Sage advice to cut thyme

Tips for harvesting fresh herbs

Fresh herbs, such as basil and sage, are a gardener's delight
Fresh herbs, such as basil and sage, are a gardener's delight

As a group, culinary herbs are my favorite garden plants. Easy to grow, they require little care, are subject to few insect and disease problems, and generally prefer moderate soil fertility levels. They also add fragrance and beauty to the garden. Many herbs, such as lavender, sage, and purple basil, are ornamental and work nicely in flower or vegetable gardens.

Throughout the growing season, herbs do need some attention, including weeding, watering, and harvesting. Most established herb plants don’t need additional watering, but when rainfall is less than 1 inch per week, additional moisture may be needed. The key is to avoid overwatering.

Harvesting of herbs can be done throughout the growing season. Here are some tips:

Pruning herbs gives you leaves with which to flavor food and promotes compact, bushy plants. Most herbs that will be used for cooking should be harvested just as flower buds appear, when plants have the most volatile oils and the best flavor. For the greatest concentration of oils, harvest early in the morning, just after the dew evaporates but before the sun is hot. Scissors or pruning shears work best for trimming plants.

Annual herbs grown for their leaves, such as basil, summer savory, and sweet marjoram, should be cut back to approximately 6 inches, to just above a leaf or pair of leaves. Most annual leafy herbs don’t survive frost or freezing, so if a frost is predicted, remove as much of the plant as you want to preserve for cooking.

Dill and cilantro/coriander are annual herbs grown for their leaves and seeds. If you’re growing for seeds, allow the plant to mature before harvesting and collect the seed heads as they turn a light brown. Place the seed heads upside down in a paper bag, allow them to dry for about 14 days, and shake the seeds off the stems before removing the stems from the bag.

Prune leafy perennial herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, and oregano by removing a third of the top growth at a time. Avoid heavy pruning of perennial herbs after the beginning of September. In the fall, plants that will overwinter need to start shutting down; heavy pruning promotes new growth, which keeps the plant “awake.”

Herbs are best fresh, but most can be dried or frozen for later use. Before preserving herbs, wash them to remove dirt and other particles.

Jennifer Fishburn is a unit educator with the University of Illinois Extension, Sangamon-Menard Unit. For more information, go to


Fresh-Herb Spread
Two sticks unsalted lowfat margarine, room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh green basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Using kitchen scissors, chop the herbs fairly fine. Blend herbs and lemon juice into margarine with a spoon. (Don’t use electric mixer, food processor, or blender unless you want the spread to be green.) Make the spread a day or two before you plan to use it so that the flavors will blend. Serve on bread or crackers. Makes 16 tablespoons. Nutrient analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 50 calories, 6 g fat, 0 g cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrate, trace sodium.

Those who would like more information on pruning herbs should attend the University of Illinois Sangamon-Menard Extension Unit’s latest program, “Harvesting Herbs,” at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31. The program will be held at the extension building, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

The free seminar includes a walk through the master-gardener herb demonstration garden, hands-on harvesting techniques, and a slide show on culinary herbs. Jennifer Fishburn, horticulture education with the extension and “Plantwise” columnist, will be teaching the program.

Register by Aug. 28 by calling 217-782-4617.

About The Author

Jennifer Fishburn

Unit Educator, Horticulture University of Illinois Extension

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