Cooking with herbs, especially those grown in your own kitchen garden, adds flavor to your food and spice to your life.

So, get out there and dig in the dirt and reap the benefits of your labor with a variety of herbs for cooking and decorating.

"April is a good time to begin planning an herb garden," said Dennis Mawhinney, a Master Gardener from Dillsburg.

Plan now and begin planting in mid-May, after the danger of frost, he said.

Mawhinney, considered the herb guru by his fellow Master Gardeners, has some suggestions for getting started.

Italian herbs such as chives, garlic, oregano, parsley and basil are among the easiest to grow and a good place to begin, he said.

"These are herbs you can use in almost any Italian dish, pizza, spaghetti sauce," and in a variety of other dishes like salsa.

He recommends raised beds for growing herbs and suggests a round "pizza" herb garden with tomatoes nearby. You can also grow herbs in containers, but good drainage is very important and location matters, too.

"Plant them close to your kitchen door where they are easy to get to," he said. "Don't plant them out on the back 40 because you will never use them. You want them nearby where you can run out a snip a few."

* * *

Susan Eggleston of Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, president of the Pennsylvania Herb Festival committee, also grows herbs in containers in a handy location.

"I grow quite a few for culinary use in containers on the deck right outside the door. You can use almost any kind of container. They don't have to be clay pots, just make sure they have good drainage," she said.

Clay pots, tin pots, tea pots, almost anything you can think of works fine, she said.

* * *

Master Gardener Grace Wardrop and her grandson Jacob Geesey grow a variety of herbs in their Dover Township garden.

Try a lavender lemon cake.
Try a lavender lemon cake. (SUBMITTED)
While they use them mostly for cooking, herbs also add beauty to their backyard.

"Although dill is considered to be an annual, it comes up freely from the seeds dropped the previous year," Wardrop said.

Dill seed can be planted in a sunny location in late May and left un-thinned and un-transplanted, she said. The fragile plants support each other, making staking unnecessary.

Dill is breathtaking by August and September if planted in front of tall marigolds. The feathery yellow flower heads next to the golds and oranges of the marigolds make a spectacular outdoor arrangement, Wardrop said.

They grow catnip, too, something their pets seem to appreciate.

"Catnip is an easy perennial to grow from seed. Not only does it survive cold winters, it self-sows, as long as some plants are allowed to flower and go to seed," Wardrop said.

Cats are Jacob's favorite animal. He has 11 of them and they all seem to enjoy catnip.

"It's said 20 to 30 percent of cats are not attracted to catnip," Wardrop said. But for those who have a cat that is attracted to this herb, "it's hilarious to watch them biting off the leaves, rolling on the plants, then running up and down trees or stalking imaginary prey."

The catnip leaves can be dried and used in cat pillows or cat toys, such as a "wrestle sausage" they made for their cats and a scratching pad Jacob made using recycled materials and catnip.

But catnip is not only for cats.

"Catnip leaves make a marvelous occasional bedtime tea, because the herb acts as a mild sedative for humans - quite the opposite effect that it has on cats," Wardrop said.

"Jacob and I grow mostly culinary herbs, dill, sage, parsley, chives, mints, and so forth. We make dill pickles with the fresh dill and cucumbers from the garden, and Jacob made wake-up shower gel using fresh mint leaves," she said.

Lavender lemon cake

Cake

3 cups cake flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1½ cups granulated sugar

1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers

4 eggs, lightly beaten

½ teaspoon lemon extract

1 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon finely-grated lemon zest

Honey glaze

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter

¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

½ cup honey

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

A pinch of salt

2 tablespoons water

All ingredients should be room temperature.

Roasted garlic and olive oil couscous is an easy way to incorporate thyme into your cooking repertoire.
Roasted garlic and olive oil couscous is an easy way to incorporate thyme into your cooking repertoire. (SUBMITTED)

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-cup Bundt pan; tap out excess flour.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a flat beater, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy and smooth, about 30 seconds. Add the granulated sugar and lavender and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Stop the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in the lemon extract.

Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the yogurt and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat each addition until just incorporated, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the lemon zest.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool upright in the pan for 15 minutes.

To prepare the glaze:

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the brown sugar, honey, vanilla extract and salt, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the water, bring the mixture to a simmer and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Set the wire rack over a sheet of waxed paper, invert the pan onto the rack and lift off the pan. Using a pastry brush, brush the cake with the glaze. Let the cake cool completely, at least 2 hours, before serving.

Cake can be decorated with edible sugar decorations of bees or flowers.

- SUSAN EGGLESTON

Rose tea

MASTER GARDENER Dennis Mawhinney provided this recipe for rose tea, in honor of roses being the Herb of the Year.

Begin with a handful of highly scented rose petals. Add them to a pot of hot water. Allow to steep for 5 minutes. Pour through a strainer. Add cloves or dried citrus peel to flavor.

"Roses are edible, fragrant and decorative," he said, adding that roses make a very fragrant tea.

Make sure the rose petals you choose have not been sprayed with pesticides. It is best to use roses from your own garden or that of a friend or neighbor who does not use pesticides, he said.

"Do not use purchased roses because they are heavily sprayed with pesticides," Mawhinney said.

Make sure you use organic citrus. Other citrus is heavily sprayed and colored, he said.

Renee's refrigerator dill pickles

4 to 5 pounds cucumbers

6 cups water

2 cups white vinegar

1/3 cup canning salt

1 large bunch dill weed

1 large onion

4 whole cloves

2 teaspoons sliced garlic

Grape leaves (optional, for crispness)

Wash and prepare enough cucumbers to fill four quart-size jars. Cut the cucumbers into spears, leave whole or slice.

Boil water, vinegar and salt. Layer the cucumbers, onion, 1 clove per jar and garlic. Divide dill between jars. Pour hot vinegar solution over cucumbers.

Leave on counter for 3 to 4 hours. Cure in refrigerator two to four days before eating.

- GRACE WARDROP

Lemon balm rosemary cookies

½ cup butter

½ cup shortening

1½ cups sugar

2 eggs

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon minced fresh lemon balm

½ teaspoon lemon extract

3½ cups unbleached white flour

1½ teaspoons cream of tartar

1½ teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cream butter, shortening and sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Stir in rosemary, lemon balm and lemon extract. Combine dry ingredients and gradually add to creamed mixture. Roll into 1-inch balls and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Flatten with a fork.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes 3 dozen

Roasted garlic and olive oil couscous

1¼ cups water

1 cup couscous

1 teaspoon butter

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespeen olive oil

2 cloves garlic , minced

½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves

¼ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

Bring water to a boil. Add couscous, butter and salt. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. In a shallow pan, heat olive oil, add minced garlic and cook until it begins to brown. Add thyme and pepper, cook for 30 seconds and remove from heat. Add mixture to couscous, serve immediately.

- SUSAN EGGLESTON

Lemon balm salad dressing

1 cup fresh lemon balm (shredded coarsely)

½ cup red wine vinegar

1 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover tightly and chill for 1 hour until flavors have blended.

- SUSAN EGGLESTON

Rosemary chicken skewers

8 thick, fresh rosemary stems, at least 6 inches long

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 skinless chicken breast fillets

Strip the leaves from the rosemary stems, leaving about 2 inches of soft leaves at the top. Chop the leaves coarsely and reserve. Using a sharp knife, cut the thicker woody ends of the stems to a point that can pierce the chicken pieces. Blend the chopped rosemary, thyme, olive oil and salt and pepper. Cut the chicken into 1 inch cubes, add to the olive oil mixture and stir well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, turning occasionally.

Starting with the pointed end of the rosemary stem, thread the chicken. Cover the leafy ends of the skewers with tinfoil to keep them from burning. Grill for 10 to 12 minutes, or until tender and golden, turning and brushing with the extra oil.

- SUSAN EGGLESTON

Catnip toy

Most cats love catnip, and many like to wrestle with their toys and kick them with their back feet.

To learn how to make the

"wrestle sausage," a catnip toy for cats who love to bunny-kick and play tug-of-war, visit www.MakeYourOwnCatToys.com.

Share photos of your kitty enjoying the fruits of your labors online at ydr.com/gallery.