Fall Seeding of Herbs
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Sam Medley
Posted on: July 30, 2004

I would like to order some seeds to start in the fall. I noticed many in the catalogue say that they may be started in the fall. I have no experience with starting seeds in the fall. Can I really plant seeds with the ‘F’ or ‘X’ symbol in the fall as long as they fall into my zone (Victoria, BC)? How do they overwinter and grow? (I grow indoors, but can leave plants outside too) I would expect growth would be slow until the next spring. If there are any good ‘free’ (internet, etc) resources you could point the direction towards that would be appreciated. Or, if there are any varieties you could suggest that would also be great.

P.S. - I grew up in Stouffville, Ontario, passing by Richters farm often. It is great that I can order through the internet, it makes me very happy!

In our catalogue we list seeding codes that give a rough idea when each herb can be started from seeds succesfully. The ‘F’ designation means the herb can be seeded in ‘late summer or fall’ and the ‘X’ designation means the herb can be seeded ‘anytime’.

First, I should clarify how the two differ. The ‘X’ designation generally refers to plants that are commonly grown indoors. Because they are grown indoors they can be started ‘anytime’. The ‘F’ designation refers to plants that are hardy enough to be planted outdoors in the garden in late summer or fall. The seedlings appear in fall but they are hardy enough to survive the winter. Or, the ‘F’ designation can refer to herbs whose seeds require harsh freezing and thawing conditions in order to break dormancy, so they are planted in the fall to come up in the following spring.

By necessity the seeding codes are simplistic and do not cover every situation. For example, there are areas where the winter is not harsh enough to break dormancy so fall planting does not work. These areas may be mild enough that outdoor planting year round is possible and there is little need to bother with indoor growing. In these areas probably most herbs should really be ‘X’. There are also many herbs that are not normally grown indoors because they be medicinal or need room to grow or need strong light to flower, etc., and these are arbitrarily assumed to be outdoor-only plants that must be started at times that make sense for outdoor planting. These too could be ‘X’ if the grower is determined to provide indoor conditions that are suitable.

Because you prefer to grow indoors the main consideration is whether or not each herb you are thinking of growing is really practical to grow indoors. If it is, then likely it is really an ‘X’ for you.

Let’s take some examples. English thyme is rated ‘S’, ‘F’ and ‘X’. English thyme is practical to grow indoors: three or four pots of it will provide occasional harvests of fresh leaves through the winter provided, of course, the light exposure is strong enough and long enough. For you, then, thyme is an ‘X’. You may also want to have some thyme in the garden because in the summer months the outdoor plants will get bigger and will produce much more foliage for harvest than the indoor potted plants.

Chives is rated the same as english thyme but you will find that it does not persist well indoors, especially over the darker winter months, and you may find that it needs to spend part of the year outside in the garden to really get big enough to produce the quantities of fresh chives you will likely want to use. It is still an ‘X’ for you, but you will the seasonal cycle is different.

Garlic is a herb that is not normally planted indoors because it will never produce bulbs indoors. But a case can be made for planting it indoors for the strong tasting leaves, and some determined herb enthusiasts are doing just that. For them garlic is an ‘X’; for everyone else it is an ‘F’ because the cloves are best planted outdoors in the fall for harvest next summer.

What herbs will you grow from seeds this fall? For you, because you prefer to grow indoors, the potential list is huge, so you should be guided by what you will want to use and then decide whether it is practical to grow indoors. Some of the herbs that are popular and practical to grow indoors include basil, chives, cilantro (coriander), dill, scented geraniums, mints, oregano, parsley, savory, sorrel, rosemary, and thyme; but there are many, many more.

Incidently, gardeners who are growing herbs outdoors only should really consider late summer and fall planting. Most of us in the northern temperate zones -- and that includes most of southern Canada and much of the northern United States -- are programmed to thinking that spring is the only time to seed. But professional growers and experienced gardeners know that there are some important advantages to seeding in late summer and fall, the biggest being the head start fall-seeded plants have over spring-seeded plants. For many herbs you need to start seeds indoors in spring for transplanting outdoors when the danger of frost has passed. But many of these same plants -- if there are hardy enough -- can be seeded late in the season to produce abundant crops the following summer; and there is no need to muss with the trouble of raising seedlings indoors. At Richters we encourage herb gardeners to seed or plant herbs throughout the season, not just in the spring.

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