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Master Gardeners have Herb Appeal

Story and Photography By Vicki Hunkler

Cubes of ripe watermelon paired with fresh cherry tomatoes and a touch of mint ... yummy. Fruit waters with cilantro over crushed ice ... yum! Zesty lemon bars with thyme ... delicious!

Watermelon and tomatoes stacked on a bamboo skewer was the first delectable, beautifully displayed item on the plate at the "Herb Appeal III" luncheon presented by the McCracken County Extension Master Gardeners.

The event focused on the merger of fresh herbs and food, using the apropos theme "Beyond the Plate." The dedicated Master Gardeners, under the direction of the talented Laura Duff, staged this colorful, tasty event at the University of Kentucky Extension Office in Paducah. Duff is the owner of A Pampered Palate catering business.

The miniature skewers and a delicious dill Benedictine dip may have started "the show," but what came next was as exciting and mouth-watering as the first. Pineapple cilantro agua fresco, a combination of refreshing fruit waters splashed over ice, brought rave reviews from the 60 privileged guests who were served by the gardeners ... served at perfectly staged tables individually decorated by members of the Master Gardeners.

(A variety of herbs were used in each floral centerpiece in keeping with the theme. One gardener chose yellow buttons, black-eyed susans, and Solomon's seal for her centerpiece. Another filled her container with hosta foliage and multi-colored zinnias with a touch of rosemary. The combination of carefully coordinated plates, linens, and flowers set the stage for the meal.)

The lunch continues. Summer Savory, an herb grown at the Demonstration and Trial Garden on Coleman Road, was used in the vinaigrette for marinating the freshest of bean salads. Summer Savory was the 2015 Herb of the Year, according to the International Herb Association.

Lima beans, sugar snap peas, pickled red onion, and cut green beans were crisp, tasty and garnished with goat cheese. Too healthy to be good, you say? Not a morsel was left on anyone's plate.

Then came the quiche with the best crust and freshest eggs one can imagine. Yes, the recipe calls for heavy cream, finely diced potatoes, locally grown corn off the cob, and some crispy bacon crumbles, but herbs were not forgotten. Fresh rosemary from the garden answered the call.

If that weren't enough, the finale was a rich lemon thyme bar, adapted from Sweet Pea's Kitchen, and topped with a dollop of cream and a plump blackberry. The lemon zest quenched the palate as the very satisfied guests shifted their focus "Beyond the Plate" to the program and guest speakers.

Carol Ullerich, one of 40 active Master Gardeners and past president of the group, said that the phrase "beyond the plate" refers to the non-culinary use of herbs for crafts, medicine, cleaning, and more.

Speaker and well-known herb specialist, Linda Caviness, is passionate about herbs and grows them in raised beds and containers in Marshall County where she resides. "One of my top priorities is to build a greenhouse so that I can propagate my own herbs."

This year's "herb appeal" event featured a healthy combination of familiar foods complemented by a quintet of herbs: rosemary, savory, thyme, dill, and mint. The menu featured at least one of these in each dish, Ullerich explained.

"According to Laura, there is no downside to adding fresh herbs to a meal-you stimulate and satiate your palate simultaneously without adding extra salt, sugar or fat," Ullerich said.

"We are very pleased to again have Midtown Market providing the ingredients for the luncheon. Owner Andy Carloss has made great strides in providing organic, locally grown produce to area shoppers," she added.

Another highlight of the "Herb Appeal III" event was the gardeners' boutique stocked with hardy herbs, garden tools, topiaries, decorative pots, jewelry, glass items, attractive bird houses and Mason bee houses.

Speaker Brenda Johnson, a district board member of the UK Extension Office, is fascinated by the unique Mason bees. "They improve pollination of spring fruit flowers in the wake of a decrease in honeybees. They are not native to North America and are most active from early March to early June as most bees are," she noted. Locally grown bamboo harvested by the Master Gardeners is cut and positioned inside the well-built little houses to entice the Mason bees. "Mason bees rock!" Johnson laughed. The bird and bee houses were crowd favorites.

A little bird once asked where he could find the most POSH birdhouse in all the land and now the answer is clear ... from Otis Thaxton in Paducah.

Thaxton, whose wife Melissa is a member of the Master Gardeners, contributed his expertise by building the birdhouses. Whether you choose red, blue, green, or a yellow finish, the handsome wooden "homes" should draw feathered friends.

Chairmen of Herb Appeal III were Brenda Johnson, Melissa Thaxton, and Nora Webb.

The event is the only fundraiser for the Master Gardeners, according to president Norman Wallace, but the list of projects and activities is extensive.

For 50 years, the group has coordinated the McCracken County Fair Flower Show. Members staff a booth at Paducah's Farmers Market on Celebration Saturdays and maintain a speakers' bureau.

Education of the gardening public is the group's primary focus. Master Gardeners provide research based information, a phone hotline, a blog, and free monthly toolbox series. The Demonstration Garden serves as their outdoor classroom. Those achieving the certification of "masters" are trained in all phases of horticulture by the UK extension service. A new local campus is under construction and should open in 2016.

You don't have to be a Master Gardener to grow your own herbs, plant your own sunflowers, or harvest your own bamboo, but having that training and experience under your hat would be very satisfying ... almost as satisfying as those cubes of watermelon with mint leaves! n

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