How to grow an herb garden

Get inspiration for your herb bed at the Get inspiration for your herb bed at the Nassau County Cornell Cooperative Extension display gardens in Eisenhower Park. They're open to the public and admission is free. Photo Credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print ...

Herbs are fragrant, they're useful in the kitchen, the medicine cabinet and in commerce, and the best part is they're really easy to grow. Whether they're annuals or perennials, just give them neutral soil, plenty of sun and a well-drained site, and they'll reward you with intoxicating scents as you walk past them, delicious culinary ingredients to cook with and essential oils to de-stress with. Some even can repel pests. No need to fertilize or fuss in any way. Just plant, water and enjoy. The most challenging part will be deciding which to grow.

Here's how to start your own herb garden this spring, in three easy steps:

Test your soil. Herbs grow best when the soil pH is neutral - around 7.0. Test kits are widely available, but it's best to let master gardeners at Long Island's Cornell Cooperative Extension offices test soil for you. For a nominal fee, the test comes with horticultural advice so you'll know exactly what amendments to add and how much, if necessary. (Call 516-228-0426 in Nassau; 631-727-4126 in Suffolk).

Decide where to plant. Choose a site that gets full sun (a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight daily) and has soil that drains well. If your soil tends to be soggy, you can improve drainage by incorporating a generous helping of compost if the problem is mild or, for severely soggy soil, by digging down at least a foot, adding a layer of crushed stone topped with a layer of a sand-and-compost mixture and then replacing the soil you removed. The soil level should be a bit higher than when you started because it will settle over time.

Plant seedlings or sow seeds. Some herbs can be started indoors or planted by seed directly into the garden, while nursery-grown transplants are preferable for others that don't germinate well (See list below). Either way, simply plant according to the spacing requirements on the plant tag or seed pack and water as necessary, keeping in mind that most herbs do best when soil is on the dry side.

11 great herbs to try

Basil. Annual. Frequently used as an ingredient in tomato dishes and in Italian recipes. Also repels asparagus beetles, bean beetles, flies and mosquitoes. Grow from seed or transplants.

Chamomile. Annual. Pick tiny daisylike flowers and brew into a tea to soothe an upset stomach or calm nerves. Grow from seeds pressed into soil but not covered, or from transplants.

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Chives. Perennial. Flowers and stems are used in salads and whenever an onionlike flavor is desired. Repels aphids and Japanese beetles, protecting grapes, roses, carrots and tomatoes.

Dill. Seeds and leaves are edible, often used in Greek recipes, in sauerkraut, sour cream dips and with cucumbers, fish and meat dishes. Very easy to grow, but snip with scissors for the best flavor. Repels cabbageworms, cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms, so plant with cabbage, lettuce, onions and tomatoes, but keep apart from fennel; they don't play nice together.

Garlic. Annual. Peel cloves and use whole or crushed in meat, poultry and fish dishes, sauces and in Italian, French and Asian recipes. Separate cloves (but don't peel) and plant each individually in fall. Plants will sprout in spring and be ready for harvesting in July. Repels aphids, Japanese beetles, rabbits, spider mite and vampires.

Lavender. Perennial. Great for making sachets and potpourri, for baking into cakes and cookies, and for flavoring tea. Propagate by cuttings or buy transplants because seeds don't always come true. Trim lightly after flowers fade or cut back to new growth in spring.

Mint. Everlasting perennial that will take over the world if permitted. Really. Keep mint contained in a pot, and keep the pot away from soil, because it has been know to escape. Once mint gets into the garden, it spreads by underground runners that send up new plants, and can be difficult to eradicate. Use to make jelly and mojitos; cook with peas, carrots or potatoes; and add leaves to iced tea. Try banana, ginger, grapefruit, pineapple and chocolate mint. Repels ants, flea beetles and mice.

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Parsley. Annual or biennial. Vitamin rich and flavorful, parsley even freshens breath when leaves are chewed. Best grown from purchased transplants. Repels asparagus beetle, carrot flies.

Rosemary. Perennial, but often not hardy in Long Island gardens. Used in poultry, pork and lamb dishes. Repels bean beetles, carrot flies and mosquitoes.

Sage. Annual and perennial varieties available. Used in poultry, duck, pork sausages and stuffings. Repels cabbage loopers, cabbage maggots and carrot flies.

Thyme. Perennial. Cooked in meat and fish dishes. There are many different varieties, including a ground cover and lemon and lime scented thymes. Repels cabbageworms, cabbage loopers and whiteflies.

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