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The first seeds I ever started were herbs: basil, lemon balm, chamomile, and parsley. I was amazed at how easy it was to grow my own herbs and quickly caught the gardening bug. In the below article, you’ll discover my favorite herbs to start from seed. Many popular culinary herbs are a snap to grow from seeds that are started indoors or direct seeded, but others are better purchased as transplants. Why? Some, like thyme are super slow to grow from seed while others, like mint, have varieties that don’t come true to type when grown from seed. Read on to discover the best herbs to start from seed.
Why start herbs from seeds?
It’s true that most good-sized garden centres offer a wide variety of herb plants to grow in your gardens and containers, but if you’re buying more than a few plants, it can get expensive pretty quickly. I prefer to grow most of my herbs from seeds purchased in late winter. It’s easy to do, fun, and allows me to grow plenty of plants for my raised beds and herb pots.
Savvy Gardening’s Herbs to Start from Seed Guide:
A quick growing guide for the best herbs to start from seed
Starting seeds sounds intimidating, but it’s something anyone can do! Below, you’ll find the basic steps to starting seeds indoors but for a more detailed seed starting guide, check out this excellent post from Empress of Dirt.
- Step 1: Sow seeds at the right time – Check your seed packet or the chart above to help you time herb seed sowing.
- Step 2: Gather your containers – I like to start seeds with plastic cell packs and trays, which I reuse for several years and then recycle. They offer an efficient use of space beneath my grow-lights and I can pack a lot of plants into each tray. Alternatively, you can use soil blockers to make container-less ‘pots’, make your own from newspapers, or recycle yogurt and other containers into seed starting pots.
- Step 3: Fill the pots with a high-quality seed starting mix – I like to use Pro-Mix Seed Starting Mix which I pre-moisten before filling my containers.
- Step 4: Plant herb seeds at the right depth – Check out my handy chart above or read the recommended seeding depth on the seed packet. Don’t bury seeds too deeply or they may never come up.
- Step 5: Supply plenty of light – Providing adequate light is the biggest challenge when starting seeds indoors. Many gardeners rely on grow-lights for ample light. I use four-foot long fluorescent lights fitted with warm and cool bulbs. I have the lights hung on chains so I can easily adjust the height of the lights. They need to be just an inch or two above the foliage. I also have an analog timer to turn the lights on for sixteen hours each day. For more information about seed starting with a sunny window versus grow-lights, check out this post.
- Step 6: Water – Keep the soil evenly moist, but not sopping wet until the seeds germinate. I place a plastic dome or piece of plastic wrap overtop the trays to hold moisture. Once the seeds have sprouted, I remove the covers to permit air ciculation.
- Step 7: Provide air circulation – I keep a small oscillating fan in the room to move air around my seed trays. This helps prevent mold from growing on the soil surface and reduces damping off.
- Step 8: Fertilize – Once my seedlings are a few weeks old, I apply a diluted solution of an organic water soluble fertilizer to promote healthy growth. I continue to fertilize the plants every 12 to 14 days at half the recommended rate. Be sure to read the label on your fertilizer container for application rates.
- Step 9: Harden off the seedlings – About a week before the last expected frost date, begin to harden off your seedlings. Hardening off is the process of acclimatizing indoor-grown plants to the outside world. For a detailed guide to hardening off seedlings, check out this post.
The best herbs to start from seed
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to start from seed and should be started indoors six to eight weeks before the last expected spring frost. Sow the seeds shallowly, covering them with a scant 1/4 inch of potting mix. I use cell packs and trays to start my herb seeds indoors and sow two seeds per cell. If using other types of pots or containers, space the seeds at least an inch apart. As they grow, you can thin or transplant them to give each seedling adequate space to grow. Basil seeds germinate best in warm temperatures in the range of 65 to 70 F (18-21 C). Basil is not frost tolerant and shouldn’t be moved to garden beds or containers outside until all chance of frost has passed. Don’t be shy about trying new-to-you types of basil like Italian Large-Leaved, Thai basil, or lemon basil. To learn more about growing great basil, check out this post.
I grow parsley almost year-round in my vegetable garden and polytunnel, with all my seedlings started beneath my grow-lights. I grow both curly and flat-leaved parsley with both sown around ten weeks before the last expected spring frost. Because parsley is a bit slow to grow from seed, it’s best to give them a head start indoors rather than direct seed in the garden. Sow the seeds 1/4 inch deep and keep the potting mix moist until the seeds germinate. Avoid disturbing the roots of your parsley seedlings when transplanting them to the garden.
Chives are hardy perennials that overwinter down to zone 3. The plants form large clumps of grassy, onion-flavored leaves that are topped with rounded purple flowers in late spring. They’re very easy to grow from seed but it will take a year or two for the plants to size up so if you have a friend with a mature chive plant, I’d suggest digging up a piece from that. If you wish to start them yourself, sow seeds indoors under grow lights ten to twelve weeks before the last frost. When moving chive plants to the garden, space them six to twelve inches apart.
Lesser known than basil and parsley, lemon balm is one of my favorite culinary herbs to start from seed. It’s a reliable perennial down to zone 5 but, like mint, is considered quite invasive. For this reason, I prefer to plant lemon balm in pots, not in my garden beds. Sow seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost. Cover the small seeds with a thin layer of potting mix and keep moist until germination. Once the risk of frost has passed, move the plants outdoors to a sunny or partially shaded location and harvest the lemon flavored and scented leaves for tea, seafood dishes, curries, sauces, and vinaigrettes.
There are several excellent types or oregano to grow in gardens and containers and all should be started indoors in late winter. In many regions, common oregano is a hardy perennial but it lacks the depth of flavour found in Greek, Italian, and Syrian oreganos, which don’t overwinter for me in zone 5. Therefore I start these oregano seeds indoors under my grow-lights each spring. Time oregano seeding ten to twelve weeks before the last spring frost. Oregano needs light to germinate and the tiny seeds should be sprinkled lightly on top of pre-moistened potting mix. Press gently to ensure good soil-seed contact and keep moist until the seeds germinate. Move the seedlings to the garden when the risk of frost has passed in late spring.
For a non-stop supply of high-quality dill greens, succession plant fresh seeds in the garden every three to four weeks from mid-spring until mid-summer. In regions with very short seasons you can also start dill seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost. It doesn’t transplant well, however, and is quick to grow so I prefer to direct sow in my garden beds. To direct seed, prepare the bed by digging in some compost or aged manure. Sow the seeds after the last spring frost has passed and the weather is settled. Plant seeds 1/4 inch deep and six inches apart, eventually thinning to a foot apart once the seedlings are growing well.
Quick growing cilantro is generally direct sown in garden beds and containers. Add compost or aged manure to the soil before planting and place the seeds 1/2 inch deep and 2 inches apart. Thin seedlings to six-inches once they’re a few inches tall. Cilantro has a well-earned reputation for bolting (flowering) when the hot summer weather arrives. To avoid bolting, plant bolt-resistant varieties like Calypso and grow in spring and fall when the weather is cooler. Growing cilantro in a shaded spot in summer can slow bolting.
A popular tea herb, chamomile plants grow up to two-feet tall with hundreds of small, daisy-like blooms that have an appealing apple fragrance. Sow chamomile seeds indoors about six weeks before the last spring frost. Sprinkle them on the soil surface as they need light to germinate. Move seedlings to the garden once the risk of frost has passed in late spring. Alternatively, you can direct sow seeds in the garden but be sure to maintain soil moisture until the seeds have germinated and the plants are growing well.
Summer savory is an essential culinary herb in my kitchen, used liberally in soups, meatloaf, dressing and stuffing. It’s also one of the fastest herbs to start from seed and therefore is suited to direct sowing. Sow seeds shallowly in a prepared bed, no more than 1/4 inch deep spacing them an inch apart. Keep the soil evenly moist until the plants are well established. If you wish to start summer savory indoors, start the seeds under grow-lights six to eight weeks before the last frost.
5 Herbs that are not generally grown from seed
Unfortunately, there are some herbs that you won’t find on a list of the best herbs to start from seed. Some, like rosemary and thyme are very slow to grow, while others, like most mint varieties don’t come true to type from seed. Here are five herbs I prefer to buy as seedlings at my local garden centre in spring rather than grow them from seed.
- Rosemary – Rosemary is a woody herb with strongly aromatic leaves that look like evergreen needles. Common rosemary can be grown from seed but it’s very slow, taking months to size up. The fussy seeds germinate best with warm temperatures and bottom heat. Unfortunately the many outstanding varieties of rosemary aren’t available as seeds as they don’t come true to type. Therefore, I save myself time and frustration and pick up a collection of rosemary plants from my local nursery.
- Lavender – Lavender is a low-growing evergreen shrub with highly scented flowers used in perfumes, toiletries, sachets, and even cooking. It’s moderately difficult to grow from seed requiring up to a month to germinate when started indoors. If you do wish to start your own lavender seeds, plant them indoors under grow-lights ten to twelve weeks before the last spring frost date. Providing bottom heat with a seeding mat can speed up and increase germination rates. As the seedlings grow, pinch them back at least once to encourage bushy growth.
- Thyme – Growing thyme from seed is a challenge. It’s notoriously slow to grow from seed and likely won’t be large enough to provide a harvest until its second year. It is a perennial, hardy to zone 4, and needs to be started indoors at least fourteen to sixteen weeks before the last expected spring frost. They tiny seeds should be scattered on the surface of moist potting mix, not buried. Also, provide bottom heat which greatly increases germination rates. Many varieties of thyme are not available to grow from seed so I prefer to buy seedlings.
- Mint – Mint is another perennial herb whose many wonderful varieties do not grow true to type from seed. If you want specific varieties like chocolate mint or strawberry mint, you need to buy seedlings. Most types are hardy to zone 4 or 5 but are invasive and shouldn’t be planted where they can spread freely among other plants. Instead, I like to put my mint in pots or planters. If you do wish to grow common mint from seed (note that it offers less flavor than most other varieties), it’s actually quite easy to do. Sow seeds indoors ten weeks before the last frost, planting them 1/4 inch deep.
- Lemon verbena – This is my absolute favorite lemon herb to grow and has a strong citrus fragrance and flavor. It’s generally available only as a plant as the flowers either don’t produce seeds or if they do, the seeds tend to be inviable. Each spring I plant two lemon verbena seedlings in a big pot and they grow three to four feet tall, providing me with plenty of leaves to dry for winter teas.
For further reading on growing your own herbs, be sure to check out these posts:
- Growing a culinary herb garden
- The 7 best herbs for container gardening
- 10 herbs to plant in fall
- Grow your own herbal teas
What other herbs would you add to our list of herbs to start from seed?