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2:58 PM Thu, Sept. 20th

The Garden Guy column: Savory garden herbs are easily homegrown

Ken Lain/Courtesy photo<br>
Fresh, homegrown parsley (background) and basil complete many recipes, such as salsa.

Ken Lain/Courtesy photo<br> Fresh, homegrown parsley (background) and basil complete many recipes, such as salsa.

Garden alert! Before I get started on this week's column I need to let you know about a serious landscape problem threatening plants right now. Thrip, also called no-see-ums, are killing the foliage on fruit trees, including purple leaf plums, Bradford pears and peaches.

Symptoms include damaged foliage, curled leaves that are noticeably smaller, and badly colored plants that might even look deformed. The only way to see if this microscopic pest is on a plant is with the use of a sheet of white paper. Tap a branch over the paper and if you see tiny red specks jumping around on the paper, the plant has a problem. This thrip assault is at epidemic proportions and you need to act immediately before trees are damaged for the season.

The safest insect killer I know that is completely effective against this bug is 'Fruit Tree Spray' by fertilome. Use a concentrated form and a hose-in sprayer to hose down trees with this thrip-killing liquid. Spray again in 10 days and you should have these nasty buggers under control. This organic fruit tree spray has a repelling effect that bugs find repulsive so it also works as a very good preventive.

So much for thrip defense and on to a happier garden topic. This weekend kicks off the vegetable-planting season, and herbs also are ready to go into the ground.

I think of herbs in the same light as a tomato. We all agree there is nothing better than a tomato freshly picked off the vine. Similarly, old store-bought or dried herbs are no comparison to freshly grown herbs picked right out of the garden. This region is perfect for growing all of our favorite herbs and, fortunately, it's not a complicated process. Just add your favorite herbs to your flowerbeds. Herbs have fabulous textures, many have beautiful flowers and all will romance you with their fragrances.

Window boxes, hanging baskets and basic clay pots can house savory herbs. A traditional strawberry pot makes an excellent herb container; instead of strawberries plant a different herb in each pocket. Once the herbs are established it will have that classic Mediterranean look that blends in so well with our Southwest styles.

Thyme is a Mediterranean herb that thrives in poor soil. Herb selections change by the day at garden centers, but as of today I have four different types of thyme in stock. All have similar growing habits, but the flavors and fragrances vary. Rub the different leaves between your fingertips and let your nose choose the one that's right for you. A good tip for growing thyme is to use pebbles as mulch around each plant to keep the crown from rotting.

Calendulas also are known as pot marigolds or poor man's saffron. The chopped flower petals added to rice or potatoes incorporate a bright yellow color and a flavor reminiscent of costly saffron.

Lavender is cherished for the clean scent of its flowers and leaves. It is a perennial favorite for its flowers alone, but it also has the added benefit of that great lavender fragrance. The grayish evergreen leaves are attractive any time of year.

If you've never grown herbs before, start with sage. It grows like a weed in our climate as long as you don't over water it. It has long been believed to imbue wisdom and, just as importantly, is an essential seasoning for turkey stuffing. It is semi-evergreen with gray-green leaves.

I love iced tea throughout the summer, especially mint-flavored tea. I'm glad that the number of mints available increases every year. Chocolate, pineapple, spearmint and peppermint are all delicious right off the plant whether used to garnish a chilled glass or brewed with that next fresh gallon of tea.

The Southwest is salsa country and no recipe is complete without fresh herbs. My favorites are cilantro, parsley and basil diced and mixed into a fresh salsa. I say go light on the basil, but there can never be too much parsley and cilantro for a good mix. Another name for cilantro is coriander; and it can be labeled with either name at your garden center.

Herb vinegars are a delicious addition to any pantry and are easy to make. Place an herb's leaves or edible flowers in a clean bottle. Fill with a good quality white wine vinegar and let it infuse for several weeks. While aging, it must be kept out of the sunlight or the flowers and leaves will fade.

These are just a few of my favorite herbs and some of their uses. All can be grown outdoors or in a sunny window box in the kitchen. I like to plant my favorites and try a new one each year.

Before you make an herb purchase pinch off a leaf and taste it. A word of caution before you taste; ask your garden center staff if its herbs are organically grown and free of bug sprays. Feel free to taste any of my center's herbs. They are organic and safe for your sniffing and tasting enjoyment.

For those of you who live near the forest, herbs present an additional benefit. Animals, including javalina, do not like the oils, scents, and taste of herbs. From rosemary to oregano, critters will leave these fragrant beauties alone.

Until next week, I'll see you at the garden center.

Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through his website at www.wattersonline.com. Ken says: "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."