Starting herbs from seed


January 19, 1991|By Amalie Adler Ascher

For folks itching to get back in the garden again, starting a few plants in the house from seed offers a temporary substitute, a constructive activity while waiting for spring.

With a few exceptions, however, early February is much too soon to sow annual flowers and vegetables indoors. Most of these plants need only 6 to 8 weeks to gain enough substance to survive outdoors. And to hold them back after they've reached the stage for setting in the garden would likely repress their development beyond recall.

Herbs, though, give you more leeway. There are certain types that might just as well be termed house plants, so amenable are they to indoor conditions.

Topping the list of herbs for rearing inside are parsley and chives. Sweet marjoram and basil are also good candidates. Nichols Garden Nursery, at 1190 North Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321, in its free catalog of "herbs and rare seeds" adds winter chervil, coriander, Bouquet dill (a compact variety), oregano and summer savory to the list.

Your reasons for planting herbs will guide your selections. If you're looking for something that's strictly ornamental, you'll want a plant with attractive shape and foliage. Should your intended use be for food enhancement, you'd surely choose an herb whose flavor appeals to you. Another factor you'd need to take into account if you planned to keep a plant indoors indefinitely is its size when full-grown.

One of the most entrancing of all flora, to my mind, is Oriental or Chinese garlic chives. They differ from the usual type in their flatter leaves that taste slightly garlicky and in their stunning white flowers.

TH In parsley as well, there's a distinction to take note of. The flat-

leaved or Italian-type is said to hold up better indoors than the curly kind. It also has more flavor. Stokes Seeds, Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240, boasts of its entry in this "celery leaf" category as the "best" by reason of its deeply cut and colored foliage. The Cooks Garden, P.O. Box 535, Londonderry, Vt. 05148 touts highly for taste a Dutch moss curled variety called Krausa that it is offering.

Although parsley seeds have a reputation for being hard to germinate, I have never found them so. They are, however, slow to emerge. So be patient and give them time. Parsley is a biennial, which means that no matter how lovingly you care for it, it will go to seed and be done for in the second season.

It also produces a long taproot that could be broken in transplanting. If you plan on repotting parsley or relocating it to the garden, gauge sowing time to allow transfer while the plant is still young. Herbs are happiest in full sun -- which is lacking on dreary winter days. For that reason, developing plants might best be nurtured under artificial or fluorescent lights. Good drainage is essential too.

For potting soil, I use a regular commercial mix, lightening it by one-quarter to one-third the amount with equal portions of perlite and vermiculite. I also take a shortcut in starting plants. I place two or three seeds straight off in 3-inch pots, rather than sowing a bunch in a flat, which would then require dividing and transplanting, thus saving these steps. When the seedlings have gained two sets of leaves, I keep the sturdiest plant, nipping out the others with a nail scissors. Before inserting the seeds near the soil surface and tucking them in, I wet the soil until the water has been well-absorbed. To keep in moisture, I enclose pots in plastic food storage bags until signs of sprouting appear.

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