Some who are new to veganism are looking for ways to make their meals tastier – and a way to do that is to use herbs and spices. But buying fresh cut herbs can be expensive, and waste is high. There is, of course, a cheaper way, and that is to grow your own herbs from seed. We have already looked at growing your own vegan superfoods, but starting from scratch with seeds can be even more rewarding.
Growing your own herbs from seed can be very satisfying, not to say fun. The satisfaction of being able to say “I grew that” as you serve it up for dinner is hard to match, not to mention it’s a great way to save money compared to both buying seedlings at the nursery or cut herbs from the supermarket. Needless to say, a little background knowledge and reading up on the basics is going to drastically increase your chances of success.
Before you start
Before you get going, it’s vital to think about what you are going to do with your herbs as they sprout and grow larger, as this will influence the type of equipment you need. Most importantly, are you going to be growing your herbs indoors or out?
If you are going to be transplanting your herbs outdoors, then you’ll want to look at some historical climate data for your area and figure out when the last spring frost occurs. Deduct 6-8 weeks from this date, and aim to plant your herb seeds around then. You’ll want to make sure that the growing medium you use for herb seed starting is large enough to allow the roots to develop over this period. By the 6-8 week mark it might be worth considering some sort of nutrient supplement pr plant food – your local garden centre will be able to help with advice.
If you are growing herbs indoors the, of course, you are likely to grow them in pots. Some herbs such as dill, parsley and coriander don’t particularly enjoy being transplanted, so it is good practice to place these seeds directly into their final home.
The indoor/outdoor decision might also impact the amount of space you have available. Not all herb seeds are alike, and within a variety of herb (for example ‘Thai Basil’) there can be dozens of different strains or varieties. Some will be tall and skinny, others short and wide. Some will have large leaves, others smaller. If you are purchasing cheap generic seeds, it’s important to ask your garden centre or supplier about them to make sure you get seeds that are best-suited for you – especially if you are an indoor gardener.
If you are starting indoors, consider using some sort of germination tray. These are helpful to firstly serve as a tray for water (it’s important to keep your growing medium hydrated). The lid can also help trap humidity. Although these are available as ready-made kits, you will probably want to avoid the extra plastic and use something you already have, like large storage containers.
Which herb seeds need soaking?
One day before you plan to get set up, it’s a good idea to soak some herb seeds. Although it’s not essential, soaking herb seeds helps soften the hard outer shell of some varieties, therefore increasing their germination rates. Varieties that benefit from pre-soaking for 12-24hrs include parsley and coriander.
What is the correct temperature for growing?
Herbs are living things, and are sensitive to temperature extremes. Either too hot or too cold and you’ll have a problem. If you are seed starting indoors in anticipation of spring, then probably the biggest threat to success are cold windows and window sills. The sun from a window will be important once they sprout, but when you’re at the germination stage it is far less important. More important in the first few days is temperature. These little herb seeds are smart enough to know that if it’s cold out then it must still be winter, and there’s no point in them sprouting. You need to trick the seeds into believing that they are coming into spring and the temperatures therefore have to be warmer. 18 to 24 degrees C is a good range to aim for, and if your home doesn’t allow for this then consider getting a heat mat to place under the seeds while they are getting started.
Which herb seeds need light to germinate?
Some herbs need a little light in order to encourage germination, which means they should be placed on or near the surface. Others prefer darkness, so it is recommended placing a thin layer of soil over them – a good rule of thumb is that the soil layer should be no deeper than the length of the seed. Herbs that like light to germinate include Thyme, while others, like Basil, Chives, Coriander, Dill, Mint, Oregano and Parsley prefer a darker germination environment – again your local garden centre or the vast online resources will be able to offer advice.
Labelling your seeds
This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t label their seeds and are left wondering which is which. Once you’ve become familiar with them, it’s easy to tell the difference between fully grown herb plants, but when they’re little seedlings they are much harder to differentiate. Be sure to use some sort of sticker or label to mark which is which.
What to expect next
Once your seeds have sprouted, which can take anywhere from 2 to 15 days, the hard part is over. From here, maintaining happy and healthy herbs is essentially about managing three essential practices:
- The soil or growing medium you use should be damp, but not soggy. Basil is a variety that can tolerate more water, while generally the Mediterranean varieties like Rosemary, Oregano and Thyme prefer slightly drier conditions. Growing your seeds in a tray will help you control the dampness of the growing medium.
- Seed starting mixes like pear moss generally do not contain much in terms of nutrients. Nevertheless, most seeds come with enough built-in nutrients to get a start in life, but after a few weeks you should expect nutrient levels to be getting low. Supplementary nutrients can either come in the growing medium you use, or the variety of nutrient or liquid plant food widely available.
- Just as we eat food, plants eat light. If they don’t get enough of it, they will starve. Make sure that your young herbs have sufficient light for them to grow, without getting too cold.
So we have seen that growing herbs from seed is not as daunting as you might think. A little research, followed by care and attention will make it a rewarding pastime. And of course there are a host of resources to help you. Your local garden centre is a great place to start, and they will certainly be happy to help with advice as well as products. Online, the resources are limitless – we particularly liked these articles from BBC Good Food and the Vegan Organic Network.
But for me the biggest joy is knowing that you have brought life to a plant that can be used in your vegan cooking!