Organic GardeningKeith Stelling, MA, MNIMH, Dip. Phyt, MCPP (England) May 1, 2005
Starting Herb Plants From Seeds
The miracle of growing plants from tiny seeds is one of the fundamentals of human existence on planet earth. We depend upon plants for our food, oxygen and medicines. Without them we would not be here. And so the amazing phenomenon of seeds sprouting from tiny dormant capsules into small plants and then maturing into flowers and fruit is basic to our own existence. Growing them gives us a chance to share the experience of every generation that has gone before us. Getting involved in herb cultivation can be beneficial for personal healing on many levels. It’s an activity you will want to share with your children or grand-children. Growing plants together with them will provide a valuable opportunity for connecting with Mother Earth and participating in an age-old pursuit that goes back to the dawn of human history.
You don’t need to be an experienced gardener to take part in this activity. It’s something anyone can do on any scale – in a few pots on your balcony, outside your kitchen window, or in a corner of your back yard. No matter how small your effort, the reward is always much greater than you anticipated. Watching the plants appear out of the soil is an experience the children will cherish all their lives. It is, in fact, a wonderful spiritually uplifting exercise that will make you feel more grounded and balanced even in the heart of the city.
On a practical level there are all sorts of reasons to plant a few herbs. How satisfying it is to pick your own fresh basil from pots on your balcony. Tarragon and winter savoury, fresh sage and oregano will make a big difference to your cooking. When they are available only steps away from your kitchen counter, you will be induced to experiment and taste more of life’s culinary possibilities – a great way to add interest to what might otherwise have been the monotonous chore of daily food preparation.
It’s never too late to put in a few packages of seeds. Watching them mature and produce their wonderful tastes and perfumes costs very little but opens up direct pathways for meditation and spiritual growth. The special interest we take in our gardens, no matter how small, gives us a renewed sense of biological time˜it slows us down to the real time values of our own bodies and helps us re-establish a healing tempo for our lives. When we share the experience with our children, we are teaching them patience and faith in nature. City children are in great need of this understanding. Well, yes, you may be thinking, it’s a good idea but I wouldn’t know where to begin. Even if you have never grown anything before, herb growing isn’t rocket science and a few guidelines will get you going quite successfully. Remember, nature has been doing this without our help for millions of years. We are just assisting in selecting the species and providing ideal conditions for growth.
For the balcony you will need a few containers – pots with drainage holes. Large plastic ones will do, but you can buy fancier clay boxes and even elegant ceramic ones. The simple old-fashioned red clay pots can be re-used each year and they tend to blow around less on windy balconies. Put a few stones in the bottom to cover the drainage holes and then fill them up with potting soil. You can obtain this at a garden centre or hardware store. You can use ordinary garden soil too of course, but it is best to sterilize this first in order to kill all the weed seeds that are just waiting to pop up and squeeze out your herbs. Sterilization is easily accomplished by baking the soil in old baking dishes in the oven for a couple of hours.
If you do have the luxury of a back yard, choose a sunny spot and work the soil as fine as you can, first digging it over with a spade and then chopping it up with a hoe and cultivator. Make sure to rake away any debris, stones and the roots of any perennial weeds. Keep your garden plan small at first and then you won’t give up when faced by a vast plot of earth still to be dug. You can always expand when you get more energy and time. If you are more ambitious and reading this has reminded you that this is the year you intend to make a real garden, complete with all those wonderful salads of lettuce, fresh carrots, radishes, beets and French beans, then it is certainly worth the expense to rent a roto-tiller.
Once you have your pots filled (a little below the brim to allow room for watering) or your soil dug up, it‚s time to start planting. Caution is required for seeds that must wait until after the last frost but after May 24, most areas are generally frost free. That still gives plenty of time for the growing season. Remember you can always cover your seedlings for a night or two if the weather does turn cold for a few days.
Now you get to choose which plants you are going to grow. Since hardware stores and even supermarkets stock a wide range of culinary herb seeds as well as a few medicinal ones, there is plenty of choice. Explore and experiment. Most of them are easy to grow and they will all add variety to your life. If you are new to this, why not start with some of most useful, easiest herbs to grow. Here is a list that will get you going, but remember, you can easily add to it.
Basil: this is easy to grow and you can cut it regularly to make it grow bushier, using it throughout the summer for salads (especially good with tomatoes). You might have to transplant the seedlings after a few weeks and give each a space of its own.
Chamomile: is worth growing because your own crop, no matter how small, will give you a much better product than anything you can buy. (Chamomile tea bags often contain more leaves than flowers and the flowers are the part that is active medicinally). The seeds for this plant are infinitely small so it is very important to work the soil until it is very fine. Try to scatter the seeds widely so that they don‚t all shoot up in one clump. Then sprinkle a very fine covering of sand or fine soil over them˜no more than an eighth of an inch– and pat them down with your hand.
Cilantro: save some of these seeds for a second crop later on in the summer and you will have great flavouring for salads and savoury dishes throughout the season. This plant grows like a weed and will self-seed in your garden next year if you leave some of it unharvested. But it works well on your balcony too.
Parsley is worth growing because it tastes so good when freshly picked. It does well in containers and in the garden will winter over and self seed. It is slow to germinate so be patient.
Sage grows easily from seed and you can leave the plants to over-winter since they are perennial. Sage does well in pots and will over-winter there as well. There is nothing tastier than sage used to cook chicken. And it makes a very effective throat gargle.
Oregano: This plant has wide antibiotic activity. You can harvest it in autumn and keep it on hand for household use. It‚s a prolific herb and it makes a welcome addition fresh and dried to savoury dishes. Once established, oregano will return each year, spreading and forming a strong colony of plants that can be used as perennial borders in the garden. It‚s easy to get started. There are many varieties and the strongest is known as “Greek oregano.” It also works well in planters.
Chives: this gentle onion is ideal for salads and does well on your balcony or in a corner of the garden where it will return each year. The seeds are vigorous and need little care except to keep them free from weeds.
Rosemary: This makes a stimulating refreshing tea that actually increases circulation to the brain˜improving memory. It‚s a good idea to plant it in pots which you can bring into the house in late autumn and with a little luck and a sunny window, they will even flower over the winter months.
Lemon balm/melissa: is easy to grow from seed in planters and will soon spread in a garden. You will be glad of the refreshing, relaxing, antiviral tea you can make from the fresh leaves.
Once you have the seeds and the soil, you are all set for planting. Take some time to examine the variety of shapes and colours of the tiny seed capsules which contain such powerful life force. It helps to dampen the soil before you plant the seeds so as not to wash them away. Make sure they are covered but not pushed too deeply into the ground. The tiniest can simply be sprinkled on the surface and you can sprinkle a little sand over them. But larger ones need to go in about a quarter to a half of an inch. The soil should always be patted down gently over them with your hand or a rake. From this point, they need to be kept warm (20oC is ideal), moist (not flooded) and given full light. If you are growing herbs in seed trays or pots, you can get them started faster by bringing them indoors at night.
Now the trial of your faith begins. Nothing will happen for a week to 10 days. Be patient because the period of germination varies for each species. When growth does begin, unless you have used sterilized soil, many other shoots that you did not plant will also sprout. These have to be picked out. It is easy to spot them since their first leaves will be different from the herbs. And if you are in doubt, you can taste them.
If you are still uncomfortable about starting seeds but would like to grow a herb garden, herb plants are available at the Ontario Herbalists‚ Association annual Herb Fair held at Harbourfront on Sunday June 5 from 11:30 a.m.
You can learn more about growing herbs in Keith Stelling’s new book on growing medicinal plants available at his website: keithstelling.com
Keith Stelling is a retired member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists of Great Britain and the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (England). He has been researching rural community health issues including the adverse health and environmental effects of industrial wind turbines. See www.ontario-wind-resistance.org