The Modern Herb Grower – Part 1

A Transcendental Journey

As I sit here in my empty greenhouse, thinking of all the things in need of doing, and all that’s done and yet left undone, I am moved to document the process of starting, growing, and using herbs.

Any herb, by its nature, is not far removed from its weedy brethren. The difference being that we have collectively decided it has value. Whether it be culinary, medicinal, olfactory, or purely aesthetic, we have chosen these amongst all others to share our space and add enrichment to our lives.

Individually, herbs fall in and out of fashion as quickly as the summer turns to autumn. Why even the lowly dandelion, now a pox on overly manicured lawns was once a beloved and treasured herb of the colonies. It still has value as the leaves and roots are a treatment for hypertension, and the flowers make a lovely summer wine, however it is not in the least bit marketable. So, in the scope of all things great and small, we must first decide what it is that we want. In the case of the herb grower, it begins with the need for seeds.

The Need for Seeds

Though I delight in the bounty of my gardens, my spirit is restless for tastes yet satisfied. My mind wanders and I begin to dream of an endless garden stretched out as far as the eye can see. Rows upon rows of plants slyly whispering “pick me, pick me.”

Be strong and stand firm. Decide what you want; there is only room for so much. Seeds are small, and dirt is cheap, but the seeds know only growing and grow they will. My first year in the greenhouse, I had sown so many seeds that by the first of spring I was like that little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke trying frantically to hold back the rising tide of flora ever pushing its way out and into the world.

I now work from a base notion of legitimate needs. I need to replenish the annuals, expand the culinary and medicinal, and have common potted herbs to sell at market. I want and fully intend to add a dyers garden and scented garden next year, so I will calculate and adjust to fit them in with room to grow.

Seeds have specific needs. By this I mean soil, water, light, etcetera, and the plants to come also have specific needs so a great deal of research must be done to provide for them what is required. That being said, it is also fun to experiment. Playing with zones and testing growth rates in various conditions is a great joy to my inner scientist, so I strongly recommend giving all possibilities a shot.

We find seeds in a variety of way. Firstly, there is harvesting. It is generally unwise to let herbs go to flower too soon. If left to their own devices, plants will do everything they can to shoot up a flower and go to seed to ensure the continuation of their kind. While we can appreciate that, a thin plant with little usable leaves isn’t really in our best interest so we harvest from the top to make them fat and bushy. In the later stages of the plants cycle, and after we have harvested all that we care to, it is then left to flower. The flowers will begin to die back and form seed heads. These heads are harvested and put into paper bags to dry. The seeds are then bagged, labeled and stored for next year.

Local seed carriers and small outfits are a good source of information and will often try and help get the seeds you need from distributors. Be nice, and polite, but also be persistent, they tend to have a lot on their minds.

Catalogs and internet based business are the standard for acquiring hard to get seed. In this I cannot stress enough the need to order early. I order seeds in late summer to early fall. Seeds will stay viable for a long time when kept refrigerated. Countless hours have been wasted waiting for seeds to arrive and as timing is crucial, it is best to be prepared. I have had seeds arrive two months late, packages of seeds that were not what I ordered, and then comes the dreaded seedless package. There isn’t a great deal that one can do about these disruptions, however, I have a little black book of cosmic vengeance in which I write the names of seed companies that have crossed me.

After all of that, the seeds are gathered then stored and a plant list is made with all the pertinent information available at a glance. Some seeds are ready to go, others will need to be roughed up a bit, and still others will need stratified. While those undergoing stratification lay quietly making plans to come into the world, we too plan. A plan of Attack.

Stratify and Conquer

At this point in the timeline, it is autumn. The last of the harvest is in, the leaves have turned and loosed their grip on the trees in the back lot, and the deer have eaten every tender branch in the orchard. Our plan is hatched and our nerves are steeled, we gather our implements and bang the drum. Today we stratify, tomorrow we conquer.

The process of seed stratification is, simply stated, cooling seed to simulate winter dormancy; this process takes about eight weeks. In other words, there are only eight weeks to get ready. Plug trays, humidity domes, heat mats, and a growing medium, experimenting with heat sources that won’t put us in the poor house, and insulating with endless sheets of plastic. We also take this time to restock transplant pots as well as clean and sanitize the larger nursery pots. – We are ready. Everything is accounted for, isn’t it? Nothing can go wrong. Can it?

Stay tuned gentle reader for next week’s action packed continuation of the Modern Herb Grower.

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