If you live in the Northeast, like me, or any of the other frigid places around the country, you may be combating the winter blues by dreaming of a spring garden. Since it’s too early to plant even the hardiest cold season plants outdoors yet, growing herbs from seed will give your garden a head start, and no doubt give your mood a boost when you see the tiny plants emerge and begin to grow.
What You’ll Need:
A bright, sunny, (south facing is best) windowsill can be a good place for seedlings, but it’s not a requirement. Herbs will do quite well when grown under an artificial light source like a grow light, or even regular fluorescent bulbs. I use shop lights hanging from chains, with the seed trays set up on a table, in my basement. Plants need to be under the lights 14 to 16 hours a day, and do best when placed about 3 inches away from the bulbs. The lights will need to be raised as the plants grow.
There’s an ongoing debate in the gardening community about potting soil vs. seedstarting mix for propagating seeds. I’ve used both with success, though potting soil should be high quality and drain well, as the cheaper brands often are very heavy, and may retain too much water. This can cause the seeds to rot before they germinate. If you are in the Northeast, you may be able to locate two of my favorite potting soils, Coast of Maine, and Hamptons Estate Potting Mix. I’d love to hear from people in other areas about the potting mixes they like best, since many are sold only regionally. I’m a strictly organic gardener, so I never use any mixes that have synthetic fertilizer added (i.e. Miracle-Gro).
Plastic trays with cells are great for starting seeds, but yogurt containers or any other repurposed container will do the job just as well, as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom.
Follow specific directions on each seed packet. For most herbs, after seeds are sown, the trays or pots should be put in a warm place, but not in direct sun. Some people use a heat mat specifically designed for germinating seedlings, but other viable and more economical options are on top of the refrigerator or propped up a few inches above a radiator. Seeds must stay moist to germinate, so need to be checked and watered or misted daily. This is really the key to success; if the seeds dry out, they won’t grow. Covering your pots or trays with plastic will help keep the moisture in.
Once your seeds have outgrown their cells or pots, you can transplant them into larger containers, or if it is warm enough, outdoors into the ground. Make sure to harden off plants before moving outdoors permanently, which basically means putting them outside for short periods, preferably out of direct sun, for a few days, gradually increasing the outdoor time, so they get used to their new environment.
Good Choices for Herbs to Start Indoors
Many common herbs are easy to start from seed indoors. There are a few that have reputations for not liking being transplanted. Two of these are parsley and cilantro. If you are up for a challenge, give them a go. I’ve had success with starting both indoors. Others that are easy to grow from seed include:
Arugula-Easy to start from seed; cool season edible herb-do not keep in a window that will get too hot. Can be transplanted into the garden as soon as soil is workable. Keep moist.
Basil-Very easy to grow from seed and germinates quickly. Many varieties to choose from. Quick to germinate; sometimes in just a few days. Basil doesn’t like to be too wet, so let the pots get somewhat, but not completely dry between waterings. Basil is tender and doesn’t like cold weather at all. Make sure nights are above 50 degrees before planting outdoors.
Dill-Grows easily and quickly; germinates in a week or so.
Calendula-Easy and quick to germinate. Flowers are edible, and also used to make healing skin care products. I use calendula frequently in my line of organic body care, Blue Lotus Botanicals.
Chives-Another easy herb to start from seed; may take about 10 days to germinate. If you sow several seeds in a cell or container, you will get a small clump that will transplant easily into the garden.
Lavender (pictured above at about a month old)-Lavender is a slow grower, but can be grown from seed if you are patient. I often keep mine in a pot for a year before transplanting into the garden, to allow it to grow without being shaded out by larger plants. Lavender prefers it on the drier side, so make sure you used a growing medium that drains well. Germinates in two weeks or less.
Mint-Mint is an aggressive grower, and should be kept in a container, to prevent it from becoming invasive. However, it is lovely to have fresh mint to add to food and drinks in the summer. Mint seeds will germinate in 12 to 16 days, and likes moist soil.
Parsley-Parsley is a slow germinator and can take a couple of weeks to germinate, so be patient; be sure to keep soil moist.
Sage-Many different varieties; some are winter hardy, while others, such as white sage, can be grown as annuals in colder regions, and perennials in warmer zones. May take up to 21 days to germinate.