Starting Your Seeds Indoors This Winter

Expert answers to your herb-growing questions.

Q.  This year I want to grow some of my herb plants from seeds. What are the steps to starting seeds over the winter?

A.  Seed starting is like baking bread- you need the right mix of ingredients, the right temperature, and viable yeast. In the case of seed starting, the ingredient list includes a lightweight growing medium and containers for planting. Provide the right temperature with a warm greenhouse or sunny window; and seeds, of course, are the viable catalyst.

Use a commercial potting mix or seedling mix for the growing medium. Choose from egg cartons, yogurt cups, flats of six-cell packs or small pots when it comes to containers. {Note: Fiber- or peat-based pots should be soaked well before adding soil.} Like yeast, seeds have a limited life, be sure the seeds are fresh or packaged for the upcoming growing season for optimum germination.

The directions on the back of the seed packet will tell you all the specifics for starting that particular seed, along with germination time, spacing and transplant information. Be aware that germination time will vary during winter. Some herbs {parsley is an example} can take up to a month to germinate. Soaking seeds overnight often will help speed up germination.

Fill pots or flats with moistened potting or seedling mix. Plant seeds according to package instructions, paying special attention to whether seeds should or should not be covered. {Some seeds need light in order to germinate.} Use a fine sprayer to moisten the soil and keep it continually moist until seeds have germinated. Then, place pots in bright light or set them just a few inches below fluorescent bulbs to produce strong healthy plants. Small pots dry out quickly, so check often and keep the soil slightly moist. Fertilize with a weak solution of liquid organic fertilizer when seedlings are about an inch high, then transplant into larger pots as needed. Most seedlings can go on the ground, after all, the danger of frost has passed.

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Q. Every year I start basil from seed without any problems. But last spring I tried growing echinacea from seed with no success. Do you have any tips for starting echinacea from seed?

A. Echinacea requires more specific germination conditions than basil. Try your hand with Echinacea purpurea first; it’s the easiest echinacea to grow from seed.

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For best results, start the seeds indoors or in a greenhouse in January or February. You can increase the germination rate with a treatment called stratification- exposing seeds to cool, dark, moist conditions for a period before you sow them.

First, mix the seeds with a small amount of pre-moistened peat moss or vermiculite. Place them in a snap-and-seal bag, then refrigerate for a week or two. Or simply scatter the seeds between two layers of moist paper towels, put the towels in a plastic bag, then refrigerate.

After this chilling period, remove the seeds. Sow them in flats or cell packs on the surface of a well-drained, commercial potting mix. Germination occurs in 10 to 30 days. Once the seeds start to sprout, lightly cover the seeds with a thin, 1/8-inch layer of fine potting mix or vermiculite. For best growth, keep seedlings beneath grow lights or fluorescent lights. Transplant seedlings to your garden in May or June.

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Stratifying seeds are not essential for successful germination of E. purpurea, but it is a must for other species. Seeds for narrow-leaf echinacea {E. angustifolia} and pale-purple echinacea {E. pallida} require a longer stratification period, from three to six weeks. Stratifying seeds for yellow echinacea {E, paradoxa}, and Tennessee echinacea {E. tennesseesis} from four to eight weeks.

You also can try planting E. purpurea seeds directly in the garden in early spring, about six to eight weeks before your last spring frost, or when soil temperatures reach 55 to 70 degrees. Be sure to lightly cover the seeds with a thin layer {1/8 inch} of compost or vermiculite. This method is much easier than starting the seed indoors, but getting good germination is not guaranteed.

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