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Of herbs and gardens

If you've ever done a taste test comparing fresh herbs to dried, you know it's not a fair contest. The fresh, just-snipped taste is unbeatable. If you have a collection of bagged or canned dried herbs in your cupboard, you may want to weed them out and go for the fresh.

Buying fresh at the market is one option but it can be expensive or worse, wasteful. I tend to buy fresh herbs with the intention of going home to cook with them, but by the time I get home, I'm not as inspired or energetic, so my delicate purchases languish in the refrigerator, gradually losing their flavor and color.

The other alternative is to grow your own. Don't flinch: It's easier than you may think, especially this time of year.

My more ambitious friends plant their herbs in gardens, for maximum effect and volume. I'm a more modest herb grower. I go for containers atop an old garden bench in a spot in the yard that gets plenty of sun (pictured).

The main thing you need to do is to start out with healthy plants or good seeds and quality potting soil. Then keep everything watered.

My 2008 crop consists of thyme, rosemary, dill and basil (grown from seed). I also have a productive little cayenne pepper plant that appears very happy on its little corner of the bench. The basil is fabulous with sliced tomatoes and a drizzle of good olive oil. Rosemary and potatoes are another perfect, and easy, pairing. The tiny thyme leaves, stripped from the stem and chopped, do wonders for stews and soups.

All modest and easy additions to cooking but what a difference fresh makes.

If you've got a favorite use for fresh herbs, please pass them along.