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 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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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!)
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).