Green Thumb – Ask the Master Gardeners About Herbs

Posted: March 9, 2021

When people ask you how you take such good care of your herb garden… Tell them you have lots of thyme!

Herbs are in a special category of their own because they are timeless. The ancient Greeks considered parsley sacred. In Medieval times, knights wore small stems of thyme on their armor for courage. Basil originated in India and reached the Mediterranean on the spice routes. Ancient Romans thought chives made you strong, and fed it to racehorses and wrestlers. Makes you wonder how much they had to eat.

If you don’t have space for a kitchen garden with herbs this summer, many of them can be grown in containers.

Here are the answers to some questions you might have about herbs. The Master Gardener Help Desk is closed due to COVID-19. But gardening questions can be emailed to uiemg-dekalb@illinois.edu.

Q:  What causes basil to lose its flavor or taste bitter?

A:  Basil is a bit of a diva. Overwatering or underwatering can affect the taste of the leaves. Don’t put it out too soon because a temperature of 50 degrees can stunt its growth and cause blackened leaves. Most important, be sure to pinch off blossoms as soon as they form. If the flowers mature and go to seed, the leaves will become bitter. For best flavor grow basil in soil that is rich in organic matter. Be advised that Japanese beetles like it.

Q:  When is the best time to pick the leaves off dill?

A:  Dill is a cool season herb that is hardy to 25 degrees F. It is best grown in spring because it bolts in hot summer temperatures. Young leaves contain the most aromatic oils. They are tastiest right after flower buds form, and when picked just before using them. If you are only interested in the fern-like leaves, referred to as dill weed, you should remove the flower heads to encourage your plants to keep producing foliage.

Q:  What is the difference between the two types of parsley?

A:  Flat-leaf parsley, also called Italian parsley, is preferred by many for cooking because it has more flavor. The curled form has leaves that are finely cut and tightly curled. It is often used for a garnish. The old leaves can be bitter.

Q:  Which herbs come back each year?

A:  Chives, thyme, mint, lavender, and sage are perennials. Basil and cilantro must be planted each spring. Some herbs, such as dill, reseed themselves. Buy a dill plant and it will reward you for years.

Q:  What is the right way to pick herbs?

A:  Pick off about an inch or so from the tip of each stem, depending upon the size of the plant. Keep them pruned, but don’t cut more than 1/3 of the foliage. This will keep your plant bushy. Don’t cut stems from the base of your plant or the uncut stems will grow tall and lanky.

Q:  Which herbs grow well in a pot? Can they be planted in the same container?

A:  Some plants just shouldn’t live together. Mint and chives like to be kept moist. Thyme, rosemary and sage like their pot to dry before being thoroughly watered. Parsley likes to be kept lightly moist. Yellow parsley leaves can be a sign of both over and underwatering. Basil doesn’t like waterlogged roots, but will be stressed if kept too dry.

For more information about growing, preserving and cooking with herbs visit https://web.extension.illinois.edu/herbs/.

Got a Gardening Question?

The Master Gardener Help Desk is closed due to COVID-19. But gardening questions can be emailed to uiemg-dekalb@illinois.edu.


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