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Yes, you can grow herbs.

Herbs improve the flavor of food, making it possible to use less salt. Many herbs also have some health.

You may already grow some of the annual herbs--dill and coriander, perhaps basil, which cooperates well for gardeners. I sow basil seeds in flats with tomato, eggplant, and marigold.

After several attempts, I got a strong stand of mint--now I pull it out of flowerbeds because it spreads enthusiastically. I plan to put it into a container next spring.

Lemon balm thrives in a planter near my back steps, where it receives afternoon sun. This herb also travels out of its assigned location if not confined to a container.

A few herbs have eluded my attempts to grow them. I had a few lovely blooms of bergamot (monarda didyma) one year, but have not succeeded again. I now resort to Earl Grey tea bags for a relaxing beverage in the afternoons.

Several of my favorite culinary herbs grow through the winter on my back porch. In my area of South Carolina, winters are relatively mild. When night temperatures drop into the 40s, we wrap the porch in clear plastic and I use a small electric heater on below-freezing nights.

I start my winter herb project on a sunny day in fall. Into an outdoor sink (usually reserved for cleaning fish), I place two gallons of warm water, add three tablespoons of chlorine bleach, and a squirt of liquid soap. I use a wire brush to scrub the pots, removing dirt, fertilizer salts, bacteria, and fungus left from previous plantings. I then turn the pots upside down and leave them to dry in the sun for a day or two.

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Next, I place in each pot, a handful of gravel and a handful of rough compost or grass clippings. This is to ensure good drainage. After filling the pot with good soil that contains time-release fertilizer, I top it off with an inch of sterile soil or vermiculite.

I sow seeds sparingly, spacing them around the edge and a few in the middle. If plants are too thick in the pot, I will need to thin them and I hate to throw away seedlings.

I try to grow rosemary, though it is notoriously difficult--germination is poor (10%) and it takes two years or longer for a plant to mature. I have succeeded a few times.

Since clay pots allow moisture to evaporate readily, they need regular watering. If this becomes a problem, I place each clay pot inside a plastic pot, which helps hold the moisture.

To ensure adequate light on dreary February days, I mounted a "shop light" above my plants and use two cool white fluorescent tubes. I turn on lights at 7:00 a.m. and turn them off at 9:00 p.m.

In spring, the clay pots can be set into a hole deep enough so soil covers them to the rim. Soil moisture seeps into the pot, keeping the plants hydrated. This allows me to move a plant around until I find a location where it thrives. I had to move common thyme to four different spots before it grew happily; but the same pot has been producing sprigs for two years now.

Anise hyssop proved a boon to my collection. I started the plants on the porch and set the pot at the corner of my deck. It grew heartily and produced attractive blue spikes of bloom. Bees and butterflies entertained us all summer as we sat on the deck. Seeing this, I started planting clusters of anise hyssop into corners of the garden where it could attract the bees I needed to pollinate cucurbit blooms.

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Sage is a multi-purpose herb. Growing it in a pot on the back porch provides me with a few sprigs to use in winter recipes. In spring, I sow sage into flats and when the seedlings grow large enough, I relocate them to the garden. Planted among early cole crops, sage helps repel the cute little yellow butterflies that produce cabbage worms. By the time the cabbage and broccoli are ready to leave the garden, I can harvest sage leaves and dry or freeze them for use through the summer.

Parsley is a bit slow to show itself, but once out of the soil, it grows throughout the winter. Used often as a garnish, parsley pretties up a winter salad and adds needed vitamins. Chewing a sprig of parsley can eliminate bad breath. Last spring, I set a pot of parsley into a shady flowerbed near my kitchen door. Most years, it shoots up seedheads, which attract an interesting striped caterpillar, which will eventually metamorphose into a colorfully marked black butterfly. This year, perhaps because of the shady location, the pot continued to produce all summer.

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Summer savory is an annual, and many people enjoy its flavor in various bean dishes. Winter savory, a perennial, has a stronger flavor than the summer variety. I grow winter savory in a pot, but summer savory does not survive the intense heat of a Low-Country South Carolina summer. Since thyme resembles savory in flavor, I substitute it in recipes. Thyme, however, was used in ancient times for embalming--that doesn't equate with savory's reputation as an aphrodisiac!

Whether you use herbs to mix a love potion, to repel insects from the garden, or just to enhance your recipes, you really can grow your own herbs.

BY NANCY PIERSON FARRIS

PHOTOS BY DON FARRIS

SOUTH CAROLINA

ZONE 8A
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Title Annotation:The garden
Author:Farris, Nancy Pierson
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:920
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