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RISMEDIA, May 1, 2010—(MCT)—Window boxes and containers, overflowing with lush plantings, can do more than add a ‘wow factor’ to your home, patio, deck or balcony. Filled with herbs, those containers can be welcome partners in the kitchen as well as hardworking members of your gardening team.

The volatile oils in herbs that flavor teas, accent salads and kick up the character of our culinary concoctions also play a role in the health of a garden.

“I would plant herbs in my garden if I weren’t even cooking with them because they attract beneficial insects that control all the pest insects,” says Rosalind Creasy, the Los Altos, Calif., author of numerous garden and food books. “Almost all the beneficial insects at some point in their reproductive lives need pollen and nectar, and they need it from small flowers—not from roses and dahlias and all that.”

“Both cooks and gardeners benefit from an herb’s aromas because you don’t need to use environmentally disruptive chemicals to protect them,” writes Jeff Cox in The Cook’s Herb Garden. Cox, Horticulture magazine contributing editor, co-wrote the book with food writer Marie-Pierre Moine. It’s a one-stop guide to growing culinary herbs, packed with photos, tips on propagation, storage, weed control and pests, as well as recipes, harvesting tips and more.

The oils in fresh herbs are one reason cooks grow them. “There are a lot of compounds in fresh herbs that disappear when they’re dried,” Cox said. “You usually get a more layered and elaborate flavor profile from fresh herbs than you do from dried.”

The other reason? Their ease of care. “I do refer to herbs as edible plants with training wheels,” Creasy says. “They are the easiest of all the edible plants to take care of.”

Cox and Creasy offer the following tips for anybody looking to fill window boxes or patio pots with herbs.
Grouping: Combine plants that need the same amount of water and fertilizer. Plant drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme and marjoram in one container, and herbs that need more water and fertilizer (parsley, basil, cilantro, chervil) in another.

Size things up: Genovese basil can grow to 21/2 feet tall. You put that in a window box, it’s not going to look very good. If you’re going to put herbs that tend to grow tall in a window box, keep pinching them back.

Shopping savvy: Buy healthy plants growing in good-size pots; avoid the leggy ones. Too much top and too little pot means the herb has been watered with liquid fertilizer, so it hasn’t needed to grow a lot of root system and put its energy into growing a large top. Once the plant is placed in soil, it won’t have the root strength to sustain itself.

Container choices: Use containers that have good drainage (holes on the bottom are a must, for starters). Put a plastic tray in the bottom of a window box with drainage holes, then layer in some stone or gravel. When you water, the water isn’t just running through and putting soil onto the deck or patio. Also, don’t set a pot with a drainage hole directly on a deck as the water can stain. Paint the exterior and interior of wooden containers; if you don’t, they will eventually rot after a few years. Clay, such as terra cotta, won’t rot, but remember that its substantial weight can make it difficult to move. If you’re putting terra cotta pots in a window box, you’ll need to provide a sturdy frame to connect the window box to the house.

Soil matters: Choose a good-quality, fast-draining soil. It needs to be lightweight in a window box, but that’s also practical for containers you’ll be moving around a patio. The soil should have a water-holding medium; while these may be pricier, they are more practical in the long run.

Room to grow: Don’t cram herbs in too tightly; give them a little elbowroom because that really translates into root room and a healthier plant.

Sun and nutrients: Most herbs require full sun, although several (mints, for example) can handle some shade. Pay attention to their growing needs, especially if they will be in one place (like a window box) for the entire season.

Use a good-quality, organic slow-release fertilizer. Because the soil in containers dries out quickly, plants may need daily watering, especially when it’s hot outside.

Snip away: One of the biggest benefits of growing herbs is that they love to be used—so don’t be afraid to snip them. Herbs in containers especially benefit from constant harvesting, which also keeps plants under control in their restricted space.

(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.