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Seeds or Plants?

Question: I am confused about which herbs I can
grow from seeds, and which ones I should buy as plants. When is one
way better than the other?


Herbs are such diverse plants that there is no simple answer. As
a general rule, herbs classified as annuals, hardy annuals or
biennials are good candidates for starting from seed. Basil,
borage, cilantro, dill, German chamomile, marjoram, parsley, and
summer savory are the most popular herbs in this group. In true
annual style, these plants complete their life cycle — from seed to
plant and back to seed again — in less than a year.

We sometimes think of annuals as inferior to perennials because
they live for such a short time, but in fact they should be admired
for their ability to pass down their genes from generation to
generation, ingeniously packaged as dormant seeds. Annuals that
quickly produce lots of seeds often are quite successful in nature
and their speedy growth makes them popular among gardeners, too.
However, it is important to start with good seed. Usually the best
seed is gathered by an herb gardener who knows what he or she is
doing, or sold by a reputable company in packets dated for the
current year.

You can buy seedlings of annual herbs, which saves you the time
and trouble of growing them yourself. However, growing your own
seedlings makes it possible to have varieties — globe basil or
Italian parsley, for ex- ample — that often are not available as
seedlings, but are easily purchased as seed. Growing your own
guarantees that you will have young, vigorous seedlings that
haven’t been stressed by chilling, dry conditions, or crowded roots
– common hazards for plants kept on store shelves. When subjected
to any type of stress, cilantro and dill often switch from growing
leaves to making flowers before you can get them planted.

Starting seeds is also less expensive than buying plants, which
is important if you want a large number of plants, for example
fifty specimens of sweet Annie (Artemisia annua), a wonderful
annual herb for crafting into wreaths. Don’t worry if you only use
some of the seeds in a packet, because most herb seeds are good for
at least a couple of years when stored in a cool, dry place.

Many perennial herbs can be started from seed, too, and you may
have to start with seeds if you want to grow lesser-known medicinal
herbs like cough root (Lomatium) or senega (Polygala). Perennial
plants usually grow more slowly than annuals, and many make no
attempt to bloom — much less produce seeds — until they are at
least two years old. Then, when they finally do produce seeds, it
is quite common for the next generation to vary a little from the
mother plant.

This is no big deal if you want the herb in its ancestral form,
or if the plain species is all that is available, as is the case
with mountain mint and many other herbs. However, improved or
distinctive forms of many perennial herbs are available, and rather
than risk losing the characteristics that make them special, these
plants are propagated vegetatively rather than by seed. Vegetative
propagation ensures consistency of flavor, fragrance, medicinal
potency, leaf variegation, growth habit and other characteristics
from one generation to the next.

This is why many fine herbs are available only as plants. A huge
assortment of unique mints, lavenders, sages and thymes are always
sold as vegetatively propagated plants, as are dozens of scented
geraniums. Most perennial herbs that have earned a variety name,
such as flavorful ‘Kaliteri’ Greek oregano and cold-hardy ‘Arp’
rosemary, are sold exclusively as plants.

Buying plants can be a time-saving convenience, or it can be a
necessity if you are to get the best possible strain of many herbs.
Yet there is also much satisfaction in starting herbs from seed,
which is the only way you may ever get to know dwarf ‘Fernleaf’
dill or ‘Sweet Salad’ basil. As you plan for the gardening season
ahead, invest your dollars in high quality vegetatively propagated
perennial plants, and devote your time to growing distinctive
annual herbs from seed.

Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion
and author of several books about gardening, including The Whole
Herb (Square One, 2004).

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