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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


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Feb. 5

Make the most of sunny days and get winter tasks done:

* This is the last chance to spray fruit trees before they bloom. Treat peach and nectarine trees with copper-based fungicide. Spray apricot trees at bud swell to prevent brown rot. Apply horticultural oil to control scale, mites and aphids on fruit trees soon after a rain. But remember: Oils need at least 24 hours to dry to be effective. Don’t spray during foggy weather or when rain is forecast.

* Feed spring-blooming shrubs and fall-planted perennials with slow-release fertilizer. Feed mature trees and shrubs after spring growth starts.

* Finish pruning roses and deciduous trees.

* Remove aphids from blooming bulbs with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap.

* Fertilize strawberries and asparagus.

* Transplant or direct-seed several flowers, including snapdragon, candytuft, lilies, astilbe, larkspur, Shasta and painted daisies, stocks, bleeding heart and coral bells.

* In the vegetable garden, plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers, and strawberry and rhubarb roots.

* Transplant cabbage and its close cousins – broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts – as well as lettuce (both loose leaf and head).

* Plant artichokes, asparagus and horseradish from root divisions.

* Plant potatoes from tubers and onions from sets (small bulbs). The onions will sprout quickly and can be used as green onions in March.

* From seed, plant beets, chard, lettuce, mustard, peas, radishes and turnips.

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