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GARDENING IN GWINNETT: Herbs will spice up your home garden

Since ancient times, herbs have been used for food, fragrance, medicine and flower arrangements. Herbs have excellent ornamental features and help beautify your landscape. Growing herbs is simple and rewarding. Herbs are popular garden plants since most of them tolerate the hot dry conditions of our summers, have few pest problems and require minimal maintenance.

Many definitions exist of what makes a plant an herb. Generally an herb is a plant grown for cooking, seasoning, aromatic or medicinal uses. Most of them are herbaceous annuals or perennials although some, like rosemary, are small evergreen shrubs.

They require well drained soil and full sun. Apply mulch, like pine bark or pine straw, to help the soil retain moisture and keep weeds under control.

There are many species of herbs. Basil, a tender annual, is one of the easiest to grow. Some cultivars have large green leaves while others have purple ones. Catnip has a grey-green color with a scent similar to mint. It is attractive to cats. Chives are closely related to garlic and its chopped leaves are used in many recipes. Dill tolerates cold weather and produces seed in the spring. Its leaves and stems are used in many recipes and the seeds are used to make dill pickles. Fennel is similar to dill, but is larger with a different scent. Some cultivars have bronze leaves. Dill and fennel attract the swallowtail butterfly, which lays its eggs on the plants. They hatch into green caterpillars that feed on the plant material.

Lavender comes in many varieties, but English lavender is the most popular one grown in the South. Lavender has beautiful, fragrant blue and purplish flowers. Lemon balm has a strong, lemon-like scent and is frequently used to make teas. The plant is a perennial and spreads prolifically.

There are many types of mints including spearmint, peppermint, ginger mint, pineapple mint and others. They all share the trait of being vigorous growers with a spreading habit that can be invasive. They prefer a moist soil and are tolerant of some shade.

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub that tolerates drought conditions. It has a very distinct fragrance and comes in several cultivars. Thymes are low growing plants with a variety of cultivars that come in many colors and shapes. Some types are grown as ornamentals only.

Annuals, such as basil, dill and coriander can be sown as seeds directly into the ground. Perennial herbs, like fennel, lemon balm and mints are usually planted as transplants. Pinch out the new growth from the tips of herbs to encourage them to branch out.

You can harvest herbs at almost any time, but their fragrant oils are most concentrated in the leaves and stems just before the plants bloom. For those that are grown for their seeds, harvest them when the seed pods change from green to brown but before they shatter. Herbs are best dried before use in a warm, dry, dark, well-ventilated place. Tie the herbs in bunches and hang upside down from a rod, but do not let them touch each other. Herbs can also be dried by freezing. Simply remove the leaves from the stems, then place them in a plastic bag in the freezer.

There are many herbs that can be grown in the home garden. If given the proper growing conditions, herbs will thrive and the gardener will be pleased with the results. Gwinnett County Extension is offering a class on growing herbs on June 22 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Shoal Creek Filter Plant Auditorium located at 1755 Buford Dam Road, Buford GA, 30518. There is no cost, but preregistration is required by contacting the Gwinnett Extension office.

Timothy Daly is an Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent with Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.