Herbs from Seed?

The herb garden at The Cloisters in New York City--Wouldn't we all like to have this in our back yards?

A couple of posts ago, I raved about the heavenly scent of my new Holy basil seedlings. Some of you may be wondering what other herbs would be worth purchasing seed for, so I thought I’d give you a run-down on what I successfully grew from seed last year, as well as what isn’t worth trying. (I know, me tell you not to grow something from seed? Well, read on.)

Yes, Grow It From Seed

Basil

Basil is not only easy to grow from seed, but you can start it at any time of year and have bushy little plants growing in a sunny window even in the darkest days of winter. I keep a basil plant on my desk and am constantly distracted–I mean, inspired–by the scent it releases when I brush it with my arm. It’s definitely worth growing from seed. You’ll spend less on a packet of seeds than you would on one little cellophane-wrapped basil plant from the grocery store, and that packet will serve you for years.

Sweet Genovese Basil

On the other hand, if by some chance you find yourself already in the possession of one of those grocery-store basil plants, you may not want to spend additional money on seeds. Plant your grocery-store basil in the garden (after the last spring frost), watch it develop into a woody little shrub a couple of feet high and wide, and then watch as it flowers and makes its own seeds, which, all by themselves, will fall to the ground, sprout, and produce little baby basils. Before the first frost in the fall, dig a few of these babies and bring them inside in pots for your winter basil. When spring comes, put them back out to make next year’s crop!

Of course, even though I brought my baby basils inside last fall and have plenty for this spring’s planting (I find that two or three plants are really all our family of four needs at a time), I couldn’t help trying one of the numerous additional varieties of basil featured in the seed catalog. Hence the Holy basil. Now I have three basil plants on my desk…and am having trouble finding my computer…

Cilantro

Last summer's self-seeded cilantro bed--still going strong in January!

Cilantro from seed is an absolute must. It’s so easy, too, because you don’t have to start it indoors. Just wait until the last frost is past and sow a few seeds directly in the garden. Then sow a few more two or three weeks later. Then again two or three weeks after that. And so on. Cilantro goes to seed very quickly in hot weather (basically anything over 80°F), and the leaves aren’t much good after the flower stalks start forming. Thus the multiple sowings (and the futility of spending money on nursery plants that are only going to be usable for a few weeks at best). The really cool thing about cilantro is that, once some of the plants have set seed, if you water the area around them, the new seed that has fallen will sprout, and you’ll get another crop without sowing anything! Also, once the weather cools down, the plants won’t go to seed anymore. They’ll stay leafy, even in freezing temperatures, and you might have fresh cilantro all winter long.

Oh, and don’t forget to harvest some of the seed for eating. The seeds of cilantro are called coriander seeds (coriandre is French for cilantro), and they’re delicious!

No, Don’t Bother–Buy Plants

Some herbs simply do not come true from seed. Or at least the best varieties don’t. Thankfully, these plants are also perennials. So once you buy a plant (or someone gives one to you!), you’ll have them forever. This applies to the following herbs (and probably others I don’t yet know about).

Mint

I did grow some of this from seed last year–a variety of peppermint. It’s okay in flavor, but not particularly tasty or aromatic. I’ll probably buy a plant from a nursery this year if I can find one with a taste I like better than what I’ve got.

Don’t worry if the plant you buy is small. It won’t be for long. In fact, mint is best grown in containers because it has a tendency to take over gardens with its quickly spreading roots.

Tarragon

You may see tarragon seed for sale somewhere (I did, and bought it), but don’t be fooled: the seed you’re buying isn’t for French tarragon. It’s for Russian tarragon, which hasn’t much of a taste and can become a weed, too. Buy plants. Ones that are clearly French tarragon.

Oregano

I did grow some Greek oregano from seed last year. It tastes good, grew well, and is spreading in the garden. But I’ve read that the best oreganos don’t come true from seed. So this is probably something you should splurge on a plant for. (Plus then you get to taste before you buy!)

More Info

If you’d like some more detailed information on herbs, check out this interview with one of the owners of Nichols Garden Nursery (a potential mail-order source for herb plants, though one I haven’t yet tried myself).

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. I love the Cloisters in NYC!! Their Witches Garden is the best!!

  2. Celeste says:

    Can I also recommend chives from seed?
    Others that I wouldn’t recommend from seed are lavender and rosemary.
    That may just be here in South Africa though…
    There are a lot of veggies though that do well from seed – I’ve got carrots and something that I’ve forgotten (I mixed the labels! Will have to wait till it’s a bit bigger to see what it is) growing up like wild fire.

    1. Sharon says:

      Thanks for mentioning chives! I’m growing them from seed this year, but it’s my first time, so I didn’t have much to say about them yet.

      I’ve got plenty of lavender already bursting the beds in the flower garden, so I’ve never bothered to try it from seed. I do love the smell of it, though. And I hear that some people cook with it. Do you?

      1. Celeste says:

        Hey Sharon
        I’ve heard people making biscuits and cookies with it and even ice-cream. I think we tried it once, but we were a bit disappointed as it just didn’t taste as nice as it smelt, if you know what I mean. Very herbal. But there are plenty of recipes for it – should give it a shot. I like to dry the lavender often and keep bunches of it around the place.
        There is an old wives tale about growing lavender for good luck and rosemary at your door to keep away unwanted visitors. So I always have both.

  3. outlawfarmer says:

    I like to grow borage from seed too even though its not really a culinary herb. Its so pretty and a good companion plant to many garden favorites. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Sharon says:

      Thanks for the idea! I haven’t tried borage yet. But the pictures look pretty. 🙂

  4. Thanks for the great post! We’ve not had much success with herbs from seed…past the seedling stage. But we will try again all the same!

  5. Elena says:

    Every year I grow basil from seed, and it usually works (though sometimes I have to make two tries at it) and only a couple of times has the season started to get away from me with no success, and then I will break down and find plants somewhere as a last resort. I HAVE to have basil, if nothing else!

    1. Sharon says:

      Yeah, actually the first time I tried to start basil from seed, it didn’t come up for me. Not a single seed germinated. Since then, it’s always worked fine, but I still don’t know what was different about that first time, or if it will hit again in the future!

      1. Elena says:

        Some people are compulsive gamblers… some people just grow things from seed! 😀

  6. jessicabrunecky says:

    Great post! I’ve had success growing sage from seed, it’s flavorful and has a heavenly scent. It’s now three years old in my garden and it’s become a beautiful shrub with big silvery leaves and delicate purple flowers.

    1. Sharon says:

      I’ve got some sage in the flower garden, which tastes okay but I’m sure is not as good as specially bred culinary sage. Do you have any specific varieties you’d recommend?

      1. jessicabrunecky says:

        I’m sure there are other great varieties to be found, but this is the seed I used: http://www.botanicalinterests.com/products/view/6092/Sage-Garden-Broadleaf-Organic-Heirloom-Seed/category:herbs
        Enjoy!

  7. safifer says:

    You are so right about some herbs not coming true from seeds. I work with a friend on his farm and we grow plants to sell at farmers’ markets–as we are potting the plants up for sale, I will test them–e.g. does that Greek oregano really have a good, powerful smell–because I love to cook and I want my herbs to be aromatic.

    Even at the farmers’ market, test a leaf of the plant that you are intending to buy to see if it is what you expect. I’d ask the vendor, but you can take a leaf (not a sprig) and small and taste before you buy!

    1. Sharon says:

      I hadn’t thought of this method of growing them from seed–planting a whole bunch and seeing which ones taste the best. Thanks for the idea!

      1. safifer says:

        Once you get one that’s very aromatic, you can divide it and that plant will come true. There’s always variation when growing from seeds. When buying French tarragon plants, be sure to test–but those don’t come from seed–that’s why it’s so hard to get them.

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