Growing herbs from seed is a very satisfying way of increasing the number of different varieties that you grow and can be a real money saver as well. Some of the best varieties are uncommon and will not be offered for sale in market packs and some of the varieties that are offered as plants are not the best to be had.
The sheer volume of different types of herbs can be overwhelming to the novice. Try to simplify things by deciding ahead of time which ones you are most likely to use and enjoy growing. A good selection of kitchen or culinary herbs would include parsley, basil, chives, sage and oregano. All of these can be grown easily from seed and you should have sufficient to share with friends if you like.
PARSLEY (Petroselinum) -- Parsley is a biennial, a plant that produces lots of leaves the first year and a bloom stalk the second. Treat this plant as an annual and grow new plants each year. There are several types of parsley but the best flavor for cooking comes from the flat-leaved varieties, sometimes called Italian parsley. For garnish and decoration, the curly-leaved types are much prettier and there are several kinds to choose from. Pick your favorite or grow more than one kind for more decorative interest if you have lots of space.
BASIL (Ocimum) – If you have room for only a few plants, grow Mammoth basil, sweet basil, or Genovese basil. These types will provide the true basil flavor and lots of leaves to harvest. You should be able to get several harvests during the season by cutting back to a node and allowing the new shoots to grow up. Basil is a tender perennial and should be treated as an annual everywhere but the deep south. Even a light frost kills the plants quickly. Those lucky enough to have large gardens can experiment with many different types of basil. Rubin basil is a beautiful purple plant that keeps its color well, better than Purple Ruffles. It can be used like ordinary basil but is very decorative and can be planted in flower borders. Lemon basil, cinnamon basil, Thai basil, and bush basil all have slightly different scents, flavors, and growth habits, from very tall to small and globe-like. Try a few of them, you may find a new friend.
CHIVES (Allium) – Chives is a member of the onion family and tastes like mild onion. It is easy to start from seed and, if protected in the garden, will increase in size from year to year. Chive produces lovely globe-shaped blooms that can be used to color and flavor vinegar or tossed into a salad. Grolau chives is one of the best varieties but if you have room for two kinds, also plant Mauve garlic chives. This plant produces beautiful lavender flowers and adds more color to the garden and table. Chives are nearly pest-free, a real plus in the garden.
SAGE (Salvia) – The salvias are a wonderful family of plants, containing both ornamental and culinary types. Some of the ornamentals are useful in the kitchen too. Golden sage, Purple sage, and Tricolor sage are perennials, easy to start from seed, are excellent for cooking and are striking in the garden as well. Pineapple sage, a tender perennial, smells exactly like pineapple, has bright red flowers, and can survive in zone 7 with winter protection. Other very showy sages are easily grown from seed and should be treated as decorative annuals.
OREGANO (Origanum) – This herb is essential for Italian and Greek cooking. Unfortunately, many plants sold as oregano are really pot marjoram and lack the strong spicy scent and flavor of true oregano. If you think you have oregano but are disappointed with its flavor, chances are it is really pot marjoram. True, Greek, oregano is easy to grow from seed and is a compact perennial. Mexican oregano is similar in flavor, used in Mexican cooking, and must be bought as a plant. It is a tender perennial shrub or small tree and can be grown in colder climates as a pot plant.
Soak the seeds in water for a few hours, or even overnight, before planting them.
Assemble the soil and containers for growing the seeds in. Using an ice pick or large nail, make ventilation holes in the domes. The easiest way is to heat the ice pick or nail and melt the holes. About a dozen in each dome, evenly spaced, should do the trick.
You will also need some tags to identify each variety you plant. Popsicle sticks are good for this or you can buy blank plant tags at the garden center. Be sure to use waterproof ink or soft pencil.
About six to eight weeks before you will want plants, fill the flats with soil mix and soak them well with water. Cover with the plastic domes.
Allow the filled flats to sit overnight so that the moisture distributes evenly through the soil mix. The next day take out your seeds and begin planting them in the separate cells of the flats. It is best to put only a few seeds in each cell and spread them evenly over the soil surface. Some seeds, like oregano, are very fine, while basil, parsley and sage are large enough that you should be able to isolate three or four to a cell.
Work with one variety at a time and make a marker for each. Sow the herb seeds 1-3 times deeper than the size of the seed. Very tiny seeds need only to be pressed into the soil. Mist each seeded flat and cover with its clear dome. This will keep the soil warm and eliminate the need to water until the seedlings emerge. Place flats in a warm, sunny area. Until the seeds emerge, keep the soil damp.
If you have only a few flats, put them on top of the refrigerator until the seeds begin to germinate. Bottom heat is very beneficial for starting seeds and actually works better than bright light. For lots of flats, it is possible to buy special bottom-heating units.
Remove the dome once the seedlings emerge. If you plan to transfer your seedlings to the garden, wait until at least two sets of leaves have emerged.
HARDENING OFF AND PUTTING OUT IN THE GARDEN
By the time your baby herb plants are showing several sets of true leaves and filling their cells it will be time to set them out in the garden. Have your planting beds already prepared ahead of time. Almost all herbs do best in full sun and well-drained soil. Once established, herbs can tolerate a little dryness. A week or so before transplanting, harden off the seedlings by setting them outside in a sheltered spot during the day. Either bring them in at night or cover with row covers or sheets at night if it is still cool.
Transplant your hardened seedlings into their prepared beds in the morning of a cloudy day, if possible. Remove each group of seedlings from its cell carefully. The root ball should be full of white roots and should hold together well. If the root ball is too firm, because you were delayed in getting the seedlings in the ground, gently tease it apart before planting. By breaking up the root ball a little, you will encourage the growth of new roots out into the soil.
When all the seedlings are planted, water well but do not flood the beds. You can apply a light mulch of shredded bark to conserve moisture and keep down weeds. Be sure to keep your baby herbs watered until they begin active growth then water as necessary throughout the growing season.
Transplant the plants by pinching off the lower set of leaves. Dig a hole deep enough to hold the plant just over the point where you pinched the leaves. These leaf nodes will grow roots. Gently turn the pot upside down and allow the plant to fall out into your hand. Don't pull the plant by the stem or leaves. Place the plant in hole and pat soil around your plant. Water once daily for a week and twice weekly thereafter. When the plants begin to get bushy, add mulch around them to discourage weeds.
Leaves can be harvested as needed during the growing season. Cut a few leaves of chives to snip over salads, potatoes or soups. Sprigs of oregano can be cut as needed and used fresh or branches can be dried, crumbled, and saved in airtight containers. Basil can be made into pesto in large batches and kept in the freezer. It can also be used fresh or dried and stored. Sage can be used fresh, chopped into stuffing or sausage. The leaves can be dried and crumbled for winter use.
* Use equal parts perlite, vermiculite, and coir compost for soil. Avoid sphagnum peat moss, which is an environmentally unsustainable product. These can be purchased at a local garden center or discount chain.
* Jiffy-Mix can be used to start seeds.
* Bottom water seedlings to avoid damping off by placing the plants in a pan of water.
* Supplement low-sunlight conditions with fluorescent lighting. Expensive "grow lights" can be purchased from garden catalogs, but a fluorescent house lamp will work.
* Once the seedlings emerge, water them once a day.
* If you make sure you grow organic herbs, you can use them in your cooking.
Over-watering seedlings can cause damping off. Damping off is a fungal disease that causes the stems to break off and the plants to die. Allow the soil to dry for a few hours each day.