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Cooking only scratches the surface of the roles herbs can play in our lives.

The Pennsylvania Herb and Garden Festival, open Friday and Saturday at the York Expo Center, offers attendees a wealth of reasons for growing their own.

"You could appreciate them for their beauty and fragrance, or in cooking to flavor your food and beverages," says festival organizer Denise Eckert. "They can be used medicinally, they can be used in skin care and bath care products; they're great for crafting, anything from wreaths and arrangements to sachets and potpourris."

The festival is a clearinghouse of information for herbalists, gardeners and home cooks at all levels.

"I think it's a good place regardless of how experienced someone is with gardening and with herbs," Eckert says. "If someone is just starting out, we do have some educational displays — the York County Master Gardeners will be there and some herb groups will be there ... and their members are always willing to talk herbs and gardening with people."

How it starts: For Eckert, fascination began with a book, sprouted with a visit to an herb farm and hit full bloom when she met other herb gardeners at fairs and festivals. Growing an herb is sometimes the best way to learn to use it, she suggests.

"I think by growing it, you become acquainted with the herb," she says. "It's handy, you can experiment with it. I think that's how you learn about an herb."

Eckert mixes her herbs in with her vegetables and flower garden, she says, and makes use of their bounty year-round.

"During the summer, I focus on using the fresh herbs," she says. "Late summer, I start making pesto, and I freeze that in ice cube trays. ... As I want to use the pesto, I can just get out a couple of cubes and defrost what I need."

"Herbal vinegars are a good way to store them to use over the winter months," she says, as is drying the herbs.

The festival is celebrating artemisia as the herb of the year and will feature keynote discussions of growing and using artemisia on both days. Tarragon, a member of the artemisia family, is commonly used in cooking.

"When I first started learning about herbs, I was so in awe of all the things you could do with them," Eckert says. "Even someone who can only plant herbs in pots on their patio or deck, they can still enjoy herbs and learn about them" at the festival.

— Reach Mel Barber at mbarber@yorkdispatch.com.

Herb festival

The 16th annual Pennsylvania Herb and Garden Festival is open from noon to 7 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in Memorial Hall at the York Expo Center, 334 Carlisle Ave., West Manchester Township.

The festival features dozens of vendors with products for cooks, gardeners, crafters and others. Each day also includes a variety of educational displays, speakers and workshops.

Admission is $5 per day for adults and teens. Children under 12 get in free.

For more information, visit www.paherbandgardenfestival.com.