For potpourris and pizza with pizazz, try growing your own herbs

Herb growing is a rewarding hobby. You can use the fragrant plants to make pretty, good-smelling gifts. You can share your herbs with friends and neighbors, or perhaps sell them at your school fair. You can also use them to flavor foods. Which herbs are we talking about? Leaves of herbs such as sweet lavender, rose-scented geranium, rosemary, and sage have especially long-lasting aroma for making lavender bags, potpourri, and nosegays. A collection of cooking herbs might include sweet basil, sweet marjoram, mint, parsley, and thyme. All of these herbs are easy to grow in pots, tubs, or barrels, as well as outdoors in the garden.

You can start herb plants from seed any time from late winter (February) through early fall (August or September). First, buy herb seed at your greenhouse, supermarket, or discount store. Look for seed packets on the rack beside vegetable seeds. You will also need 4- or 5-inch containers, such as clay or plastic pots or old plastic margarine tubs. Have an adult drill or punch drainage holes in the bottom, if there are none. Herbs grow well in sandy, fast-draining potting soil. Your parents or teacher can help you find this at the store. Or you can mix it yourself using about one-third each commercial potting soil, peat moss, and sand.

Next, line your containers with clean pebbles or broken crockery and fill them almost full with potting soil. Moisten soil, then sow eight or 10 seeds in each pot. Sprinkle a layer of soil over them no more than one-quarter inch deep. With your palm dry, press seed gently into the damp soil. Label each container with the name of the herb seed you planted.

You want your seedbeds to stay warm and moist until germination, which will take a week or two. So set pots in a warm place away from bright sunlight. Cover each pot loosely with plastic wrap which has a few holes punched in it. A small spray bottle does a gentle job of watering, if soil should dry out.

As each container of seed starts to sprout, remove plastic wrap. Set pots on a bright, sunny windowsill in your kitchen or classroom; a south-facing window is perfect. From now on, water your herb seedlings carefully when the soil feels dry to touch, perhaps every four or five days. Keep in mind that most herb plants came originally from hot, sunny Mediterranean countries and thrive in warm places with plenty of bright sunshine.

During the summer, you can grow your herbs outdoors in a window box, barrel, or even in the garden. Transplant young plants very carefully on a cool, damp day, if possible. Ease them out of their first pot without breaking any tender roots. To do this, water first and then gently lift out the whole plant with an old fork. Plant again in the herb's new ``home,'' being careful not to lose too much soil from around the roots. Water again and keep shaded for a few days. Be sure to use well-worked soil enriched with compost or other organic plant food.

Herb plants can be fed regularly with commercial plant food. Other growing tips include occasionally pinching out new top leaves between your forefinger and thumbnail. This will keep herbs looking bushy and attractive. If tiny flowers start to form, pinch them off, too. Otherwise plants wear themselves out forming flowers and seeds.

Did you taste those tiny herb leaves when they first started to grow? Even as small seedlings, herbs already have the aroma and flavor that make them so much fun to work with. Soon you can start harvesting tender young leaves every few days to sprinkle on many dishes, especially your favorite Italian spaghetti or pizza as well as scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, and tossed salad. Later, when plants are larger and growing strongly, you can cut stalks for making herb gifts. To learn more about growing herbs, look in your library for ``The Herb Growing Book,'' by Rosemary Verey, a famous herb grower from Britain.

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