University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Winnebago & Boone counties

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Gardening with Herbs - Part 2

Last issue discussed history and general culture of herbs. A number of herbs may be grown successfully in Northern Illinois. Remember, in general herbs like full sun and well-drained soil. Let’s look at a few of them.

Basil, grown as an annual in northern Illinois, is available in a variety of colors, textures and forms. Because basil plants are attractive dark green or red, they can easily be incorporated into a flower border. The spicy leaves are the main ingredient in pesto and often used in tomato sauces.

Basil loves warmth and is damaged by temperatures below 50 degrees. Easy to start from seed, basil can be sown directly in the garden in the middle to the end of May. Thin to 8 to 12 inches apart. Prevent basil from going to seed by removing the flower buds as soon as they appear. Harvest basil by cutting back to one or two pairs of leaves. The plants will recover rapidly in warm weather and may be picked repeatedly. Add the edible flowers to salads. Excess basil may be dried for winter use.

Cilantro and coriander give you two herbs (although coriander is considered a spice) in one plant. Cilantro is the green leaves and coriander is the seed of Coriandrum sativum. Cilantro, also called Chinese or Mexican parsley, is used in Mexican and Asian cuisine, and is a major ingredient in salsa.

In spring after danger of frost has passed, plant seeds one inch apart in rows 20 to 30 inches wide. Do not thin seedlings. Gather cilantro by cutting at the base the whole cluster or rosette of leaves after significant growth. If flower and seed stalks begin to form, leaves may still be harvested. If your main objective is cilantro, you should plant slow bolting varieties at one to two week intervals. In hot weather it may be impossible to prevent flower stalks from forming (bolting). Plant again in late summer for fall harvest.

For coriander allow the plant to flower and form seeds. Cut the seed heads off when they start turning brown but before they shatter-about 90 days from planting. After drying, remove the inner hearts of the seed by rubbing in your hands. Discard the green seed, stalks, and foliage, which have an off-taste. Coriander flavors sausage, cooked fruits, salads, and breads. It may be added whole or crushed to sachets and potpourris.

Lavender flowers and foliage scent perfumes, sachets, and potpourris. It may also be used to flavor cakes, frostings, and vinegar. Lavender is a perennial plant that often does not flower well until the second year. Because it is borderline hardy in our area, it must be located in a protected site with well-drained soil. Winter mulch is helpful. 'Munstead,' 'Hidcote,' and 'Lavender Lady' are hardier varieties. 'Lavender Lady' frequently blooms the first year from seed. For maximum fragrance harvest leaves and flowers just as the last blooms on the stalk are opening. The aromatic oils peak at that time.

Oregano is a hardy perennial. Only true Greek oregano has the sweet pure flavor needed in cooking. True Greek oregano has small white flowers and is difficult to reproduce from seed. Buy plants from a reputable source. Many plants and seeds sold as oregano are its close cousin marjoram. Marjoram produces large purplish pink flowers and is inferior in taste. Leaves may be harvested anytime but are most flavorful just before flowers open. Use oregano fresh or dried.

Thyme is a wonderful low growing perennial with a multitude of fragrances and flavors. French or English thyme are best for cooking. Other thymes are grown for their ornamental or fragrance qualities. Thyme is propagated by seed, division, and cuttings. Three to four year old plants need to be divided or replaced because older plants are woody and the leaves less flavorful. Harvest when plants begin to bloom by cutting off the top five to six inches of growth. Two or more crops may be gathered during the season.

For peak quality herbs should be harvested in the morning after the dew has dried. Do not wash herbs for drying unless they are covered with dirt. Clean leaves should not be washed because it removes some of the essential oils.

Dry herbs in a dark well ventilated area. The two most common methods are bag drying and tray drying. For bag drying bundle eight to twelve stems together. Place the stems in a paper bag with one to two inches of stem sticking out of the end of the bag. Tie together and let dry. In tray drying method the larger stems are removed before drying. Set the leaves and small stems in a single layer on trays. Turn herbs daily for even drying.

Leave herb leaves whole to preserve their flavor and aroma. Crush just before using. Store dry herbs in airtight containers. Under good conditions herbs will retain maximum flavor for two years. Exposure to light, heat, and air reduces quality.

June - July 2000: Gardening with Hebs - Part 2 | Chlorosis of Landscape Plants | Looking Ahead to White Grub Control

Past Issues

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