Botanical Interests' colorful illustrated seed packets.
All herbs have their own preferences. Once you’ve purchased your seeds, pay attention to the information on the seed packet. But here are universal rules for successful seed starting:
• DON’T plant French tarragon and specific mint cultivars from seed. According to Nancy Bubel, author of The New Seed-Starts Handbook (Rodale Press, 1988), French tarragon doesn’t provide viable seeds and specific mint cultivars hybridize readily and, more often than not, fail to come true to the seeds listed in catalogs.
• DO plant in seed starting mix, not natural soil. Before your seeds sprout, DO provide seeds with the warmth they need by setting them on a warm furnace or a store-bought heat mat.
• DON’T just place seeds next to a window. Place seedlings on a table directly underneath a shop light. These lights are usually enough to provide sturdy, stocky seedling growth.
• DON’T use fancy “grow lights.” They are designed to help plants flower indoors, not sprout seedlings. Instead, use a cool white fluorescent tube light to give your seedlings an approximation of the sun they need, which is a lot. Find them at any hardware store.
• DO keep seedlings close to the light—they should be almost touching the tubes. Adjust the distance between your herbs and the light. When seeds have to stretch for light, they become leggy and susceptible to garden damage.
• DO keep seed lights on at least 16 hours a day.
• DO water seeds moderately. Steer clear of watering too much or too little.
• DO cover unsprouted seedling trays with clear plastic to regulate moisture levels.
Gina DeBacker is editorial assistant at The Herb Companion.
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Winter Garden Guide: Seed Starting Indoors