Round Robin: Growing from seed

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners


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I know that I will order more seeds than I can possibly plant, that I will start more seedlings than I have room to set out, and that come August I will be freezing more pesto than I can eat in a year . . . 

Hastening Spring

Leah A. Zeldes

CHICAGO—The best thing that can be said for February is that it’s short. Nature seems to reserve her cruelest weather for Chicago in February and March, a last hurrah of freezing temperatures and ice and snow before things start to warm up in April.

The garden at this time of year is either a snow-covered vista punctuated by leafless stalks or an ugly mess of mud mixed with rotting leaves. But there are compensations: By now, all the seed catalogs have arrived and I can spend my time indoors by a toasty radiator, dreaming of the garden that is to be.

Oh, those catalogs! Old standards, fat with glossy, color photographs and lists of cultural requirements . . . yuppie catalogs full of mizuna and mâche and other upscale greens  . . . ecologically correct lists of organically raised heirloom seeds, printed on recycled paper . . . specialty catalogs of exotic herbs or native wildflowers or 101 varieties of tomatoes . . . old-fashioned books with etchings of cabbages and rutabagas and testimonials from farmers . . . I am a sucker for them all.

Going through garden catalogs in late winter is like going to the supermarket when you’re hungry — everything looks so good! I know that I will order more seeds than I can possibly plant, that I will start more seedlings than I have room to set out, and that come August I will be freezing more pesto than I can eat in a year and begging my friends and neighbors to please, please, take a few more zucchini or cherry tomatoes off my hands.

It would be simpler and probably cheaper to go to the garden center in May and choose a few six-packs of plants from their stock of popular, easy-to-grow varieties, instead of playing nursemaid to a crop of tiny seedlings struggling to grow under lights in the basement. It would be more practical. It wouldn’t be as much fun.

There’s something magical about poking a tiny seed into a bit of earth and seeing a little green shoot emerge a few days later. It’s astonishing that something barely bigger than the head of a pin will, in just a few months, turn into a 6-foot-tall plant dripping with tomatoes.

And although the miracle is Nature’s, she isn’t stingy about sharing the credit. The gardener can preen all he or she wants. “Look! Look at what I did!” It’s exciting to watch the seedlings grow from little green sticks into large, leafy plants, to see the flowers bloom and the vegetables ripen, and know that you were there at the very beginning.

I use a streamlined planting method that works well for me. I start almost everything — herbs, flowers, and vegetables — in Jiffy-7 expandable peat pellets. This is more expensive than flats of seed-starting media, but it simplifies the whole process. I don’t have to mess with pricking out or transplanting into pots or any of that business; the seedlings stay in the Jiffy-7s till they’re ready to go out in the garden, and then the whole thing goes right in the ground.

I soak the pellets in a bucket of water till they expand and then put them in flats without drainage holes. Two or three seeds go in each Jiffy-7, depending on variety, and the whole flat gets covered with a clear plastic dome or plastic wrap. Then they go on top of the refrigerator, where it’s warm, to await germination.

Once the plants come up, the plastic comes off and the seedlings go in the basement under lights. These are standard fluorescent shop lights from the hardware store, though I’ve changed the tubes so each contains one warm white and one cool white tube. I hang the lights an inch or two above the top of the seedlings, cinching them up as the plants grow, with a timer set to give them fourteen hours of light each day.

Every now and again I dose the seedlings with fertilizer and with fungicide to control damp-off. When they get big enough, I thin them by pinching off all but the most vigorous plant in each Jiffy-7.

When the time comes for hardening off, I set the flats out on the patio, out of direct sunlight at first, and either bring them inside at night or cover them. After a few days of gradually acclimating them to direct sun, I plant them in the garden.

I usually tear open the netting that covers the Jiffy-7s before setting the plants in the ground. In Chicagoland’s heavy soil, sometimes the plant roots have trouble forcing their way through otherwise, and are prone to circling. I find it actually makes most plants a bit stronger if you disturb the roots slightly when planting, so I don’t worry much about ripping some roots that are growing through the net.

No Grass for Sale

Jo Ann Gardner

CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia, Canada—“Not withstanding the nettle- like coarseness of its leaves it is an elegant plant, and is sometimes utilized in shrubberies and large flower borders.” (New International Encyclopedia, 1901) Hmm. I wonder. The plant being referred to is also known as Cannabis sativa—or marijuana.

You may not believe this, but I have never laid eyes on it. Nor have I ever smoked it. I’m a dull, 1950s person through and through, so the great cultural revolution of the Sixties passed by virtually unnoticed while Jigs and I were struggling to raise four children on the pitiful teacher’s salary of those days. We were learning to forage for mushrooms, make our own soap, pick wild berries, and grow a huge vegetable garden to feed us all.

I reasoned that if one herb can produce such an overwhelming scent, perhaps another herb could drive it out. 

Sometimes our innocent activities aroused suspicion. When we lived in Vermont, we once grew ground cherries (Physalis pubescens) out of curiosity. A short bushy plant, closely related to Chinese lantern (P. alkekengi), it bears small cherry-like fruits enclosed in papery husks. They grew well—too well. We had a large crop and found it difficult to determine when the fruits were ripe without opening each husk. When we noticed that some ripe fruit was falling on the ground all by itself, we decided to pull the plants, dry them on the barn beams, and let the fruits fall to the floor where we would rescue them. The barn, a step from the road, its doors open wide, displayed our wonder crop for all to see.

Someone must have driven by and said, “Oh, they’re up to that, are they!” and alerted the cops. They came and (not very politely) demanded to examine the offending plants. If you’ve ever grown ground cherries (and I don’t advise it), you’ll appreciate that however you handle them, there’s no way they can be smoked. It didn’t take the law long to determine the same thing and we were left in peace.

When we moved to Cape Breton Island, we again aroused suspicion when customers for farm produce noted bunches of herbs hanging in our farm kitchen. I made light of them and may have even joked about their identity (nods and winks all around). I couldn’t believe that anyone would associate mint or lemon balm with marijuana.

Apparently they did, however, for one bright, sunny winter day, two law enforcement agents on the drug squad (we later learned), disguised as ordinary Joes, walked a mile to the farm through deep snow. They knocked at the door and asked, with smirks on their faces, if I had any “grass” for sale. I thought I had misheard, so I repeated our list of sale items of the day: curds (cottage cheese), eggs, butter, jams, and jellies. They kept smirking and saying, “We want grass!” I finally let them in the house (they insisted), where they were very disappointed to see bunches of mint from a late fall harvest.

Nevertheless, we gained a far-flung reputation for our marijuana, the best, we heard, on the Island. The closest we ever came to Cannabis sativa was one late February when we rented one of our log cabins to two young couples from the city for the weekend. After the young people left, we noticed a pervading heavy, sweet aroma in the cabin that wouldn’t go away. “Oh, that’s pot!” a friend assured us. We opened the cabin door and windows wide to let in sub-zero, windy air, washed the floor, and left the rugs and bedding on the clothesline for days, but nothing we did dispelled the smell.

I reasoned that if one herb can produce such an overwhelming scent, perhaps another herb could drive it out.

I selected a jar of one of my most aromatic dried herbs, tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), from the herb cupboard. Jigs got a good fire going in the cabin woodstove, and on top of it I set an uncovered pot one-third filled with hot water. Into this, I put about two cups of pulverized dried tansy and waited for the pot to boil. As we stood around with our heads near the simmering tansy, we felt like Macbeth’s witches, except that from our “toil and trouble” we hoped some good would come. And it did. Very soon the medicinal, crisp, clean smell of tansy filled the cabin, and by next morning our cabin had returned to its pristine original aroma.

Tansy has a long history as a useful plant, to expel worms, as an insect repellent, a spring tonic, a dye, and a dried flower. Now I know of another use.

Sage Advice

Andy Van Hevelingen

NEWBURG, Oregon— I find my cache of herb seeds in an old shoebox and spill them out onto the table. I find packets of seeds that I ordered in previous years mixed in. They sounded good in the catalogs at the time, but I just never got around to sowing them. Now it is a question of seed viability and whether they will successfully germinate after so many years.

I’m going to try using a new technique I have just read about. I’m going to soak the seeds overnight using a 1-ounce solution of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide in a pint of water. In theory, this causes the seed to germinate more vigorously because of the extra oxygen. If nothing happens, I can amuse myself with just watching the glass of “seed bubbly” bouncing up and down.

Sage is the herb of the year, and I have run across two new salvias that merit attention. The first is Salvia leucantha ‘Variegata’, which is a variegated form of the traditional Mexican bush sage. Actually, I have two variegated forms: one with silver or white variegation, and this newer form with golden variegation. The silver variegated form reverts to the green parent easily. This recent golden variegated form is much showier and although each leaf has a blotchy variegation, the entire effect of the plant is interesting.

My second new sage, S. chionophylla, came as a gift from Jim Becker of Goodwin Creek Gardens Nursery. He gave me two little starts that quickly outgrew their pots and spilled over with great, 2- to 3-foot long, cascading sprays of rounded, grayish- green foliage. I tried to look up more cultural and descriptive information on this plant in my reference books, but to no avail. Thank goodness for the Internet! I went to Richard Dufresne’s World of Salvias web page and used his links to the Harvard and Missouri Botanical Garden’s plant indexes for further information. I can’t wait to see what color the flowers will be. It definitely is an excellent candidate for an herbal hanging basket.

When spring arrives, my lawn takes on its normal gargantuan growth spurt. I don’t know how it can grow so fast between mowings when it rains the whole time in between. My only satisfaction is noticing some of the herbs creeping into the lawn’s edges. In one corner, the sweet violets have seeded themselves, and I feel so guilty mowing off their fragrant flower heads that I go around them. In the other corner, pennyroyal has crept in. It exudes a strong, refreshing mint scent when walked on or mowed. I also have a small patch of Roman chamomile, which emits a green apple scent when walked on. I’m not fastidious about maintaining my lawn as a turf-grass preserve. I rather enjoy this more ecological and herbal approach to lawn care. And I reap the benefits of not just the scent, but also the beneficial flea-repellant qualities of the pennyroyal. My dog and I can both stop scratching!