Starting with seeds
Seeds can be started in any container at least 2 inches deep with adequate drainage holes. I prefer to use flats and a commercial soil-less mix made especially for seeds. Some commercial potting soils are too heavy and often of poor quality. Some gardeners prepare their own mixes using a combination of peat, perlite, and vermiculite. Before planting, soak your containers in a bathtub of hot water with a cupful of bleach for about an hour to kill any bacteria and fungus left over from last year. After cleaning the containers, fill them with the potting mix and dampen the mix with warm water.
I prefer gently broadcasting the seeds, trying to space them evenly but not heavily over the surface. The seed packet will indicate how deeply to sow the seeds or if they need light to germinate, in which case they, should not be covered. I cover my seeds by gently spreading dry potting mix over them in the flat. Identify the seeds in the flat with markers. (You can purchase marking labels or cut them from empty yogurt containers.) Then dampen the top layer of potting soil by misting or sprinkling, cover the flat with plastic wrap to keep the moisture in, and place it under inexpensive shop lights. The heat from the bulb also helps them germinate faster.
Keep in mind that there are many variables that affect seed germination. In his book Growing Herbs From Seed, Cutting and Root, Thomas DeBaggio suggests soil temperatures remain between 55° and 75°F for seed germination. If the temperature is too low, seeds may rot before they sprout. But another variable for some herbs requires just the opposite. Seeds such as echinacea and angelica need to experience a cold season before they will germinate. DeBaggio says that simple refrigeration of seeds in moist peat moss will encourage fruitful sowing.
Watch the flats carefully. At the first sign of germination, remove the plastic wrap. As the seeds grow, gradually raise the lights so they are a couple of inches away from the plants. Check the flats daily to make sure they are not drying out. Use a fine nozzle on a watering can to prevent damage to the young plants and always use warm water, not cold–no one enjoys the shock of a cold shower.
Herbs to grow from seeds
Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Catmint (Nepeta ¥faassenii)
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Dill* (Anethum graveolens)
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Fennel* (Foeniculum vulgare)
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
Mullein (Verbascum spp.)
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
* Resents being transplanted, so sow in the ground.
After the plants develop their second set of leaves, transplant them to plastic pots, small peat pots, or flats so their roots have more room to develop. The tiny seedlings are fragile, so grasp them by their leaves rather than their stems when transplanting. If the plants are bunched together in a community pot, slide the entire plant bunch out of the pot, hold it upright and gently drop it, roots down, 6 to 8 inches onto your planting table. The impact separates the plants without tearing their delicate roots. Lift each plant by its leaves and transplant. Select the sturdiest plants, discarding those without a good root system or cutting them off at the base. To plant the seedlings, either dangle their roots in the pot and sprinkle dry soil around them, or make holes in the soil mix using a chopstick or a pencil and insert them. Plant them deep enough to support their fragile stems. Immediately fertilize the transplants with a weak (about quarter-strength) fertilizer. Then set them back under the lights.
As the weather warms, move the flats or pots to a porch or other protected spot outdoors. If the temperature drops or the wind comes up, be quick to move plants back inside. Direct hot sun can also be fatal until the plants are accustomed to it. This move from indoors to outside is called “hardening off.” The young plants need to get used to the cold, wind, and sun in small doses. The best way is to start at least two weeks before moving them permanently to the garden. Leave them out for a few hours each day, increasing the time until they are outside all the time. Always bring them in if frost or bad weather threatens. Watch carefully to ensure that the flats don’t dry out. By planting time, you will notice that the stems look thicker and stronger and are more able to withstand the elements.
Soil for strength
Soil preparation is essential to successful transplanting. Many herbs are not fussy about growing conditions and are relatively drought-tolerant, but they’ll do best in well-drained soil of average fertility that has been enriched with compost. Good soil is light enough so that the roots can easily grow through it. A light tilling or turning that breaks up large clumps is sufficient. Rake it smooth and remove large rocks.
When the right time comes to set the plants in the ground, make sure the plants are well watered but not soggy. Dry soil tends to fall away from the roots, adding stress to the transplant. Dig a hole a couple of inches wider than the pot in which the plant was grown. Make the hole deep enough so the top of the potting mix is level with the surrounding garden soil, or deeper if the plant has a leggy stem. A plant should never be dislodged from its container by pulling on the main stem or leaves. It is better to bang the pot on the ground to dislodge the plant so it slides out or push up the bottom of the flat or cell pack. If I have plants in peat pots, I gently tear the pot off the plant before planting. (Peat pots are supposed to decompose, but I have found that takes too long.) If the plant appears to be root-bound, gently tease apart the outer roots with your fingertips. Backfill the soil around the roots and firm the soil around the plant to eliminate air pockets. Water immediately.
Keep the soil around newly transplanted herbs constantly moist until they are well established. These healthy young plants will yield herbs for the kitchen, medicine chest, and craft table all summer long.
Click here for the main article, Herb Gardening Tips For Beginners.
Pat Herkal is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion who enjoys the gardening challenges of Wyoming’s schizophrenic Zone 4 climate. She collects hardy roses, underplanting them with a large variety of herbs and perennials.