Mother Earth Living

Garden Spaces: Plant an Herb Garden from Seed

Think of the future: Try this carefree garden for a riotous self-seeding bed, year after year.
By Kathleen Halloran
April/May 2010

Click on the IMAGE GALLERY for the planting key.
Illustrations by Gayle Ford
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• Design Plans: Grow These Herbs from Seed 

• Online Exclusive: Seed Sprouting Tip 

Many herbs have their future built right into their growth habits, providing the next generation without any help from the gardener. And in the process, many will offer up seeds to spice up dinner or sprouts to add to salads. If you’ve got an extra little plot of dirt and want to plant for sustainability, try growing herbs for their seeds.

Annual or biennial herbs that are reliable re-seeders can create a riot of flowers long after they’ve surrendered to the seasonal cycles. This can be a bit of a headache in a perennial bed, because if left unchecked they can claim far more space than the gardener is willing to give them, meaning the flowers must be deadheaded regularly and new seedlings yanked out to control their rampant ways. That’s the beauty of giving them their own space, as in the carefree little garden illustrated here, where prolific flowers create the setting for a piece of garden sculpture.

Weeding and deadheading are usually found on the “chore” list, but harvesting is a joy, so a bit of attitude adjustment is a handy tool. Take the poppy, for example: A beautiful flower; a useful seed that’s a staple in the kitchen; and if you grow it once, you’ll always have it. You can deadhead it until just before the season’s end to prevent it from spreading too much, or you can just let the flowers go to seed pods to harvest for baking; either way, the seeds won’t get out of control.

All the plants on this list are easily grown from seed. Some of them, including those with taproots, such as dill, caraway and fennel, are easier to sow and let grow (in situ) than to propagate and then transplant; they resent transplanting and may sulk for a bit before they recuperate and grow, or not.

About Seeds

Prepare the seedbed by removing grass, weeds, rocks and roots from the soil. If you turn over the soil, you’re also allowing weed seeds to come closer to the surface to germinate, so if you have the time, let the weeds germinate and work over the bed again. You want that top layer of soil to be as smooth and free of clumps as
possible to make it easier for those tiny new roots and sprouts.

Seeding a garden is fun, easy and inexpensive for novice and expert alike. It’s a good idea to start your garden with fresh seed from a reliable company, but if you have half a seed packet left over from seasons past, just spread it at a slightly heavier rate than you would if it were fresh. If stored correctly, many seeds can last for years, even decades, although viability can decrease as time goes by.

Some seeds need light to germinate, and should be spread on the soil’s surface. Others need darkness to sprout. These must be covered with a layer of fine soil roughly twice the depth of the seed itself. There are various scarification techniques to help more difficult seeds sprout, including nicking the seed coat or rubbing it lightly with sandpaper. Seeds also can be soaked overnight before planting. For those gardeners who enjoy germinating seeds, a classic resource is The New Seed Starter’s Handbook (Rodale, 1988) by Nancy Bubel; it includes germination tips and useful charts on many types of seeds.

A useful way to harvest seed heads and pods is to cut them when they mature but before they burst open to prevent the seeds from scattering in the wind. Place in a paper bag and save them in a cool, dark place and sow the seeds next season to help your carefree garden along.

Maintenance

Keep the seed packages so you’ll know the appropriate spacing when it comes time to thin out the seedlings once they sprout; stapling or taping them into a garden notebook is very useful later in the season. After you sow the seed, keep the soil uniformly moist until the seeds have sprouted. When you thin seedlings, use scissors or pruners to cut them off at the soil surface, rather than pulling them out and possibly uprooting their neighbors. That’s one advantage to keeping this kind of garden bed small—to allow the gardener accessibility from the edges.

You’ll also want to keep this bed well-weeded so the new plants don’t have to compete too much for space, water and nutrients. Fertilize regularly to keep them growing and blooming through the season; use an organic fertilizer with a higher middle NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potash) number. The middle number refers to phosphorous, which aids in flower production. Go easy on the nitrogen, the amount of which is indicated by the first number, because it can encourage leafy growth at the expense of the flowers.

Growing from seed lets the gardener know the herb in all phases of its life cycle. The following year, you’ll recognize the volunteer seedlings, be able to distinguish them from weeds and know whether to pull them or keep them, as well as how many of them you want.


Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living and gardening in beautiful Austin, Texas.


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