Growing Herbs from Hand to Garden

Some herbs grow best when sown right where they are to grow.


| February/March 2006


Henry David Thoreau may have said it best: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.’’

Seeds remain a mystery to many people, and herb gardeners who are accustomed to the convenience of popping plants into the ground may feel intimidated by tiny seeds. Don’t be. “Seeds often establish better in the garden than transplants,” says Conrad Richter, president of Richter’s Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario. “Even if some herbs, such as sweet fennel and nasturtiums, can be found as plants, they often don’t do better than seeds sown directly in the garden.”

Indeed, they may do worse. “Cilantro and dill always will grow better if they are direct-sown,” advises Rose Marie Nichols-McGee, owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon. “The umbelliferas simply aren’t meant for transplanting.” Nichols-McGee adds that you probably won’t get chervil unless you grow it yourself from direct-sown seeds for three reasons: it doesn’t transplant well, the cut stems don’t ship well and the leaves lose their flavor when dried. “Everything a chervil plant has to offer — including some really great omelets — is locked up in its seed,” she says.

Keepers of the Seed

Fortunately, the most important of any seed-sower’s challenges — starting with high-quality seed that has been expertly harvested, sorted, labeled and stored — is taken care of by conscientious seed merchants who share your passion for herbs. Six years ago, Jeff McCormack sold the successful heirloom seed company he founded, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, in Mineral, Virginia, so he could spend less time running a business and more time doing what “feeds his soul” — getting seeds of medicinal and culinary herbs into the hands of people who will grow them. His smaller current company, Garden Medicinals and Culinaries, in Earlysville, Virginia, also offers McCormack a way to preserve plants that are threatened or endangered. “We do no wildcrafting. All our seeds and plants are grown from cultivated stock,” McCormack says.

In the last few years, one of his special projects has been increasing seeds of false unicorn (Chamaelirium luteum), a rare native woodland herb that is increasingly sought after by herbalists. Native Americans used it to treat coughs and morning sickness, and modern science has revealed the presence of steroidal saponins in false unicorn roots. “In the wild, it can take at least seven years to flower, but in cultivation it grows much more rapidly. To me, the flower is beautiful, simple and elegant.” McCormack has found that false unicorn is very easy to grow from seed and is more tolerant of weather extremes than some of the other woodland herbs.

Richo Cech, author and owner of Horizon Herbs in Williams, Oregon, thinks one reason seeds prosper when sown where the plants are to grow is that they gain a strong sense of place. “When you sow seeds, some of the seeds germinate and thrive, while others don’t come up or make scraggly seedlings. You keep the seedlings that demonstrate that they like the place where you put them,” Cech says. In this way, your garden gets to cast its vote as to the suitability not only of various herbs, but of individual seedlings.





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