Window boxes and containers, overflowing with lush plantings, can do more than add a "wow factor" to your home, patio, deck or balcony.
Filled with herbs, those containers can be welcome partners in the kitchen as well as hard-working beauties in the garden.
The volatile oils in herbs that flavor teas, accent salads and kick up the character of our culinary concoctions also play a role in the health of a garden.
"I would plant herbs in my garden if I weren't even cooking with them because they attract beneficial insects that control all the pest insects," says Rosalind Creasy, the Los Altos, Calif., author of numerous garden and food books. "Almost all the beneficial insects at some point in their reproductive lives need pollen and nectar, and they need it from small flowers — not from roses and dahlias and all that."
That's, of course, if you let your herbs flower. Picking the leaves before that happens will give you the best flavor.
"Both cooks and gardeners benefit from an herb's aromas because you don't need to use environmentally disruptive chemicals to protect them," writes Jeff Cox in "The Cook's Herb Garden" (DK Publishing, $18).
The oils in fresh herbs are one reason cooks grow them.
"There are a lot of compounds in fresh herbs that disappear when they're dried," Cox says. "You usually get a more layered and elaborate flavor profile from fresh herbs than you do from dried."
The other reason? Their ease of care. "I do refer to herbs as edible plants with training wheels," Creasy says. "They are the easiest of all the edible plants to take care of."
Herb pot tips
Here are tips from Cox and Creasy for anybody filling window boxes or patio pots with herbs.
* Grouping: Combine plants that need the same amount of water and fertilizer, Creasy says. Plant drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme and marjoram in one container, and herbs that need more water (say, parsley, basil, cilantro, chervil) in another.
Size things up: "Genovese basil can grow to 2 1/2 feet tall. You put that in a window box, it's not going to look very good," Cox says. "If you're going to put herbs that tend to grow tall in a window box, keep pinching them back."
* Shopping savvy: Buy healthy plants growing in good-size pots, Cox says; avoid the leggy ones. Too much top and too little pot means the herb has been watered with liquid fertilizer, he says, "so (it) hasn't needed to grow a lot of root system and put its energy into growing a large top." Once the plant is placed in soil, it won't have the root strength to sustain itself.
* Container choices: Use containers that have good drainage (holes on the bottom are a must, for starters). Cox puts a plastic tray in the bottom of a window box with drainage holes, then layers in some stone or gravel.
"When you water, the water isn't just running through and putting soil onto the deck or patio." Also, he adds, "don't set a pot with a drainage hole directly on a deck. The water can stain."
Paint the exterior and interior of wooden containers; if you don't, they will eventually rot after a few years, Cox says. Alternatively, line a box with black plastic, piercing the plastic above the drainage holes.
Clay, such as terra cotta, won't rot, Cox notes, but remember that its substantial weight can make it difficult to move. If you're putting terra cotta pots in a window box, you'll need to provide a sturdy frame to connect the window box to the house.
* Soil matters: Choose a good-quality, fast-draining potting soil, Creasy advises.
* Room to grow: Don't cram herbs in too tightly, Cox says. "Give them a little elbow room because that really translates into root room and a healthier plant."
* Sun and nutrients: Most herbs require full sun, although several (mints, for example) can handle some shade. Pay attention to their growing needs, especially if they will be in one place (like a window box) for the entire season.
Creasy recommends using a good-quality, organic slow-release fertilizer, but, unlike plants grown for their flowers, herbs grow quite well without any fertilizer.
Because the soil in containers dries out quickly, plants may need daily watering, especially when it's hot outside.
* Snip away: One of the biggest benefits of growing herbs is that they love to be used — so don't be afraid to snip them. Herbs in containers especially benefit from constant harvesting, Cox writes, which also keeps plants under control in their restricted space.
If you go
What: Celebration of herbs, with information, seminars, sales, food
Where: Extension Center, 21st and Ridge Road
When: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. today
How much: Free
Herb Day will be from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at the Sedgwick County Extension Education Center, 21st and Ridge Road.
Plant vendors will have herbs and other plants and garden-related items for sale, and the Kansas Grown Farmers Market will be open in the parking lot. The master gardeners will have a plant sale, and an herbal brunch will be available. There will be an activity for children to take part in, and a garden magazine sale as well.
Here is the schedule of seminars:
In the Sunflower Room:
* 8 a.m., cooking with dill
* 9 a.m., drying/preserving herbs and canning pickles
* 10 a.m., cooking and baking with dill, by master chef Chris Miller and dietitian Paula Miller
* 11 a.m., butterflies, caterpillars and host plants
* Noon, "Confessions of a Crazy Bread Maker"
In the Demonstration Garden:
* 10:30 a.m., composting: the black gold of the garden
In the Meadowlark Room:
* 8:30 a.m., On the Herbal Hunt
* 9:30 a.m., Herbs and More at Cowtown
* 10:30 a.m., meet for a tour of the arboretum on the grounds
* 11:30 a.m., making and planting a seed ball
* 12:30 p.m., herbal infusions and more.