Why Are My Herbs Drooping? (The Solution)


Why are my herbs drooping

Are your herbs drooping, and are you not sure why? I love growing herbs for the convenience of a huge burst of flavor in my cooking, so I know how disheartening it can be if you have a window box, pot, or garden of your favorite herbs drooping despite your best efforts.

I have been growing different herbs and gardening all my life and I have personally encounter all the problems that I talk about in this article.

I’ll talk you through how to identify the specific reason why your herbs are wilting and give you a step-by-step guide on how to implement the solutions that I have learned to save your herbs!

Drooping herbs can result from overwatering, underwatering, extreme heat, or too much fertilizer. Mediterranean herbs such as lavender and rosemary mostly droop because of overwatering and fertilizer, whereas leafy annual herbs such as basil and cilantro often droop due to underwatering and heat stress.

As there is a wide variety of reasons for drooping herbs, I created a table to help you pinpoint the problem…

Slow-draining soils:Reasons for Herbs Drooping:
Watering too often:Overwatering herbs prevents the roots from up-taking nutrients and moisture which causes drooping.
Slow-draining soils:Soil draining too slowly promotes the conditions for root rot causing the herbs to turn yellow with a drooping appearance.
Underwatering:Pots can dry out very quickly and should be watered more often to prevent herbs such as basil and cilantro from drooping.
Hot weather:High temperatures cause herbs to droop temporarily as a survival strategy to conserve water, even if the soil is moist.
Too much fertilizer:Too much nitrogen causes excess growth with weaker stems causing the herb to droop.
Lack of pruning:Annual leafy herbs such as basil and cilantro should be pruned every 3 weeks in Summer to maintain shape and prevent drooping foliage.
Not enough sunlight:Mediterranean herbs require full sun and can grow leggy and droop when in too much shade.

But first, there is something I should clarify…

The most important distinction between popular herbs (which influences why they droop) is that Mediterranean herbs such as lavender, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano are adapted to tolerate drought and grow in dryer conditions with lots of sun and sandy soils that are lower in fertility whereas leafy annual herbs such as basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint and chives prefer more soil moisture, regular pruning and can grow in partial shade.

Keep reading to learn my best solutions…

1. Watering Herbs Too Often Causes Drooping

I find this can be a surprising reason for many people who have just started growing herbs because I think it sounds a little counterintuitive…

Watering herbs too often excludes oxygen from the soil, which interferes with the herb’s root’s ability to uptake moisture and nutrients. This causes herbs to turn yellow with a drooping and dying appearance. Overwatering also causes root rot, resulting in herbs turning yellow and drooping.

One of the most common reasons our Mediterranean herbs, such as lavender and rosemary, droop is that they are overwatered.

I think for us to appreciate what is causing our herbs to droop, it is best if we understand how our herbs grow in the wild…

Mediterranean herbs are drought resistant as they are specially adapted to the climate of Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece where they experience infrequent rainfall, in full sun, and grow in sandy well-draining soils.

Therefore, if planted in pots without significant rainfall, I find my herbs generally require watering once every two weeks in Summer, and in my experience, they do not require any additional water once established in garden borders.

If you ware watering more often then this then you are overwatering your Mediterranean herbs (or perhaps there has been too much rain) and this is the reason they are drooping, so scale back the watering immediately, so that the roots have a chance to dry out and your herbs can recover.

As Mediterranean herbs prefer dryer conditions, they are particularly vulnerable to root rot from overwatering, which causes them to turn yellow or brown and droop.

(If your herbs are turning yellow, brown, and drooping, read my articles on how to revive a dying Lavender, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, and Oregano for more information on how to save herbs with root rot).

However, our annual herbs, such as basil, parsley, and cilantro prefer moist soil conditions and are therefore less vulnerable to drooping because of overwatering. However, they can still droop as a result of saturated soil which excludes oxygen from the soil which is required for root respiration.

Parsley leaves turning yellow and drooping due to overwatering.
Here are some parsley leaves that are drooping. I was able to identify the reason they were drooping was because they were in a pot without proper drainage holes, so the water was trapped, and the soil was saturated.

If the roots cannot respire, they cannot uptake moisture and nutrients causing the herb to droop, turn yellow, and die back.

To solve the problem, the first thing that you do is to scale back the watering of your annual herbs, as they typically only need to be watered once every 3-7 days.

(Exactly how often to water your herbs depends on several factors, read my article on how to water herbs to learn more about when to water your herbs according to your conditions).

Once the soil has had a chance to dry out, it should return to normal in the following weeks.

My method of watering herbs is to feel the soil to a finger’s depth. If the soil still feels moist and cool, then this is perfect, and you can delay watering for a day or two until the surface of the soil feels slightly dry; then I give it a really good soak.

Do consider that overwatering, slow-draining soils, and pots without drainage holes in the base all have the same effect of retaining too much moisture around the roots of herbs, causing them to droop, as in the photo above.

So, to resolve the problem, you can either drill some holes in the bottom of the pot or do as I did and find a transplant of your herbs to a different pot if you have one handy as I did. The parsley in the photo rebounded and perked up after 2 weeks once I sorted the drainage.

Therefore, I always emphasize to people starting to grow herbs that they should always plant their herbs in pots with drainage holes in the base and avoid using a saucer or tray underneath the pot, as this can effectively prevent excess water from draining away from the roots, causing root rot.

Pro tip: What I often do with my herbs is place the pot on ‘feet’ (I just use decorative stones) to elevate the pot off the ground when I grow them on my patio. This allows the water to flow freely from the base, which prevents root rot. I can also tell if my herbs are watered sufficiently, as water should always trickle from the base as a visual cue that the moisture has reached the herb’s roots where it is required.

(Read my article, on How to Revive Dying Herbs if your herbs are drooping, yellow, and have a dying appearance).

2. Slow Draining Soils Results in Drooping, Dying Herbs

From experience, I see that this is more of an issue with the woody Mediterranean herbs.

Herbs’ stems and leaves droop in slow-draining or saturated soil, which promotes the conditions for the fungal disease root rot and prevents the herb’s roots from drawing up the nutrients and moisture they require. As a result, herbs droop, turn yellow and die back.

All herbs require well-draining soil with a porous structure that allows water to infiltrate, allowing moisture to reach the roots yet draining away effectively so that the roots are not sat in boggy, saturated soil.

If the soil drains too slowly because the herbs are planted in clay soil or boggy areas of the garden then this promotes the conditions for root rot and other fungal disease pathogens which cause herbs to droop and turn yellow.

As we discussed, Mediterranean herbs, in particular, suffer in slow-draining soils and even regular, unamended compost as they retain too much moisture, which is contrary to their preferred soil conditions.

Our favorite Mediterranean herbs, such as lavender and rosemary, are native to the relatively dry climate of Southern Europe and grow in sandy or gritty soils, often on hillsides, which are very well-draining.

Sandy soils create a very porous soil structure that allows water to drain quickly and does not retain moisture like organic matter (such as compost or leaf mold) does.

If you have clay soil or boggy areas in your garden then it is best to grow herbs in pots as they have have more favorable drainage conditions and you can customize the potting mix to suit your herbs rather then trying to amend the existing garden soil which can be difficult.

I personally used to live in a house that had a garden with clay soil. It was too difficult to grow most herbs in it (due to poor drainage and just) even if the soil was amended with grit, so in this scenario, I would recommend using pots or perhaps raised beds and planters.

If you have identified that the problem is with your slow-draining soil, then I recommend that you transplant them quickly.

Replant your herbs in a pot that is ideally 12 inches across and for Mediterranean herbs (such as lavender, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano) I use a potting mix that is approximately 70% all-purpose compost to 30% horticultural sand or grit.

(Read my article, choosing the best pots for herbs).

I have experimented with amending my own potting soil and even spoken to some commercial herbs growers, and they all told me that the secret is that this mixture of sand, grit, and soil replicates the conditions and typical proportions of Mediterranean soils to provide optimal levels of drainage for your herbs.

Watch this video on creating the optimal soil mix in pots for lavenders, which is applicable for all Mediterranean herbs as they all require sharp drainage:

For annual leafy herbs (such as basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, and chives), I would repot the plants in a pot ideally sized 12 inches across (pots this size contain more soil and can retain more moisture, so the herbs do not suffer drought stress).

As we discussed, leafy annual herbs require more moist soil conditions than Mediterranean herbs, so plant them in ordinary compost or leaf mold. These materials can retain moisture yet also have a porous structure that allows excess water to drain away from the roots, creating the perfect balance of moisture for your herbs.

I personally love a grow leafy herbs in a combination of 50% compost and 50% leaf mold.

This potting mix has given me the best results as the leaf mold can hold lots of moisture and has a lot of nutrients whilst also having a well-draining structure.

My parsley, mint, and chives grow much better in this potting mix (as they all love moisture). I’ve also found that this mix of soil helps mitigate the risk of drought stress in the Summer.

Once your herbs are in the right soil, water appropriately, and are grown in pots that have drainage holes in the base then they can start to recover.

3. Underwatering Causes Herbs to Wilt (hydrophobic soil)

Herbs such as basil and cilantro droop because of dry soil. Leafy annual herbs require well-draining, yet consistently moist soil and frequent watering in hot weather to prevent wilting. Smaller pots dry out quickly, causing herbs to droop, so they should be watered more often.

The leafy annual herbs such as basil, cilantro, mint, parsley, dill, and chives all grow in best soil that is consistently moist yet well-draining.

The optimal balance of moisture for these herbs is achieved with porous, friable compost or potting soil and frequent watering.

If the soil around the roots of annual leafy herbs dries out for a significant time then they wilt quickly due to their larger leaves which loose a lot of water and preference for moist soil (Mediterranean herbs such as lavender and rosemary have much thinner leaves which is an adaptation to reduce water loss and survive drought).

My basil tends to wilt first in a drought because its large leaves lose more moisture due to their surface area compared to, say, parsley, which often has curly leaves. However, I’ve observed that it retains moisture a little better in drought.

If the top inch of the soil has dried out, water your annual herbs thoroughly. When watering potted herbs, ensure that water trickles from the base of the pot after watering to ensure the water has reached the roots.

However, there is another issue that I have personally encountered. If your soil dries out completely, then the potting soil can become hydrophobic, which just means it repels water off the surface, and the moisture does not infiltrate the soil properly and doesn’t reach the roots where it is actually required.

The surface may look damp, but it still feels dry if you push your finger into the soil. Another way you can tell with potted herbs is to just pick up the pot and assess the weight because, of course, it should feel noticeably heavier if the soil has actually soaked in the moisture. Does your pot feel suspiciously light after watering?!

So, what do we do in this scenario?

I can tell you from experience that just watering isn’t effective, so what I do for my potted herbs is to fill my wheelbarrow with water and sit the pots inside. This allows the soil to rehydrate after a period of drought properly.

When you soak it like this, the structure changes and it should be okay when you water it again as long as you water it more regularly.

If it is a hot summer day with blazing sunshine, shade your herbs during the hottest part of the day to allow them to recover from their drooping state without having to contend with high temperatures.

As long as your herbs have not suffered severe drought stress from chronic underwatering, they should recover in the next few days after a generous watering. My underwater herbs usually perk up in a day or so.

Pro tip: Always water at the base of the plant rather than overhead watering to help prevent fungal diseases such as powdery mildew. Water in the mornings to charge your herbs with water before a hot day.

Wilting basil that requires watering.
This is a photo of some wilting basil I picked up because they were selling it at a discount. I know all it needed was a good soak and a bigger pot for it to perk up!

As you can see in this photo, the soil has come away from the side of the pot because it is so dry. If this is the case for your herbs, water them immediately and try to water them proactively every few days to prevent the soil from drying and the herbs drooping.

I would also consider repotting your herbs to a larger pot as I can tell you they retain moisture much better and cope better with drought.

4. Exceptionally Hot Weather Causes Herbs Leaves to Curl and Stems to Droop

On the hottest days of the year, herbs droop their stems and curl their leaves temporarily as a survival strategy to cope with drought and heat stress. The drooping herb attempts to reduce the surface area of the leaves to decrease water loss and preserve moisture.

Sage leaves curling inwards to conserve moisture.
These are my sage leaves that have curled up. This was the hottest day of the year, and I can tell you it was absolutely scorching!

Nearly all types of my herbs droop as a response to heat waves as a mechanism to conserve water and survive, so increasing watering does not alleviate the drooping appearance.

Our Mediterranean herbs, such as sage and oregano, are adapted to the blazing sun and high temperatures in the South of Europe, and drooping temporarily in reaction to an overwhelming heat helps them to minimize water loss from the leaves and does not generally harm the plant in any way.

If your herbs are drooping because of high temperatures, then the effect is usually temporary, and the herb recovers when temperatures have cooled down in the evening.

Even at the hottest times of year do not water Mediterranean herbs more then once a week even if they are drooping in the heat as they are very sensitive to root rot from overwatering. Mediterranean herbs are drought resistant and thrive in Summer even if they occasionally droop.

My sage plant in the photo above perked up and looked great later that evening when the temperature cooled!

For the leafy annual herbs such as basil and cilantro, it is important to keep the soil moist as they are native to environments with more shade and grow in soils that hold more moisture, therefore they are less well adapted to coping with high temperatures hence their propensity to droop more often then Mediterranean herbs.

One year, when there was a seemingly neverending sequence of heat waves, I moved all my leafy annual herbs to a location in the morning sun and shaded them in the afternoon because it was so hot, and they were always drooping despite good watering.

They were able to benefit from the morning sun and had a reprieve from the scorching midday and afternoon sun.

In cooler temperatures, your herbs should perk up again. If not then there is a different reason why your herbs are drooping.

Again, I would consider moving your herbs to a bigger pot if they are always drooping and use some leaf mold in the potting mix to help retain more moisture.

5. Too Much Fertilizer Causes Stems to Droop

I think this is a mistake that we all make as gardeners at some point…

What happens is that too much nitrogen fertilizer causes stems and leaves of herbs to weaken and droop under their own weight.

As we discussed, Mediterranean herbs such as thyme and sage are adapted to low-fertility soils. Fertilizer decreases the concentration of essential oils in the leaves, reducing aroma and flavor and causing the herbs to droop.

Mediterranean herbs (such as lavender, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano) grow in sandy or gritty soils, often on hillsides in their native environment.

These sandy soils do not retain nutrients or moisture, and the sand or grit itself does not tend to contribute much nutrients to the surrounding soil.

So, I can assure you these herbs actually thrive in low fertility soil.

Too much nitrogen, which is a key ingredient in fertilizer, promotes foliage growth at the expense of flowers, aromas, and flavors. The resulting growth tends to be floppy and droop down without much flavor or culinary value.

Our drooping herbs, due to fertilizer, are also much more vulnerable to pests (such as aphids) and disease in their weakened state, which are normally a rare problem for herbs.

Even the leafy annual herbs (such as basil, cilantro, and mint) do not require any additional fertilizer if they are planted in good compost, as it impairs their flavor.

Also, consider that certain soil amendments such as manure are high in nitrogen and can cause the same drooping effect and reduce the concentration of essential oils in the leaves which give herbs their aroma and flavor.

The key to healthy, non-drooping herbs is to avoid the use of fertilizer and plant Mediterranean herbs in soil amended with sand or grit, as this emulates the level of soil fertility in which they grow best in their native environment.

Even for basil and cilantro, the best-tasting leaves I have grown have always been planted in ordinary multipurpose compost without any fertilizer or additional soil amendments, as these are the conditions to which they are accustomed. Their essential oils are at a higher concentration, which gives them their distinctive flavor.

6. Lack of Pruning

Annual leafy herbs such as basil and cilantro can droop because of a lack of pruning. Our leafy herbs should be pruned every 3 weeks during Spring and Summer to prevent them from growing too tall and drooping under their own weight.

Annual herbs such as basil, cilantro, mint, and parsley can grow very fast in the Summer when they have enough moisture, enough sunlight, and warm temperatures, which is great if you use your herbs for cooking.

Pro tip: I often have so much basil that I actually freeze it! I experimented with drying, but as basil has such a higher moisture content, I found that freezing was a better way to keep that delicious flavor.

If you neglect basil, it quickly grows tall and perhaps spindly and often droops under its own weight. At the peak times of year, it is important to harvest your herbs perhaps once every 3 weeks and aim to keep the herbs at a height of around 8 inches.

Watch this helpful YouTube video for how to prune basil:

Pruning regularly to a height of 8 inches the herbs helps to keep your herbs healthy, and bushy with lots of new leaves that have the best flavors.

As I said, if you have more herbs than you know what to do with them, I would freeze them in a freezer bag and use them at your convenience!

I should also emphasize that runing every three weeks also prevents your herbs from flowering too early. After the herbs have flowered the leaves do not taste quite the same and the herb can die shortly after, so pruning helps with extend their growing season.

Simply cut your herbs back with a sharp pair of pruners or scissors every three weeks to a height of 8 inches to prevent annual herbs drooping and ensure a productive plant with lots of leaves.

Note that our Mediterranean herbs should generally only be pruned once per year, and for lavenders and rosemary, it is important to not cut back into the woody growth. Annual pruning of your Mediterranean herbs in Spring prevents leggy drooping growth.

7. Not Enough Sunshine Causes Leggy, Drooping Growth

Mediterranean herbs such as lavender and rosemary require full sun. If the herbs are in too much shade, they grow leggy and droop as they search for more light. Herbs such as basil or cilantro can display poor drooping growth when in too much shade.

As I previously mentioned, my leafy annual herbs always grow best and produce the best-tasting leaves when they are in the morning sun, followed by afternoon shade.

This ensures that the herbs have enough light to grow but do not suffer heat stress when the temperature typically peaks in the afternoon and the annual herbs can tolerate a lot more shade then Mediterranean herbs and still grow well.

In really low levels of light, herbs grow tall and towards the strongest light source. This causes them to grow weak and droop down.

This happened to me when I first started growing my herbs!

What I did was cut any drooping growth back to around 8 inches long and move my herbs to an area with more light. New leaves started to emerge in the next three weeks, and my parley was revived!

It is more difficult to revive drooping Mediterranean herbs as they do not like regular pruning.

However, you should move your Mediterranean herbs to an area of full sun (6 hours or more) to ensure healthy, robust growth that does not droop. In the late fall or early spring, you should cut back any drooping growth with a sharp pair of pruners.

Key Takeaways:

  • The most common reason herbs droop is dry soil. Potted herbs dry out quickly in the sun, which causes them to droop as a sign of heat stress or dehydration. Move the herb to a cooler area and water thoroughly so it can recover from a drooping appearance.
  • Mediterranean herbs such as lavender and rosemary droop because of saturated soil. Mediterranean herbs are adapted to well-draining, sandy soil. There is too much moisture around Mediterranean herbs to droop and turn yellow or brown because of root rot.
  • Herbs often have a drooping appearance as a reaction to high temperatures. Herbs, leaves, and stems droop or wilt temporarily in the heat to reduce surface area, decreasing water loss and conserving moisture. The herbs usually recover from a wilted appearance when the temperature cools in the evening.
  • Herbs droop when planted in slow-draining soils such as clay or in pots without drainage as they retain too much water around the roots, causing root rot. Herbs require well-draining soil with a porous structure to allow water to drain away from the roots to prevent drooping.

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