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Tips to enjoy your bounty

In this age of healthy dining, herbs are becoming very popular.

Their aromas and myriad tastes easily replace the use of salt, a much over-used seasoning. They add a zing to meats, vegetables, salads and desserts.

In addition, they are (mostly) easy to grow. Just plant 'em and step on back. Of course, you'll want to clip them and watch so they don't bolt throughout your growing area.

Herb experts caution new growers to leave 10 to 12 inches between basil plants and 6 to 8 inches between parsley and chives. They also suggest using the "three-plant theory" - plant one for use, one for recovery and a new one for starting.

Another key with herbs is that many of them have an oil essence that doesn't appeal to deer. They can be a great landscape plant as a result.

The top 10 (or so) herbs, and suggestions on uses and care from area nurseries and magazine articles, follow in alphabetical order:

BASIL

A very tender annual, this herb shouldn't be put outside until the ground is warm and the air is warm. It needs plenty of room - 10-12 inches - and regular pruning to ensure its continued yields. Pruning instructions vary but try it when the seedlings have their first six leaves (say 4-5 inches tall). Prune them to just above the second pair. Later, prune the branches back to their first pair of leaves every time they get six to eight leaves on a branch. With regular picking, a dozen basil plants will yield four to six cups of leaves per week.

Luci Brieger, who with her husband, Steve Elliott, owns Lifeline Produce in Victor, likes to harvest when the flowers are in the closed-bud stage, not yet opened. The plant then, she said, is very tender. She gets so much basil that she sends her kids to school with pesto sandwiches, pesto crackers and biscuits.

It's not in the top 10 list submitted to be grown by Lori Parr-Campbell of Kinship Garden. "I do love it, I can't live without it," she confessed but added: "You've got to coddle it. I'm not a coddler." And, she added, deer eat it. She gets her basil at the Farmer's Market.

CHIVES

These tend to seed if the flowers are let go. The flowers are edible and beautiful in salads. They make a good landscape plant and, if chopped down to nothing, they'll come on back. They like well-drained areas.

They taste great in eggs, in cream cheese spreads and salads. They're also tasty when stuffed, along with some garlic, inside fish.

GARLIC

Find an organic clove of garlic, a big one with big healthy cloves, in September (the Farmer's Market is a good source), take it home and separate the cloves. Plant them about two inches deep with at least four- to five-inch spaces between them. Water them well and wait until July to harvest them, when the tips have begun to turn brown. Rinse off most of the dirt and set them in a greenhouse or some other area that is not heated but has plenty of warmth and sun. Let them dry out and cure for a couple of weeks.

If the stems are long enough, the various cloves can be braided together or the tops can be cut off.

Garlic is not only a rudimentary cooking herb but also has medicinal properties that we won't get into here. The herb is used in all sorts of sauces.

LAVENDER

"People love lavender," said Parr-Campbell. "It's unbelievable." The purple color, its fragrance and its drought tolerance make it a special herb. It is a more cosmetic herb, used for lotions. In the Mediterranean, it is used on meats and stews. Treat it as a potted plant and bring it inside over the winter.

MARJORAM

One of the most fragrant herbs, it flavors soups with its beautiful smell. Be careful not to use too much.

It is not winter-hardy and doesn't do as well in the house as rosemary.

It can be used in butters and cream cheeses. The herbed butter can be used on popcorn and bread. It also is good on Brie cheese. Cut the wrapper off around the Brie, sprinkle oil and marjoram on top, put it in a pan in the oven and, when warmed, go for it.

As Parr-Campbell said: "Who needs real food when you've got Brie?" And marjoram, of course.

MINT

This one can take over the garden. Plant it in a container to control the roots. It tastes great on lamb and is a wonderful garnish. It's great in salsas, makes a good tea and, best yet, is a fine breath freshner. Brieger gives dried leaves as presents to make tea.

The plant should be rejuvenated every three years because it grows so thick that the roots become entwined. Dig it up, throw out most of the roots and start fresh.

OREGANO

This old Italian herb is used a lot in Italian and Mediterranean dishes. It's hardy and easy to grow but growers need to start new plants every few years (the three-plant theory). Its ends go to seed, so it can get out of hand in the garden.

PARSLEY

This takes just two to three weeks to re-grow between harvests. Six plants will provide enough fresh leaves for the most ardent tabbouleh-maker. But … it is not winter-hardy and so must be planted every season.

It's well worth it, said Parr-Campbell. It's great in salads and as a garnish. The nutritious herb is high in Vitamin A and C. Don't put the plant out too early. It doesn't like hard frosts and, if stressed, it could tend to bolt sooner.

ROSEMARY

This is difficult to grow (big) in Montana. "This is not California and it's not Texas. Rosemary is not happy here. But people always want rosemary," said Brieger. The slow-growing plant can disappoint new growers but nevertheless, start a plant with a little cutting that includes a root. Plant it in the garden in a pot and, when cold begins to strike, move it indoors. It seems to like more humid areas, indirect light and cool temperatures (but not under 40 degrees).

Take a couple leaves at a time. It's wonderfully fragrant and tastes marvelously in soups and with lamb. Some folks want a big sprig of it to throw on the barbecue coals to season their meats.

SAGE

Also drought-tolerant, this herb is easy to grow. "It's a beautiful landscape plant with a big purple flower and beautiful gray foliage," Parr-Campbell said. Head out to the garden just before an expected hard frost and clip the plant. Hang it in the kitchen to dry. "Who could complain about that?" she asked. "They emit a fragrance when you walk by and brush them."

Brieger advises planting new plants every year because sometimes sage just doesn't make it through the winter. She loves finely cut sage in salads and in Italian dishes. A favorite recipe is sauteing sage leaves in olive oil and then serving it over pasta with a topping of parmesan cheese. She always puts it in her dressing for Christmas and Thanksgiving ducks.

TARRAGON

This tall-growing herb should be harvested regularly. Give it room to do what it wants to do. Two or three plants will suffice if you tend to your clipping chores. The herb, which does not tolerate alkali or wet areas, should be rejuvenated every three to five years. The licorice taste of the French tarragon is good in teas and in bernaise sauce. Snip the leaves really fine and use a little bit in chicken, fish and herbal mixes for salad dressing.

THYME

A ground-cover, spreading plant, this forms a shrub usable in landscaping. Prune the herb heavily, taking half the length of each stem in the spring and again in late summer. Clip the plant before its seeds become viable and spread throughout the garden. Each time you prune, put up some herb olive oil with the chopped fresh prunings. One teaspoon of thyme stems and leaves to one tablespoon of olive oil is great for sauteing fresh scallops. Or, the leaves can be cut into small bits and added to butter and/or bread. They also are used in lamb stews, with meat and in soups.

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