Q and A: Germinating Herb Seeds

All you need to know about germinating herb seeds under lights.

| February/March 2000

Question: It seems like a lot of trouble and expense to germinate herb seeds under lights. How hard is it? Is it worth it?

Answer: If you want just one or two plants or if you’re after a cultivar that doesn’t come true from seed, buy them. If you want to fill in a large area in the garden, or if you want varieties that you can’t find at your local nursery, or if you want to save money, consider setting up grow-lights in an out-of-the-way spot in the house. Over time, they will more than pay for themselves.

A basement is an ideal spot for a grow-light setup because the cooler temperatures there (60° to 65°F) promote sturdy, steady growth of many kinds of young plants. A spare bedroom, a garage that isn’t too cold, or even a closet are other possible locations. My grow-lights, inexpensive shop fixtures available at any hardware store, are 4 feet long with double fluorescent tubes and are suspended on chains that let me raise the height of the lights as the plants grow. Adjustability is crucial to success. An inexpensive timer turns the lights on for sixteen hours, then off for eight, freeing me from having to remember to do it myself.

Before you purchase lights, decide which kinds of seeds you want to sow so you can buy the right amount. To find out how many weeks each type will take to grow to transplanting size, consult the seed packet or a good reference such as New Seed-Starters Handbook, by Nancy Bubel (Rodale Press, 1988), then count back from your average frost-free date to determine when to sow them. Call your county extension service if you’re not sure of the frost-free date in your region.

Some seeds need special treatment to help them germinate, such as soaking in water overnight or nicking the hard seed covering. Some need light to sprout, so they’re sown on or just below the surface of the potting mix. Others need to be kept dark—cover the pot with brown paper but remove it after sprouts begin popping up.

Fill a clean flat (or individual pots that have holes for drainage) with slightly moist potting mix, sow the seeds (sparingly!), and cover them lightly with more potting mix (or not, if they need light to germinate), firming it with your fingertips. Water ­thoroughly, taking care not to dislodge the seeds.

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