Growing Herbs from Hand to Garden

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Easy-to-grow nasturtiums can help take the fear factor out of growing herbs from hand to garden.
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Grow dainty chervil by sowing seeds in the garden in spring
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A great tea herb to grow in partial shade, mountain mint grows best from direct-sown seeds.
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An ancient seed-producing herb, sesame stalks and foliage also may help deter soil-bourne nematodes.
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Easy-to-grow nasturtiums can help take the fear factor out of growing herbs from hand to garden.
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Easy-to-grow nasturtiums can help take the fear factor out of growing herbs from hand to garden.

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.

If you like to grow herbs for tea, Cech highly recommends sowing mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) along partially shaded garden pathways. “It’s one of our best indigenous tea herbs, with a compact habit and handsome flowers,” he says. And as long as your climate is warm enough for tomatoes, Cech suggests trying ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), which grows easily from seed. Even if you don’t use the dried root as an energizing tonic, ashwaganda will earn its place in most gardens with its decorative inflated calyxes enclosing bright red berries, Cech says.

In Hallandale, Florida, Anne and Doug Foss sell seeds of hundreds of fragrant, flavorful and healing herbs through Eden Organic Nursery Services (EONS). “I think that all the herbs we sell are important in some way,” Anne Foss says. Insects are active year-round at EONS, so it’s no surprise that insect-repelling plants, such as shoo-fly plant (Nicandra physalodes) have emerged as a house specialty. A tropical annual sown from seed each spring, shoo-fly can grow to 5 feet tall before bearing blue flowers followed by winged seed pods that dry beautifully. In warm climates where soil-borne nematodes are a problem, Foss suggests sowing sesame (Sesamum indicum) in any sunny spot. After the seeds are harvested, she says, the stalks will deter nematodes if you work them into the soil or use them as mulch.

Ordinary Herbs, Extraordinary Varieties

You don’t have to be on a quest for unusual herbs to appreciate the huge range of varieties you can try by starting herbs from seed sown directly in the garden. Take ‘Vierling’ dill, for example, which bears flowers that look great in a vase and has especially flavorful leaves. “The blooms are more chartreuse than other dills, so it’s a fine cut flower, and the flavor of the leaves is excellent,” reports Beth Jensen, herb products manager with Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine.

You don’t have to be on a quest for unusual herbs to appreciate the huge range of varieties you can try by starting herbs from seed sown directly in the garden. You also might try new ‘Delfino’ cilantro, an All America Selections winner that bears finely cut, feathery leaves. After two years of growing ‘Delfino’, Jensen says it was the slowest cilantro to bolt in the Johnny’s field trials — and it has a mild flavor that may make converts of people who think they don’t like the taste of cilantro.

And then there is basil, which often grows so well when sown in warm garden soil that it seems like a different plant from those set out as shopworn purchased seedlings. “A lot of people think basil has to be transplanted, but direct sowing a second crop in late spring or early summer is always worth doing,” Nichols-McGee says. “It’s hard to take a seed and convince people that it’s a glitzy thing, but direct-sown basil will get any herb lover’s attention.”

Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant grows numerous herbs from seed in her North Carolina garden. Her website is

Awakening Seeds All over the World

April’s full moon is not called the Seed Moon for nothing. For thousands of years, it has been the time when herb growers have tenderly patted soil over sleeping seeds, knowing that they will soon awaken and grow. Many cultures have believed that seeds contained sleeping spirits that respond to human encouragement. In the Peruvian Andes, the relationship between a seed and the person who plants it is almost like a courtship, while in some parts of Europe it was long thought that the youngest child in the house should be asked to bless seeds before they were planted. Sowing seeds is a fulfilling ritual in itself, but you may want to add a wish or prayer as you scatter seeds in your herb garden. It need not be fancy. Horizon Herbs owner Richo Cech usually repeats over and over, “grow, baby, grow.”

Seeds vs. Weeds

If you’re a new herb gardner, you may have trouble telling the difference between herb seedlings and weeds. Even though tiny weed seeds often are impossible to see, almost every square inch of garden soil contains them, and they often spring to life alongside newly germinated herbs. Try these tips to help keep seedling chaos to a minimum.

  • Plant your herb seeds in a pattern, such as a zig-zag line or circle. Seedlings that emerge in keeping with the pattern are easier to recognize as herbs.
  • Cover herb seeds with potting soil rather than garden soil. Potting soil usually contain no weed seeds, and its dark color makes it easy to remember exactly where you planted the seeds.
  • As you pull little weeds or thin crowded seedlings, smell them if you’re not sure which ones are herbs and which ones are weeds. Most herbs give off a little aroma and flavor even when they are tiny sprouts.
  • Plant a few herb seeds in small containers and use them as examples so you learn to tell the difference between herb seedlings and weeds.

Safekeeping Seeds

When you have partial seed packets left over, store them in glass jars in a cool, dark place. Add little packages of anti-dessicant saved from vitamin bottles or shoeboxes to protect the seeds from humidity. According to Nichols Garden Nursery owner Rose Marie Nichols-Mcgee, little packages of dried milk folded into a paper towel make a good antidessicant, too.

Sources For Seeds

P.O. Box 4604
Hallandale, FL 33008
(954) 455-0229
Free printed catalog, online catalog

Garden Medicinals and Culinaries
P.O. Box 320
Earlysville, VA 22936
(434) 964-9113
Online catalog

Horizon Herbs
P.O. Box 69
Williams, OR 97544
(541) 846-6704
Free printed catalog, online catalog

Johnny’s Selected Seeds
955 Benton Avenue
Winslow, ME 04901
(877) 564-6697
Free printed catalog, online catalog

Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 Old Salem Road NE
Albany, OR 97321
(800) 422-3985
Free printed catalog, online catalog

Richters Herbs
357 Hwy. 47
Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0, Canada
(905) 640-6677
Free printed catalog, online catalog

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