’t try to harvest woody herbs with your fingers, however. You can damage the plants if you try to break or twist off the strong stems.
- Herb snips – Herb snips are a compact cutting tool that are perfect for the soft herbaceous growth of herbs like basil, dill, and parsley as well as slender woody herbs like thyme and oregano. There are different sizes and styles of herbs snips with most small enough to fit in a pocket. For a slightly larger tool, I also love my garden shears, which have slightly larger handles and blades than herb snips.
- Hand pruners – My Felco 2 pruners are a classic pruning tool and my go-to when I need to harvest large amounts of herbs like Greek oregano, chamomile, chives, and parsley for drying or freezing. They also make clean cuts when harvesting the stems of woody herbs like sage and rosemary.
Always use clean tools to harvest herbs. Wipe the blades in between cutting different types of herbs and sharpen them regularly. To learn more about caring for hand pruners, check out this article by Garden Gate magazine.
How to harvest herbs for leaves
The plants of culinary herbs may form branching plants with a main stem and side branches (basil, oregano) or have leaves that emerge right from the ground (chives and parsley). To harvest from branching herbs, clip in a way that simulates new growth. This typically means pinching or cutting back to a fresh set of leaves. It’s also beneficial to harvest often from branching herbs. New gardeners may be shy about using their herbs, but regular trimming prevents leggy growth and encourages well-branched plants.
To harvest from herbs with leaves or stalks that emerge from the centre of the plant you can snip them down to the soil. Plants that grow straight from the ground include chives and curly and Italian parsley. If gathering from several types of herbs or harvesting a large amount of any one herb, I find it helpful to bring a basket or garden trug into the garden with me.
I also use my fingers or herb snips to pinch off flower buds that appear on herbs grown for leaf production. This sends a signal to the plant to keep producing leaves and extends the high-quality harvest season. This works for herbs like basil, mint, and oregano.
How to harvest herbs for flowers
Many herbs are harvested for their aromatic or flavorful flowers. My favorites include German chamomile, chives, borage, calendula, and lavender. The general rule of thumb when gathering herbs for the flowers is to harvest when the flowers are almost opened or have just opened, depending on the type of herb.
For lavender, harvest before the blossoms open and cut the stalks where they emerge from the plant. For flowering herbs like chives, chamomile, or calendula, pinch or clip off the flowers as they open removing the entire flower head. I love growing chamomile for fresh and dried tea and when the plants bloom in early summer I harvest about 90% of the flowers. I leave some of the blooms to mature on the plant so they can self-sow the following year.
How to harvest herbs for seeds
Herbs like coriander, anise, and dill are harvested for their seeds which are used as spices in the kitchen. They’re gathered when the seed heads have dried and turned brown, although dill can also be harvested in the green seed stage an ingredient in pickling. Once the seed heads have turned brown, I use herb snips or hand pruners to clip them into paper bags. Label the bags and leave them to dry further in a warm, well-ventilated spot. After seven to ten days the seeds can be separated from the chaff and stored in glass jars or containers.
How to harvest herbs
Wondering when you can start to harvest from your basil or parsley plants? Check out this list of 12 essential culinary herbs below for tips on timing and harvesting.
- Basil – Start pinching basil stems back once the plants are about 8” tall with your fingers or herb snips. Always cut back to a fresh set of leaves. Basil flavor is most intense before flowering. When flower buds appear, pinch them out to simulate new leaf growth.
- Chamomile – Harvest the flowers as they open by pinching individual blooms with your fingers or herb snips. You can also cut stems to hang in bunches. Once you’ve gathered the flowers, spread them in a single layer to dry. Make sure they are completely dry before storing in jars or containers.
- Chives – Start harvesting in spring when the plants are 6” tall. Pick individual stems for fresh use or clip bundles of the grassy leaves for freezing or drying. Cut plants back to the ground after flowering to encourage a flush of tender new leaves.
- Cilantro – Begin to pick cilantro when the stems are 6 to 8” long. Pinch or clip individual stems back to the ground. Sadly cilantro is a short-lived herb and best harvested before it starts to produce flower stalks. Sow more seed every four weeks for a continual crops.
- Coriander – Coriander seeds are the seeds of cilantro plants that were allowed to flower. Gather the round seeds when they have turned brown and are completely dry.
- Dill – Start harvesting the fresh greens when the plants are 6 to 8” tall. You can also harvest the seeds at the green stage for pickles or when fully dried for the spice cupboard.
- Lemon balm – I start to harvest about a month after transplanting the seedlings into containers. Pluck individual leaves or clip side shoots back to a main stem. Use the lemony leaves dry or fresh in teas and fruit salads.
- Mint – Once the stems of this perennial herb emerge in spring you can start to pick tender leaves for tea. To dry large amounts harvest the stems before they flower. Cut the stems back to 3 to 6” above the ground. This hard cut in mid-summer generates plenty of flavorful new leaves for late summer.
- Oregano – I begin to harvest small amounts in mid spring when the plants are just 6” tall. To dry oregano, harvest en masse just before the plants flower in early summer. Use garden snips or shears to cut the stems about halfway down. After the first cut for drying, let the plants to grow back and cut again.
- Parsley – Harvest sprigs throughout summer, using your fingers to pinch out individual stalks all the way to the base of the plant. You can also cut the plants back by half for drying and cut again once they grow back.
- Rosemary – Clip sprigs once the plants are 6 to 8” tall and continue throughout summer. Use kitchen scissors or herb snips to harvest the woody shoots. Strip the leaves from the stem by running your fingers down the stem.
- Thyme – Harvest anytime for everyday use, but if clipping large amounts for drying cut before the plants flower. Thyme is a woody herb and you’ll need shears or herb snips to harvest. Don’t try to break off stems with your fingers as that may damage the plant.
How much to harvest?
Another consideration when learning how to harvest herbs is how much you can harvest at once. The general rule is to remove no more than one-third of the plant at any one time. For perennial herbs like oregano and mint I will shear the plants back hard removing about 50% of the stems just before they flower. This gives me plenty of leaves to dry for winter but the plants also produce a flush of fresh, flavorful growth for future harvests.
Gather only healthy, disease-free foliage and flowers. Avoid spraying herbs with pesticides, organic or inorganic. I also like to give my freshly cut bundles of herbs a good shake before bringing them indoors. This helps dislodge any insects that may be on the plants.
What to do with your homegrown herbs
I love using my bounty of homegrown herbs daily from late spring through frost in my cooking. I pinch and snip stems and sprigs as needed, but I also harvest large quantities for drying or freezing. You can hang herbs in small bundles to dry, dry individual leaves (this works well for herbs like mint), or dry the foliage or flowers in a dehydrator. Herbs like chamomile, mint, Greek oregano, and thyme respond well to drying.
For herbs like basil, chives, and parsley I prefer to freeze my harvest as it preserves their flavor better than drying. To freeze rinse and chop the herbs. Place the chopped herbs in ice cube trays or herb trays. Add a bit of water or olive oil and freeze. Once frozen, you can pop the herbal ‘ice cubes’ out of the trays and store in labelled freezer bags. Use them to add a burst of summer flavor to winter pastas, soups, and other dishes.
For more information on growing and harvesting herbs, be sure to check out the following articles: