Sprouting Seeds: The Secret of Germination

There's more to growing herbs and flowers from seed than simply planting them. Check out these germination tips to learn how to start seedlings at home.

| December/January 1997

Seeds are wonderous things. The smallest dust­­like fleck contains all the necessary material and energy to grow into a plant: one or a pair of rudimentary leaves that store food, a tiny stem, the beginnings of a root system, and the hint of a new leaf bud, which will become the seed­ling’s first true leaves. 

For many years, I have been raising a variety of herbs from seed. For a fraction of what it would cost to buy plants, I can raise a virtual army of seedlings to satisfy my need for tea, flavoring, and landscaping herbs. I can also grow some unusual herbs that are available only as seeds. Many of the perennials that I start from seed are, I suspect, better adapted to my particular growing conditions than purchased plants or roots from another region would be.

I thrill to the initiation of growth and to witnessing the first stirrings of life in seeds I have planted by my own hand—a certain perkiness, a swelling and break in the seed coat, then the tiny leaves unfolding and springing toward the light. What a way to start the growing season.

In the beginning, however, I had little success with growing herbs from seed. Too often, the seeds vanished in the soil without a trace, and I didn’t know why. Norman C. Deno’s pathbreaking book Seed Germination, Theory and Practice, first published in 1991, provided a new approach. Deno, a retired chemistry professor, challenged the old notion that seeds need only warmth and a little moisture to germinate. Although this is true for about 50 percent of plants from temperate regions, including the most important food crops and common garden flowers, the other 50 percent, as well as exotics of all types, desert and alpine plants, and wildflowers, require different treatment if germination is to take place. Until Deno’s extensive germination trials, the requirements of many of these species were little known.

Seeds or Plants?

When grown from seed, rose­­mary, laven­­­der, thyme, and mint species show variations in leaf, flower color, habit, even flavor. Some gardeners enjoy discovering these differences, but if you’re looking for consistency, grow the species from cuttings or roots or purchase established plants—don’t bother with seed. To obtain lush plants the first season from such slow growers as rosemary and lavender, buying established plants is a necessity.

Cultivars (cultivated varieties) of rosemary, lavender (except ‘Lady’), thymes, mints, arte­misias, santolinas, some salvias, and origanums also must be propagated by means other than seed (such as cuttings) to ensure that their offspring resemble the parents in every way, as must French tarragon, which doesn’t produce viable seeds.

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