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Try these three crops for your health

The fourth week of May is a great time to plant your dinner. People have become hungry for more ideas and information about edible gardening, both to save money and to enjoy healthful fruits and vegetables.

Even folks without a patch of ground can grow herbs, tomatoes and berries by gardening in containers or a window box. If you have sunlight, you can become a farmer.

So what crop will save you the most money at the grocery store? What gives you the most health benefits for the least amount of work? What grows best on windowsills?

Start planting now to become a green thumb gourmet:

THE FRUGAL FARMER: TOMATOES SAVE THE MOST

Even in our cool climate, growing a single tomato plant will save the most money. Next week I’ll detail the most important tomato growing tips for our climate but keep in mind that short season varieties such as Early Girl and the small fruited patio tomatoes such as Sweet 100 do best. All tomato plants need the hottest spot in the garden. A covered spot against a south facing wall with reflected heat is ideal.

GROWING FOR GOOD HEALTH: BLUEBERRIES AS EASY AS PIE

We are lucky enough to live in one of the best blueberry-growing climates in the world. Blueberries grow on shrubby plants that become larger and more productive year after year. They love our naturally acid soil and high rainfall.

A hedge of different varieties can keep you plucking these healthful berries all summer long.

Blueberry bushes are attractive enough to use in your front yard landscape as they offer spring flowers and beautiful fall foliage. A row can create a nice screening hedge along the property line.

Buy blueberry plants from a local nursery to get the varieties that do best in our climate.

For best pollination, plant at least two varieties. Grow them as you would rhododendrons and azaleas, adding organic matter to the soil, giving them plenty of water in the summer and using a mulch on the roots to keep the soil cool and moist.

As with rhodies, don’t plant your new shrubs too deep. Blueberries have shallow surface roots and can suffocate easily.

You won’t get much of a harvest the first summer but after that you can plan for pies – or just enjoy these berries right off the vine.

Birds will be your biggest berry burglars, so plan to cover your plants with netting each summer – or just plant enough to share.

SMALL SPACE, BIG FLAVOR: HERBAL RENEWAL

Condo, city or apartment dwellers can still enjoy the flavor and health benefits of homegrown crops. A single pot of herbs can provide spices and flavorings that are high in vitamins and antioxidants – and every chef knows how expensive it is to buy fresh herbs.

For hot and sunny balconies, grow a basil plant in a clay pot. The more heat, the happier the basil. The herb can be pinched and harvested all summer for pesto, salads, Thai food and Italian dishes.

Got shade? Meet the flavorful members of the mint family that can be contained in pots (they spread!) and now come in varieties such as chocolate, apple and lemon flavors. Freeze bits of mint in an ice cube tray and add to your summer drinks. Pour boiling water over a few fresh leaves for instant organic mint tea. Cut up the foliage and add to stir fries or desserts. The more lean, green homegrown plants you add to your diet, the better.

I’ve got a whole book on the other herbs that like to grow here, including lavender, oregano, thyme and rosemary – check out “Herbal Gardening for Washington and Oregon,” Lonepine Press.

But the nicest thing about growing herbs is that a few plants can turn any gardener into a chef, or any chef into a gardener. In a small space, even urban dwellers can enjoy herbal renewal.

Marianne Binetti is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and eight other gardening books. She has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and will answer questions from her Web site at www.binettigarden.com.

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