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Commercial Herb Plants: Doomed to Die?

The raison d’être of today’s article: I saw these overcrowded and doomed-to-die basil seedlings in a local farmer’s market the other day. A perfect example of how not to grow herbs!

Poor horticulture has begun to dominate in the field of herb plants. More and more herb sellers (supermarkets, public markets and even garden centers and nurseries that should know better) now offer pots jam-packed with seedlings, with ten plants or more growing in a dense clump. This results in a pot that looks nice and full, even mature, but the plants are so densely packed they’ll most likely die fairly soon after their purchase. Essentially, this is planned obsolescence.

A single pot may be suitable for 10 very small seedlings, but as they grow, they start to compete for resources: space for their roots, minerals for healthy growth and, most of all, enough water to stay healthy. Overcrowded pots will need extra watering, probably 2 or 3 times per day, quickly exhausting even the most enthusiastic gardener.

Why produce such horrors? Because the container looks fuller and more mature (though, inevitably, it contains only very young seedlings), so it’s more attractive and therefore it’s more likely that consumers will choose it over a well-grown and truly healthy plant all on its own in a pot.

Also, once the first pot is dead, the merchant hopes that you will come back for a second one. Then another and another. I heard one supermarket clerk tell a woman that herbs are naturally short-lived: you simply had to buy new plants every two to three weeks! In the herb business, planned obsolescence pays off!

The Rule: One Plant Per Pot

This is how herbs (here basil seedlings) should be sold: one plant per pot.

Healthy herbs, ones that will live long and produce an excellent harvest, are sold one plant per pot. Okay, maybe there’s a small straggler sharing its pot, a seedling that germinated late and that the grower didn’t get around to removing. You can do so when you get the pot home. The important thing is that the plant has to have space to grow well.

Usually these young healthy herbs are sold small pots (six-packs or 2½ inch/6,5 cm containers), ready to be planted in the ground or into a larger pot when you bring them home.

When looking for herbs, therefore, and want quality plants, just follow the rule: one plant per pot. It will give you the best results!

Can You Save Crowded Plants?

These overcrowded basil seedlings are starting to collapse from stress. Thin out the pot, leaving just one specimen, without delay. It may still be possible to save it.

It’s too late and you’ve already bought a pot of overcrowded seedlings? Yes, you could save them… or more correctly, it, as you’ll want to leave just one. Don’t wait until the plants start to die, thin out the pot as soon as possible. Be heartless and cut the surplus plants to the ground, simply leaving just one seedling in the pot. If you catch it in time, it can still have a full and productive life.

Can you separate seedlings from crowded pots, then grow each plant in its own pot? You’ll notice that the grower often specifically sows the seedlings very densely to discourage this kind of thing, but if the seedlings are very young, with few roots, it is sometimes possible to disentangle them. To do this, place the root ball in a bowl of water and let the soil “melt away” (it will slowly drop free from the rootball), then gently pull on the seedlings, holding them by a leaf, not a stem, to separate them. If you succeed, you should, of course, pot them up, each in its own pot, without delay.

Sow Your Own Herbs

Obviously, you can save even more by sowing the herbs yourself… and doing it right.

Some herbs are mainly grown from seed. These fast-growing, easy-to-sow varieties, such as basil, parsley, chervil and dill, are the ones that are usually grown crowded in their pot. (Growers don’t crowd cutting-grown plants or divisions; they’re more expensive to produce.) Why not sow them yourself … and sow them properly?

basil plants
Sow seeds 3 to a pot, then thin to just one plant. Easy peasy!

You can produce the number of pots you would like for only a few cents each and seed packs for herbs are widely available on the Internet as well as in any good garden center. And it’s so fast! In three weeks, basil and chervil seedlings, for example, will be as big as the plants sold in the store… and will probably have cost you 20 times less!

Sow 3 seeds per pot (always sow more than necessary in case germination is uneven) and, when the plants come up, cut back any surplus seedlings, thus leaving only one plant per pot. It’s so easy!

But back to our rule of the day: when you buy herb plants, always choose one plant per pot!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

1 comment on “Commercial Herb Plants: Doomed to Die?

  1. Pingback: How Many Herb Seeds Should I Sow per Pot? – Laidback Gardener

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