How to harvest your herb garden without killing the plants

A few sprigs of this, a few leaves of that – fresh herbs are one of the easiest ways to make any meal more exciting. And it’s all the more satisfying when you’ve developed your own, as many in the San Antonio area began to do during the coronavirus pandemic.

But if you’ve suddenly found yourself staring at an overgrown basil or rosemary bush with shears in hand and no certainty of where to start harvesting that aromatic bounty, fear not. With a little know-how, you can cut and pluck these plants for months without doing enough harm to kill them prematurely.

There are a few general rules that apply to most culinary leafy herbs. If there are flowers on the plant, it is busy thinking about making seeds and not tasty greenery. To keep your herbs lush and bushy, snip off any flower buds or spikes as they form.

Many herbs are tastiest after the morning dew has evaporated, but before the heat of the day removes the aromatic oils that give plants their unique taste. Plan your kitchen accordingly or place those freshly cut herb sprigs in a cup of water on the kitchen counter to keep them plump for a few hours.

Some of the more popular culinary herbs have harvesting characteristics that are worth noting.

Basil: Basil will be more lush and tender if watered the day before harvest. If you need more than a few leaves, cut the basil stems to about a third of the way up just above a cluster of leaves.

Coriander: Cut off the tender top third of the cilantro stems starting at the outer edges of the plant. If you don’t take more than a third of the plant at a time and leave enough of each stem intact, the cilantro will continue to grow again.

Oregano: Cut off the small, tender strands just above the point on the main shoots where the strands begin to encourage new growth. Oregano will have the most intense flavor by the time the flower buds start to form.

Mint: You can get quite aggressive when harvesting mint. As long as some leafy growth is left behind, the plant will continue its relentless march towards taking over the entire herb bed.

Rosemary: Cut the first 2 inches of strands at least 8 inches long. If you harvest a lot of rosemary, leave at least three-quarters of the plant intact to keep it alive and allow it to regrow before cutting more.

Thyme: If you cut small sprigs of thyme just above the knot where it meets the main stem, you will both encourage the plant to grow and end up with sprigs tender enough to chop them along with the leaves.

As for my cooking exploits this week, I now have a refrigerator full of ice cream pies. If your sweet tooth is agitated, try one of the following treats.

Paul Stephen is a food and beverage journalist and restaurant critic in the San Antonio area and Bexar County. To learn more about Paul, become a subscriber. [email protected] | Twitter: @pjbites | Instagram: @pjstephen

Terri S. Tomasini