Gardening Herbs Sowing Seeds

How to Grow Herbs from Seed

Herb seedlings in a cell tray

By Lili Michaud

Lili Michaud is a French-Canadian urban agronomist, garden coach and author of six books. Recognized for her professionalism, objectivity and communication skills, Lili Michaud has solid expertise in urban ecological practices and growing edible plants.

You enjoy growing herbs and are used to buying them as plants … and there’s nothing wrong with that. But did you know that it is relatively easy to start your own herbs from seed, a practice that allows you to:

  • Cultivate a very wide variety of herbs (you can have access to about 50 varieties of basil, for example).
  • Save money.
  • Produce organic plants.
  • Control plant quality (less risk of disease).
  • Enjoy yourself (sowing seeds is fun!)

Although most herbs can be started by sowing seeds indoors, others do best when you sow them outdoors, usually because they dislike transplanting.

Helpful Hint: For successful outdoor sowing, cover the soil with a floating row cover to keep the seedbed constantly moist during the germination period.

Some herbs do best when sown indoors.

Herbs that are best started indoors include basil, burnet, German chamomile, lavender, lemongrass, Mexican tarragon, sage, stevia and thyme.

Herbs that benefit from outdoor sowing include anise, caraway, chervil, coriander/cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley and sweet cicely.

Among the herbs that can benefit from either indoor or outdoor sowing are anise hyssop, chives, epazote, hyssop, lovage, lemon balm, marjoram, perilla and summer savory.

Finally, some herbs are simply not that suitable to growing from seed. Ideally, you’d start then using other methods such as cuttings, layering or division. This is the case with bay leaf, French tarragon, mint, oregano, rosemary, lemon verbena and winter savory.

When and How Sow Herb Seeds Indoors

  • About 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost.
  • Gather your supplies: organic seed, seed starter soil mix, mushroom trays, multicell seedling trays or other containers, watering can with a sprinkler head, mini-greenhouse.
  • Moisten the soil mix.
  • Place the mix in the containers and tamp lightly, leaving ½ inch (1 cm) a free space at the top of the container.
Pencil tracing a furrow in a mushroom tray filled with moist soil.
Trace furrows in the sowing mix.
  • Trace furrows ¼ inch (0.5 cm) deep, 1 to 1 ½ inches (3 to 4 cm) apart.
  • Sow by placing one seed about every ½ inch (1 cm) apart. If you are using multicell trays, sow one seed per cell.
  • Cover the seeds with ¼ inch (0.5 cm) of soil.
  • Moisten the surface using a watering can with a sprinkler head.
  • Place the containers in a mini greenhouse.
Seedlings under a fluorescent lamp.
Seedlings can be grown under artificial light: here, fluorescent lights.
  • Place the mini greenhouse near a window facing south or west. Otherwise, opt for artificial lighting.
  • Monitor water requirements daily and water as needed.
  • Thin out the seedlings before they start to touch each other. Yes, you can eat the thinnings!
  • When the seedlings have at least two true leaves, transplant them into individual containers. If the seedlings were started in cells, transplant them into larger containers.
  • Gradually acclimatize the seedlings to outdoor conditions when there is no longer any risk of frost.
  • Transplant to the garden or into pots.

When and How Sow Herb Seeds Outdoors

  • Start when there is no longer any risk of frost.
  • Gather your supplies: organic seed, garden trowel, watering can, floating row cover.
  • Prepare the sowing area in the garden by removing weeds and stones and leveling the soil.
  • If you’ll be growing your herbs in containers, moisten the potting mix before filling the pots you’ve chosen. Lightly compact the potting soil and level its surface.
  • Using the trowel, trace a furrow ½ inch (1 cm) deep.
  • Sow by placing one seed about every ½ inch (1 cm), then close the furrow.
  • Water using a watering can with a sprinkler head.
Floating row cover placed on the ground in a vegetable garden.
Cover the sowing area with floating row cover.
  • Cover the surface with a floating row cover.
  • Monitor water requirements daily and water through the row cover as needed.
  • Remove the row cover when all the seedlings have sprouted.
  • Perform a first thinning when the young plants reach about 1 to 1 ½ inches (3 to 4 cm) in height, leaving one plant every 4 inches (10 cm). You can eat the thinnings after washing them carefully.
  • Then thin a second time before the plants touch each other. Strive for a final spacing of about 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm), depending on the variety.

And there you go: healthy, vigorous herb seedlings you’ll be harvesting as the summer unfolds!

All photos by Lili Michaud

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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