In this, 2012, the year of the herbs!

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THE NATIONAL Garden Bureau took the pulse of the gardening world and declared 2012 the Year of the Herbs. Turns out these most ancient of utilitarian plants are thoroughly modern.

Herbs are full of health benefits, not only for us but also for our gardens. They’re rich in antioxidants, adding nutrition as well as flavor to food. Herbs are reliable and attractive landscape plants, fragrant and easy to cultivate in pots, window boxes or borders. When culinary herbs bloom they attract swarms of beneficial insects. So rather than deploring how dill, cilantro and basil can bolt and bloom, plant some extra and let them flower. When my chive hedge blooms, it’s a bee party, and that entire side of the garden vibrates with cheerful buzzing.

According to Holly Shimizu, director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, it’s usefulness rather than appearance or botanical characteristics that differentiate herbs from other plants. “Herbs are plants valued historically, presently or potentially, for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use,” she says by way of a definition that includes trees and shrubs as well as annuals and perennials.

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From the bright tang of lemon verbena to the pungency of Italian basil, herbs are so enticing it’s tough to narrow down which to grow.

Here’s my best advice: Give space to the herbs you cook with most, and beware of mint, because it seems determined to take over the garden. Yet nothing beats floating a few leaves in lemonade, or tossing a freshly chopped chiffonade of mint into a green or tabbouleh salad. So grow a few mint plants in a big pot; just don’t let it loose.

I rely on rosemary, sage, basil, parsley, dill, chives, cilantro or mint to flavor nearly everything I cook. It’s a sad day when annual herbs are nipped back by frost and I resort to buying those life-sucked-out-of-them packaged herbs at the store. Luckily, many herbs — including oregano, thyme, chives and parsley — are perennial or biennial, so plant them once and you’ll have them always. Bay, rosemary and sage are evergreen here if planted in well-drained soil.

How best to incorporate herbs into the garden? As a group, they tend to grow gangly, woody and sprawling. Because herbs flop and travel, they’re traditionally corralled within short, sheared hedges of boxwood or germander. Most herbs need as much sun as you can find and sharp drainage.

Unless you have plenty of space, and time for shearing, you might want to grow herbs in pots or window boxes, where they’re easy to snip. Set the pots on a sunny deck or on the steps outside the kitchen door so you not only enjoy them as you come and go, but you’re more likely to clip a ferny frond of dill to scatter over carrots, or some hot oregano to spice up the salsa.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at

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