Sowing the Seeds of Herbal Happiness

By Conrad Richter

As Toronto, undergoes a culinary renaissance, herbs are cohabitating with the baby carrots, snow peas and cherry tomatoes in the gardens of today’s gourmand. In vogue are herbs in their freshest state, used before any of their evanescent aroma and flavour are lost. For many, the only reliable source of fresh herbs is their own garden, even if it means crowding a French tarragon or Greek oregano between neat rows of vegetables, or even among – heaven forbid – roses and peonies!

Despite their mystique, suggestive of faraway lands and warm climes, herbs readily adapt to Canadian gardens and thrive well enough to produce a bounty of fresh herbs throughout the summer and fall.

Now, the budding gourmand needs to know that some herbs cannot be grown successfully from seeds, often because the resultant plants are devoid of the desired aromas and flavours. Tarragon, peppermint and spearmint are notable examples, and they must be purchased in plant form. When shopping for these it is wise to crush a leaf or two to ensure that you are not getting the seed-grown impostors still commonly sold in the Toronto area.

Most of the popular herbs are happily grown from seeds, however. The earnest gourmand will have sown some herbs indoors in March and April to get an early start. But those many among us who need the fragrant blossoms of apple and cherry in May to finally stir us from winter’s hibernation, will be just as successful starting herbs from seeds sown directly in the garden. For those too faint of heart to try seeds, there are always plenty of potted herbs available for direct planting in the garden.

Sowing herbs directly in the garden is not much different from starting their botanic cousins, the vegetables. A site exposed to at least four hours of sunshine should be chosen; the more sun the better. The soil must be turned and raked to a smooth surface, removing stones, roots and debris. If the soil is a heavy clay, a half inch of sand before turning the soil will improve drainage. Good drainage is important, since herbs, like their human masters, do not like wet feet. Digging in composted manure will improve fertility and boost the organic content.

Herbs may be sown in shallow furrowed rows, like vegetables, or broadcast over an area like flowers. When planted in rows, the tiny seedlings are easier to tell from the weeds. Because herbs are generally slower to germinate than vegetables, more careful weeding is need in the early stages. A useful trick is to mix in some fast growing leaf lettuce seeds with the herbs as a row marker. Until the herb seedlings become established, lettuce makes it easy to tell where the rows are. And before the young lettuce plants crowd out the herbs, snip and toss then in your early summer salads.

Herb seeds are often smaller than vegetable seeds and so require a little extra care not to plant them too deeply. As a general rule, cover seeds three times their thickness with soil. A coriander seed, for instance, requires a 1/4 inch thick cover. A thyme seed is much smaller, needing only 1/16 to 1/8 inch of cover. The soil cover should be firmed down and then the seeded area should be watered thoroughly.

Proper watering is critical, especially in the early stages of germination. In the first two to four weeks, the seed beds should be checked daily for watering. If the soil cover dries out completely for even one day, germination failure may result. When watering, take care to avoid washing the soil cover away.

When the seedlings are successfully established, possessing five to ten leaves, it may be necessary to thin the rows or the broadcast area depending on how thickly the seeds were scattered and how successful was the germination. Some areas may be more dense with seedlings than others if sowing was uneven. By pulling out excess plants, errors in seeding density are easily corrected. Here you get to enact Charles Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection by thinning out the weakest plants and allowing the strongest to thrive unimpeded.

By late June, the herbs should be well on their way. Theoretically, one should wait until they mature (i.e. produce flowers) in August or September when aroma and flavour are at their peak. But one shouldn’t be bashful! Less than mature plants are quite delectable for fresh use; they can be harvested as soon as they reach a size convenient to gather. If enough seeds are planted, a gourmand’s herbal nirvana can last most of the summer and fall.

Here’s what to start and what not to start from seeds:

DIRECT SEEDING (May): basil, catnip, chamomile, chervil, chives, coriander, cress, dill, fennel, lemon balm, lovage marjoram, mustard, oregano, parsley, sage, salad burnet, savour, sorrel, thyme, watercress.

BEST STARTED INDOORS (February), OR BUY PLANTS: lavender and rosemary.

DON’T BOTHER WITH SEEDS; BUY PLANTS: peppermint, spearmint (and most other mints), French tarragon.

Originally published in The Toronto Star, 1989.

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