Some sage advice on starting herbs from seed
By Barbara Damrosch,
Our herb garden needs a makeover. The sage plants are so old and woody that they look like a failed experiment with bonsai. Ornamental flowers of all sorts have stolen in. This year I want fresh new herbs and lots of them, so I can dry them, make herb vinegars and have a plot that looks neat and productive from the kitchen window. I need to do this on the cheap, and that means no expensive nursery plants, just a bit of extra time growing plants from seed.
Annual herbs are easily seed-grown, whether started indoors or sown outside and then thinned. Carrot-family members such as dill, cilantro and chervil, with their parasol-shaped flowers, scatter seed on their own and come back the next year. (In chervil’s case, it’s best to sow in late summer, lest it bolt.) Because basil is a tender, warm-weather plant, I sow it indoors to get a jump on the season, though I’ve learned from the venerable guide “Park’s Success With Herbs” that lemon basil is a special case, best sown outdoors once the soil is warm, to make it bushier and less prone to bolt.
Perennial herbs, in general, do not germinate or grow as quickly as annual ones, but that should not deter you. We start them indoors in soil blocks in a peat/vermiculite mix, and we like the fresh, full-flavored, healthy foliage we get from the transplants. We don’t cover the seed, except in the case of sage, whose fat taproot has a tendency to head upward rather than down. Thyme and lavender are easy, just a little slow to sprout. So is the biennial parsley, which is productive all winter if given a little protection. Chives don’t need to be thinned: You can transplant them in little clumps. Rosemary can germinate poorly, but Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells “primed” rosemary seed that is more reliable — if you use it within six months of purchase.
There are several herbs best started by other means. True French tarragon (as opposed to the flavorless Russian type) can’t be grown from seed, so you must buy at least one plant, then propagate more, either by dividing the roots the next year in early spring or by taking cuttings in midsummer and overwintering the little plants in a greenhouse or cold frame. Lemon verbena is also grown from purchased plants or cuttings and becomes a large plant that, unlike tarragon, can be grown in a pot and brought indoors for dormant winter hibernation.
Mint is rarely seed-grown because it cross-pollinates easily and therefore does not breed true to type. Best to find a friend with lots of mint — a friend with any mint has lots of mint — cut some sprigs, and stick them in a glass of water to root. Mint sprouts so fast that it will probably have grown an inch before you’ve finished your mint julep.
If you end up with too many little plants by growing herbs from seed, give them as gifts, or use them to edge a flower bed. Herbs can infiltrate the ornamental world as easily as the reverse, and there’s some fine justice in that.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook.”
Tip of the week
Remove the overwintering tops of last year’s ornamental grasses. The grasses should be cut close to the ground in advance of this year’s new growth. String trimmers work on soft grasses, but thicker types such as miscanthus need heavier equipment. Sharp hedging shears are a safe and effective tool. The old stalks are too unwieldy for the compost pile and are best trashed.
— Adrian Higgins