University of Illinois Extension


"Thyme" for Herb Gardening

A little herb goes a long way in adding flavor to many food dishes. The leaves and sometimes the seeds of herb plants (see chart) can be used for seasoning or scenting. Many herbs also are grown for their bright flowers and foliage.

Herbs can be raised inside in containers or outdoors in vegetable gardens, flower beds or rock gardens. Locate perennial herbs at the side of the garden so they will not be in the way during plowing time.

Only a few plants are needed to supply a family with herbs. A well-drained area is best for growing herbs. Little or no fertilizer is required.

Getting Herbs Started

Annual and biennial herbs can be grown from seeds. Sow seeds in shallow rows. Perennial herbs can be propagated by division or cuttings-- allowing you to grow new plants from old.

Perennial plants should be divided every three to four years in the early spring. Dig up these plants and cut into several sections. Another method of propagation is to cut 4-to-6-inch sections of the stem and place the cuttings in moist sand in a shady area. Roots should form on these cuttings in four to eight weeks.

Gardening Glossary

    Annual - Bloom one season and die
    Biennial - Live two seasons, blooming second season only
    Foliage - Leaf growth
    Perennial - Bloom each season once established
    Plant oil - Plant oil gives herbs their flavor, aroma
    Propagate - To grow new plants from seeds, cuttings, division
    Sow - To plant seed for growth

Harvesting Herbs

Leaves may be cut from the plant as they are needed. Most herbs reach their peak for flavor before flowering. That is the best stage to harvest leaves or seeds for storage. Herbs may be dried or frozen before storing. Dried herbs are three to four times stronger than fresh plants.

Preserving Herbs

The shelf life of many herbs is one to two years but this period is shorter when herbs are exposed to light, heat and open air. Herb leaves keep their flavor best when they are stored whole and crushed just before use. When herb seeds are to be used for cooking, the seeds should be stored whole and ground up as needed.

Bag Drying

To prepare plants for drying, remove blossoms from the herb plant and rinse the leaves on the stem in cold water to remove soil. Allow plants to drain on absorbent towels until dry.

The bag method of drying requires placing herbs when they are dry upside down in a brown paper bag and tying the stems. Leave 1 to 2 inches of the stems exposed. This allows the plant oil to flow from the stems to the leaves.

Place the bag in a warm, dry location. In about one to two weeks, when the leaves become brittle, tap them free of the stems and the leaves will fall into the bag. Store leaves in an airtight container away from the light.

Tray Drying

Clean herbs as for bag drying but the heavy stalks can be discarded. Put the leafed stems one layer deep on a tray in a dark, ventilated room. Turn over the herbs occasionally for uniform drying. The leaves are ready for storage when they are dry and the stems are tough.

Freezing Flavor

Herbs also may be frozen. Rinse herbs in cold water and blanch in boiling, unsalted water for 5 seconds or until bright green. Cool quickly in ice water, package and freeze. Dill, parsley, chives and basil can be frozen without blanching.

Anise Harvest leaves as needed Leaves in salads, stews; seeds for cookies, pastries
Basil Pick leaves as needed Leaves in tomato dishes, ground meats, soups, stews, salads
Coriander Harvest plant when seeds ripen Crushed seeds in meats, sauces, soups, cookies, salads
Dill Pick leaves as flowers open Seed heads in pickles, cheese, eggs; Seeds are ready when flat, brown. seeds in soup, sauces, vegetables
Summer Savory Cut shoots when plant flowers Leaves in meats, fish, soups, beans
Caraway Seeds ripen about a month after flowering Leaves in salads. Seeds in breads, cakes, soups
Parsley Cut leaves as needed In any nonsweet dish
Chive Cut leaves as needed Chopped leaves when onion flavor is desired
Garlic Harvest bulbs when leaves dry Cloves in meats, stews, salads
Mint Use leaves any time Peppermint leaves in fruit cocktails, ice cream. Spearmint in iced tea, lamb, jelly.
Oregano Harvest leaves as needed Leaves in soups, stews, salads
Rosemary Leaves can be cut any time Leaves in meat, sauces, soups
Sage Cut leaves before flowering Leaves in dressing, eggs, fish, meat dishes
Tarragon Harvest leaves as needed Leaves in salads, fish, poultry dishes
Thyme Cut leaves any time Leaves in most non-sweet foods

Indoor Herbs

Growing herbs inside requires good drainage, sunlight and adequate water. A south or west windowsill provides a good spot for an herb garden. Mix two parts sterilized potting soil and one part coarse sand or perlite for the containers. There should be an inch of gravel at the bottom of each pot for drainage.

Winter Protection

Bringing your herb garden indoors for the winter is one way to ensure flavor for winter casseroles, soups and stews and to protect your plants from winter weather. Biennial and perennial herbs may be transplanted to indoor containers. New plants also may be started indoors for winter growing. For those herbs remaining outdoors, apply a mulch of straw or of oak leaves 4 inches deep after the ground is frozen. A light frost on mint, chives and tarragon encourages a rest period. The resulting new growth is firm and fresh.