The Herbalist Is In: Herbs from Seed
Start your own for greater selection, savings.
by M.L. Harrison
I have a small greenhouse and want to start some herbs from seeds. I am interested in culinary and medicinal herbs that will do well in Utah's climate. Can you tell me which ones to choose for success?
March is a good time to get some starts going in the greenhouse. Seeds are available from nurseries and catalogues and online. Some of my favorite suppliers are Horizon Herbs, Johnny's, and Mountain Rose Herbs; I am always interested in heirloom seed resources. You can save money growing your own bed of basil from a $2 package of seed, compared to buying a flat for more than $20.
Not every herb grows well from seed. Some, such as garlic and rosemary, do not produce seed at all and must be propagated by cutting or division. Many cultivars such as mint, lavender, bee balm, sage and thyme can show too much variation if started from seed; it is best to buy them from a reliable grower already established and potted. Echinacea, citronella, English lavender and chile pepper seeds are very temperamental and need special conditions to sprout, for example, scarification or extremely warm soil.
Besides seed, you'll need soil, containers, and the ability to provide proper water, light and temperature conditions.
Soil. Use a lightweight sterile mix to avoid disease problems.
Containers. These too need to be free of pathogens. If you are reusing pots or flats, sterilize them in a bleach solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. Plug trays make it easy to plant seeds and later remove seedlings for transplanting. These trays are available at local nurseries and online. Be sure to label the flats so when the herbs sprout you can tell what they are.
Water. Herb babies usually like consistently moist (not soggy) soil. To insure that pots and flats do not dry out completely, spritz the soil or let water soak up from the bottom of the container. You can also cover the container with plastic wrap when you plant, but remove it as soon as sprouts show. Be careful; it is the soil, not the plants, that hold the moisture. Mold, wilt or rot will destroy the seedlings. Basil is particularly susceptible to wilt.
Fertilizer. Use potting soil that already contains fertilizer.
Light. Too much light will stress the seedlings, and too little will make them weak. If the plants are struggling and look like they are reaching for the light, give them more. If they look wilted and exhausted, give them less. Ask your nursery about supplementing with artificial light.
Before putting seeds in the soil, place them on a thick, damp paper towel, and place it in a plastic zipper storage bag. Put the bag where the temperature will remain stable and warm. Check the seeds daily until they begin to sprout. At this point, they can be put directly in the garden, if the weather is warm enough. However, they will probably do better if you baby them along in a flat or pots in a protected area where the intense sun or romping dogs won't harm them. Once the plants reach a more substantial size, they will need to be hardened off. Gradually expose the new plants to outdoor conditions so they can withstand being planted in your garden.
I have found that Mediterranean herbs love the hot, intense sun and dry climate here. Herbs with broad, tender leaves do best in a few hours of direct sun with the rest of the day in partial shade. Local nurseries try to carry the herbs that do well in our climate, so consult them. Read instructions on the seed packet before you purchase to be sure you can provide the necessary conditions.
My favorite herb gardening book is "The Herb Gardener: A Guide for All Seasons," by Susan McClure. In the last few years, seed catalogues have begun offering great tips and necessary instructions for success.
So go ahead and begin while it's early spring. Enjoy shopping and saving money and the satisfaction of starting some of your herbs from seed.
Merry Lycett Harrison, RH (AHG) is a clinical herbalist and owner of Millcreek Herbs, www.millcreekherbs.com.