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New year brings a chance to start garden out right

I don't make New Year's resolutions; but this time of the year is a good time to tie up loose ends so this column will deal with a variety of subjects. I'll cover a few more of my favorite herbs, using pets to rid your yard of pests, and update you on chores you should be accomplishing in your garden.

Scented geraniums: Most people may not think of these as an herb, but they do fall into that classification. The leaves of different kinds vary in form and color; scents include apple, rose, orange, ginger, lemon, coconut, strawberry and peppermint. I grow it more for the scent and the leaves, but the flowers are colorful also. I've not used the leaves in cooking, but they can be used in salads or candied. Also use them in sachets, pillows or potpourri.

These perennials thrive in full sun or partial shade. Provide good drainage and water during our dry seasons. If a frost threatens, take cuttings or you can propagate by seed. I've had trouble with my cuttings rotting but found I was providing too much humidity and so I no longer put the cuttings under plastic. They are just left in the back yard. I keep the soil evenly moist and place the plants in the shade. I have a variety of young plants in pots that I will move under the lanai cover if we are threatened with a frost. I'll plant these in the garden in early spring.

Ginger: I have not tried this, but will come spring. I stir-fry a lot and would enjoy having fresh ginger available. I've been told the plant is easy to grow from the aromatic, tuberous root (rhizome), which is found in grocery stores. Purchase a plump root in early spring and place in a shallow tray of water until sprouts are an inch long. Then press these into the soil and cover with two inches of light, moist soil. Plant the pieces 12 inches apart in partial shade. Ginger is a heavy feeder, so regularly use a balanced fertilizer.

You can cut and use small pieces of ginger from the rhizome of a thriving plant as soon as three months after planting. Peeling is not necessary, but wash well. The tops will die back nine to 11 months after planting for a natural dormancy.

Lavender: This has long been a favorite herb for scenting sachets and potpourri. It is also said to repel insects. Lavender has slender blue-green to gray leaves and spikes of blue, pink, white or lavender flowers. At the base of each individual flower is a small, shield-shaped yellow bract. There are dozens of related species and varieties.

Lavender grows in Florida, so I've been told, but it isn't easy. I have found the lace leafed to be hardiest in my yard and easy to propagate. It doesn't have the strong lavender scent but blooms profusely and lasts many summers. I take cuttings on a regular basis so I'm never caught without a start. It does best with some protection from the summer sun and needs excellent drainage. Gardener friends have told me they have good luck with French lavender so I'm going to try it again.

Lemon Balm: Lemon balm has a delightful lemony scent and flavor. I use it on chicken but you can add it to anything you want to impart with that lemon flavor. The plant grows upright, loosely branched, to about two feet.

Lemon balm roots easily from cuttings, which you may want to take early in the summer. The summer heat doesn't agree with my lemon balm and they usually look very bad by June. Keep some in a pot and move to a shady location. It takes no supplemental water once established.

We'll continue on with herbs at another time, but I also want to share with you some information on pest control. I'm talking about larger, four-legged pests that sometimes can be cute, but not when invading your garden: squirrels. When we moved into our home there were no trees, so squirrels left us alone. Other homes in the area had large, mature trees so there were always squirrels in the area. Some of my neighbors would complain about the problems: squirrels running noisily on the roofs and gathering and eating acorns, making a mess and digging holes in the yard. And some neighbors were convinced the squirrels harmed plants.

The trees we planted when we moved in are now big enough to house squirrels, but we don't have any permanent residents, just an occasional visitor. I think that is due to our dog and cats. The dog is outside a lot, and although I know she doesn't have a chance of catching a squirrel, the small mammals don't seem to realize that. The cats, allowed outside only under supervision, also act as deterrents.

A gardener friend in Northern Florida uses a neighbor's dog to keep the number of squirrels in his yard manageable. His neighbors travel a lot. When he watches their dog, he brings it into his yard to play. He swears this intermittent canine pest control keeps the squirrels at bay. If you're having trouble with squirrels you may want to think about borrowing a dog a few days each month!

A new year, a new chance to start out right in our garden. If you haven't done it already you can weed, transplant cold-hardy shrubs and trees, prune deciduous fruit and ornamental plants, protect tender plants during cold weather, lightly prune annuals, test soil, irrigate to meet the needs of plants, plant deciduous fruit trees and fertilize annuals and vegetables.

If you have space for a flowering plant, try bougainvillea, butterfly bush, camellia, Carolina yellow jasmine, holly or nandina. Looking for some perennials; try blue sage, gazania, Shasta daisy, stokes aster or yarrow. It's not too late to add beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, green onions, lettuce, peas and potatoes to your vegetable garden. Whatever you do, spend the first few minutes of 1999 getting your garden in shape for the year.