Start herbs from seed or cuttings

From Seed

Start with finding a container
1. Find a container with good drainage, such as:
    • Recycled containers with holes punched in the bottom*
​    • Flats with or without plug tray inserts*
    • Peat pots
    • Expandable peat or coir pellets
    • Small clay pots*
*Note: Containers should be sterilized by soaking your container in a mixture of 10% chlorine bleach and water. Allow the containers to dry.

Select the herbs you want to grow
2. Select herb varieties that fit your growing conditions and climate. Review the seed packets for requirements specific to the seed selected (such as planting depth, germination temperature, seed depth, number of days till seedlings emerge).

Time to get our hands dirty!
3. Fill your container to about one inch from the top with the soilless* growing medium of your choice. A soilless potting mix is usually cleaner than dirt and considered sterile. Seed sowing mixes are typically a finer texture (smaller particle sizes) than standard growing mixes. Sphagnum peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, and even sand are considered soilless potting mediums.
 *What is a Soilless Mix? Gardening with soilless potting mix does not include the use of soil – instead, plants are grown in a variety of organic and inorganic materials. Using these materials rather than soil allows gardeners to grow healthier plants without the threat of soil-borne diseases. Plants grown in soilless mixes are also less likely to be bothered by pests.
    • You can make your own soilless mix. A standard homemade soilless mix contains equal amounts of peat moss, perlite (and/or vermiculite), and sand. Bark can be used in lieu of sand, while coconut coir can replace peat moss. Small amounts of fertilizer and ground limestone should be added as well so the soilless mix will contain nutrients. There are numerous recipes for preparing soilless potting mixes online so you can easily find one to suit your individual needs.
    • You can also make use of compost for seed starting. What is composting?

4. Wet down the soil in the container and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes.

5. While you are waiting, make lables of the plants you are planting. Good information to include would be the Latin or botanical name and common name of the plant, and the date you planted the seed. 

6. Planting
    • Seeds – Planting seeds at the right depth is extremely important for proper seed germination. In addition, seeds have different light requirements for germination.
    • Depth** – The amount of growing medium you place on top of your seeds is partially determined by their size. For example, smaller seeds such as lemon balm will need a shallower covering than larger nasturtium seeds. A general rule for planting seeds is to cover them with enough soil for 1-3 times their size.
    • Light** – The amount of growing medium is also determined by the light requirements for seed germination. Seeds may need to be covered with soil or left uncovered. For instance, the seeds of summer and winter savory need light for germination so no growing medium is placed on top of them while basil seeds will need to be covered with soil.
**For best results, follow the directions on your seed packet or consult a reliable gardening book for seed depth and light requirements.

7. Do not let your newly planted seeds dry out! For best results, bottom water your seeds by placing their containers in a flat tray of water. Leave them on the tray only until the soil at the top is moist. Bottom watering prevents dieback and promotes deep roots.  

8. Cover your containers with plastic wrap to help conserve moisture and create humidity. Make a tent or dome out of the plastic to allow for air circulation; bent coat hangers work well for this purpose. To avoid mildew uncover them every other day so they can get some fresh air. Remove the plastic wrap completely once the seedlings begin growing and have developed several more leaves.

9. Herb seeds need as much as 14–16 hours of light per day in order to develop properly. The addition of artificial lighting may be needed to insure healthy growth. Check your herbs to make sure that they do not dry out. Your goal is to keep your plants and seeds moist but to not over water them.

Once you have planted your seeds, proper care will result in seedlings that will need to be transplanted into new containers. Wait to transplant your seedlings until they have several sets of leaves and until their roots have developed. They should be about 2–3" tall. Transplant the seedlings by carefully taking off their lower leaves. Turn the pot upside down and let the seedling fall into your hand. Do not pull the plant out by the stem or the leaves. Place the seedlings in the soil to a spot just above where you pinched off the lower leaves. Pat the soil around the plant and water it in.

While you are waiting for your herbs to grow learn about the history, folklore, uses,and care of many common herbs in our Quick Facts and Essential Guides.

••• Jim Arbury, Deni Bown, Martin Rickard, Sue Strickland, and Richard Bird. 2004. The complete book of plant propagation. Mitchell Beazley: London.
••• DeBaggio, Thomas. 1994. Growing herbs from seed, cutting, and root: an adventure in small miracles. Interweave press: Loveland, Colorado. Jennings, Karen Park. 2006.
••• Park's Success with seed. Geo. W. Park Seed Company: Greenwood, South Carolina.

Stem Cuttings

1. Choose a healthy plant to take cuttings from.
    • Disease and insect free
​    • Free of yellowing, moldy leaves, or dead leaves
​    • No signs of wilting
​    • No signs of stress

2. Take short cuttings about 3–4" long.
​    • Try to take the cutting off of new softwood or herbaceous growth
​    • Look for stems that are strong but flexible.
​    • Use a sterilized sharp knife or scissors.
​    • Take the cuttings in cool weather if possible or work in a shaded area.
​    • Work as fast as possible so your cutting won't wilt. Avoid working in the hot sun.

3. Carefully remove the leaves from the bottom part of the cutting that will be inserted in the soil.
​    • Leave only a few small leaves at the top
​    • Be careful not to bend or damage the stem.

4. Dip the stem in rooting hormone if needed. Generally, root hormones are not needed for softwood cuttings. Therefore, most herb cuttings will develop roots without using hormones. An exception to this would be rosemary and bay. Consult a good gardening reference book to determine herbs that are difficult to root and that might be good candidates for rooting hormones.

5. Place your cuttings in a container filled with soil free medium

6. Depth of containers should be no more than 2–3"
​    • Use flats for a large amount of cuttings and use small pots for smaller amounts.
​    • Place the cuttings deep enough so that the leaves barely clear the surface of the soil.
​    • Place rows close enough so that the leaves of the cuttings are almost touching.
​    • Run a knife through the soil to make a small furrow to insert your cuttings into.
​    • Insert cuttings at an angle.

7. Water the cuttings in after they have been inserted.
​    • water gently
​    • moisten the medium when watering, take care to not overwater

8. Create humidity for your cuttings by covering them with a dome or tent. Try plastic wrap, polyethylene, or clear plastic bags.
​    • Bent coat hangers can be used to help support your tent.
​    • Find an area that provides bright light and avoid direct sunlight.

9. Choose the location for your cuttings.

10. Check cuttings daily for moisture and remove any that have died.

11. Randomly check cuttings a week or two after planting for root development.
​    • Transplant when the roots are 1/4" – 1/2" long.  

Root Cuttings

1. Try to take cuttings in the early spring or late fall.

2. Take short cuttings about 2" inches in length
​    • Choose a healthy plant to take your root cuttings from.
​    • Dig up the plants and cut off roots with a sterilized, sharp knife or scissors.
​    • Leave the plant in the ground and dig up soil close to it in order to take your cuttings.
​    • Choose roots that are at least 1/4 – 1/2" in diameter avoid the thinner, finer roots.
​    • Try to keep the roots oriented in the same direction

3. Fill a sterilized container with soilless medium to about 3/4" from the top

4. Insert cuttings horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, in the same manner that the plant was growing.

5. Fill the rest of the container with your medium making sure the root pieces are covered.

6. Water your container. Be careful not to over water.

7. Place container in a cool area or a cold frame until spring if the cuttings were taken in the fall. Place spring cuttings in a shaded area and keep moist until new growth appears.



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