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DALY: Herbs are a flavorful addition to the vegetable garden

One of the most interesting and enjoyable plants are the herbs. They have leaves, stems and sometimes seeds that are used for fragrance, and flavoring foods. They are a good substitute for salt. Herbs have been used throughout history for medicine and are even still used today for that reason. Another positive attribute of herbs is that they have many ornamental qualities that enhance the beauty of any garden.

Most herbs require full sun. The production of the fragrance oils in the plants, which are the source of the flavors, increases when the plants receive adequate sunlight. Many can tolerate dry conditions but require well-drained soil with organic matter. The plants require minimal amounts of fertilizer since too much produces large leaves that lack flavor. Add an inch or two of organic mulch, such as pine straw or pine bark to keep moisture in the soil and reduce weeds.

Many species of herbs will thrive in our area. One of the easiest to grow is basil, which is an annual. Some cultivars have large green leaves while others have purple ones. Catnip has a grey-green color with a scent similar to mint. The herb 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.

Many types of mints can be grown 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. Mints prefer moist soils and can tolerate some shade.

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub that has a distinct fragrance and comes in several cultivars. It tolerates prolonged dry conditions. 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 these herbs to encourage them to branch out.

Although herbs can be harvested any time, the best time is right before the plant blooms when their fragrant oils are most concentrated in the leaves and stems. For those that are grown for their seeds, harvest them when the seed pods change from green to brown but before they shatter. Warm, dry, dark, well-ventilated place are the best places to dry herbs. 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 and then place them in a plastic bag in the freezer.

Herbs are fascinating and have many uses. Consider planting some of them, and you will be amazed at the fragrances and flavors they have. If you would like to learn more about herbs, Gwinnett County Extension is offering a class on herbs in the garden. It will be held on Thursday, Aug. 14 frm noon to 1 p.m. at the Gwinnett County Extension office located at 750 South Perry St. #400, Lawrenceville, GA, 30046. To register, please contact the Extension office.

Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.