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It's herbs for all

Beyond bringing color, texture and flavor to the table, common culinary herbs also can make for "a medicinal meal," says Nellie Nutt.

"They help you digest your food," says Nutt, who grows more than 40 varieties of herbs from seed in greenhouses.

Live, potted herbs — both culinary and medicinal — populate Nutt's Jupiter Botanicals stall at local farmers markets, where numerous other vendors offer fresh herb starts.

Planted in home gardens or just larger containers kept indoors or outdoors, fresh herbs are among the easiest plants to cultivate and cost just pennies per recipe compared with buying bunches of fresh, cut herbs.

"It is really expensive to buy fresh herbs, but they are really easy to grow," says Vicki Hames of Jacksonville.

In response to customer requests, Hames' Wagon Trail Gardens added herbs to its inventory after more than a decade of growing vegetable and flower starts. Now that the rush to establish tomatoes has passed, she says, more and more customers are purchasing herbs, which can be planted all summer — and just about anywhere with decent dirt, adequate water and more sun than shade.

"Those Mediterranean herbs need well-drained soil," says Hames. "A lot of the herbs I sell go into containers — pots on the deck."

Light watering every day is a small price to pay for the big impact herbs make on the plate. Basil is the most popular herb, say Nutt and Hames, who each have several varieties. They also sell the lesser-known summer savory and epazote, an herb popular in Central and South America for seasoning beans. Nutt grows shiso, a Japanese herb, while Hames recently started cultivating lemon grass.

More familiar herbs such as mint, rosemary, thyme and parsley make for a well-rounded culinary herb garden. Essential to mojitos, mint tends to take over a garden and is best confined to pots.

"The one they want is spearmint, but they don't know it," says Hames. "If a recipe calls for mint, it's probably spearmint."

Peppermint is a lot stronger and spicier, with that "candy-cane flavor," making it good for tea, she adds.

"They have to have rosemary," says Hames, adding that most of her customers believe it's deer-proof.

But contrary to its evergreen nature, rosemary can't weather freezing temperatures or drought and should be moved inside for the winter. Leave stems intact on the plant and pick only the needle-like leaves.

Hames picks handfuls of all her herb plants' tender tips, chops them all together and sprinkles them throughout just about any dish. Nutt, who has a home-based herbalist practice in Ashland, takes a similar approach to herbal "abundance" to maximize their medicinal qualities.

"I like to really use a lot of herbs in my cooking."

Starter pots of herbs cost $3.50 at Wagon Trail, which sells them in 31/2-inch sizes at Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters markets Tuesday in Ashland and Thursday in Medford. Four-inch pots from Jupiter Botanicals are priced from $4 to $5 at the Tuesday Ashland market, Saturday farmers market in downtown Medford and Sunday in Jacksonville. See www.mailtribune.com/growersmarket.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Whistling Duck offers herbs and vegetables at the Medford's Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell