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Herbs: More to explore than just basil and oregano

Surprises and delights at the Herb Garden during Harvest Day

Cloudy sky over several plants in containers and a purple-leafed tree
Clouds earlier in the week softened this view of the Herb Garden's south side. The round patio where mini talks will be held Saturday is in the background. The empty planter to the left will be the site of the new Scented Geranium area, which will debut on Harvest Day. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

Gardening engages all the senses, but certainly smell takes the lead when it comes to growing and enjoying herbs.

Rub an herb's leaf and then sniff: What does it entice you to do? Put it in stew, or make a tea with it, or maybe dry it and fill a sachet with it?

Since I joined the Herb Team at the Sacramento County master gardeners' Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, I've learned that herbs are much more subtle and varied than the Genovese basil I always grow to accompany my tomatoes. The basils alone are diverse: Thai basil for Asian dishes, African blue basil for the bees, and tulsi basil (also called holy basil) for calming teas.

One of our delights during Open Garden days is sending visitors to the small tree that's actually a well-trained lemon verbena. When they rub a leaf and take a lemon-scented whiff, a surprised expression comes over their faces. The scent is soothing and refreshing all at once. (I like to stop there at the end of a workday, too.) That's the power of a wonderful herb.

So during Harvest Day on Saturday be sure to visit the Herb Garden, which is just inside the Chuck Ingels Memorial Gate. The Herb Team will have great handouts, informational displays, and a whole array of plants to sniff. Early birds also will receive a lavender sachet filled with dried lavender from our plants.

Two of our experienced herb growers will present mini talks during the morning, at the round patio that's just above and south of the Herb Garden:

-- Ruth Ostroff, 9:30-9:45 a.m.,  "Amazing Herbs for Low Water Use Gardens." Mediterranean herbs are especially useful in a water-efficient garden; Ruth will have some ideas for gardeners.

-- Vivian Sellers, 10:45-11 a.m., "Pruning Herbs for Better Yields." Vivian is our herb guru, who guided the pruning of the amazing lemon verbena into the shape it is today.

Other mini talks by the Vegetable, Berry, Grape, Compost, Orchard and Water Efficient Landscape groups will be presented during the day in various locations; the three main Harvest Day speakers will present their longer talks under the large tent near the parking lot. The full schedule can be found here . A map of the site also is on that page.

Harvest Day is free and runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center,  11549 Fair Oaks Blvd.

And if you want to take home some herbs of your own, Morningsun Herb Farms of Vacaville will have a vendor booth open during the event. You might spy a few Herb Team members there, shopping for new delights.


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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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