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Double-duty herbs are great in the garden

Grow some for you, some for the beneficial insects

Light purple-blue rosemary flowers
Rosemary is flowering now. The herb is super for
cooking all kinds of dishes. The sturdy stems also
are great to use for barbecuing meat
or vegetable kebabs. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

While planting that spring and summer garden, don't forget to tuck some herbs in and around the vegetables and annuals.

The best herbs to grow, I believe, are the ones I think of as "double-duty" plants. They can be used in cooking and teas, but they also serve as enticements for beneficial insects.

"Beneficials" include some pollinators, such as bees, but they also include good bugs that fight the nasty ones. These include lady beetles, hoverflies, damsel bugs, green lacewings and parasitic mini wasps. (There's a full UCCE master gardener Garden Note just on beneficial insects .)

My focus here is the herbs to plant now, before the weather warms up and the bad bugs go to town on your young plants. Other than basil, which grows easily from seeds, I've found that transplants work best when starting these herbs.

Two important notes:

-- You have to let some of the herbs flower. The insects want the pollen and nectar from the blooms, though flowering ("bolting") turns some herbs bitter and unusable in cooking. Decide which plants will be for the insects and which ones for your use -- say, two varieties of basil for the bees, one Genovese basil for your pizzas and pesto.

-- Though this is unlikely if you're planning to consume the herbs yourself,  pesticide use is not recommended on the plants. All the insects, good and bad, could be killed. Use a blast of water on the plant if the aphids get too thick. Otherwise, let the lady beetle and her buddies handle the job.

Top double-duty herbs:

Basil -- Ocimum basilicum . One of the easiest herbs to grow in our climate. Some of the purple basil varieties are especially good for attracting beneficials.

Borage -- Borago officinalis. This tough little herb has blue flowers and blooms all season. The leaves and the flowers are edible. Blogger and cookbook author Hank Shaw has a great post about cooking with borage .

Chamomile -- Anthemis tinctoria . Darling little white flowers, and a popular plant for making tea.

Cilantro -- Coriandrum sativum. Around Sacramento, cilantro tends to bolt as soon as the weather warms. So let it. Many beneficials will love the little flowers.

Dill -- Anethum graveolens. This herb often gets planted near tomatoes. It also bolts in hot weather, so let it, and feed lacewings, parasitic mini-wasps and lady beetles.

Fennel -- Feniculum vulgare . The pollen is a gourmet cook's delight. Insects like it, too.

Lavender -- Lavandula ssp . Many varieties available, and one of the best bee magnets in early spring. In cooking, it's great for flavoring things like cookies, jam and lemonade.

Mint -- Mentha ssp. This is actually a large plant family, but "mint" tends to refer to peppermint and spearmint. Many flavoring mints are invasive, though, so keep them in a container.

Rosemary -- Rosmarinus officinalis . Another easy-to-grow herb in our area, it's a great cooking and barbecuing herb. It flowers in spring; my bush is covered with periwinkle-color blooms right now.

Sage -- Salvia ssp . This family as a whole is great in our region. Look for the culinary sage; its flowers aren't as showy as some of its relatives, but it is quite hardy.

Thyme -- Thymus vulgaris . Good for sunny, dry soils.  Lacewings, hoverflies and lady beetles all like this.

For more information on herbs, see this list of culinary herb profiles and other Sacramento County master gardener resources . For more on attracting beneficials, see this post at farmerfred.com.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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