University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone and Winnebago counties

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Every gardener should grow at least a few herbs. The flavor of fresh herbs in your cooking is worth the small effort of growing them. If you are not a cook, herbs can be used for fragrance, color, and texture in potpourri and crafts. Whether you plant a separate herb garden or incorporate them into your flower or vegetable garden, you will not be disappointed.

Like any plant, growing location and plant preferences must be kept in mind. Most herbs thrive in full sun, but will grow satisfactorily in four to six hours of sun per day. They will not grow in wet, poorly drained soil, but are not finicky about other soil conditions like soil type and pH. The notable exceptions are sage, rosemary, and thyme that must have moist well-drained soil. If your soil is too wet consider raised beds or pots. Herbs actually prefer low to medium fertility soils. Overly rich soil or fertilizing reduces the quality and quantity of the oils and essences that make herbs so desirable.

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 cuisines, 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.

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.

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. Clean leaves should not be washed, because it removes some of the essential oils. Dry herbs in a dark well ventilated area. 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 2003: Herbs | "Pretty" Purple Plants Can be Pesky Plants | Long Term Planning Leads to Successful Gardening | Honey Bees, Wasps and More | Rust Diseases on Home Lawns

Past Issues

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