Unleash your inner seed demon: Three easy ways to grow herbs at home
I repeat: They are up. My fragile seeds have sprouted into tiny proto-herbs. Miniature leaves unfold by the hour; little stems reach toward the sun. It’s alive, I tell you! I have created life!
Forgive me for going a bit mad with power — I’m just so excited that my very first foray into growing from seed is actually working so far. Sure, I’ve managed to keep a series of windowsill plants alive in pots over the past few years (bless you, you affable succulents). But I bought all of them as hearty young plants, already strong and bushy and requiring little more than water from me. It’s like adopting a high-achieving college kid — with all the hard work already done, you can’t exactly call yourself parent of the year.
But my recent seed-bombing expedition awakened something in me. I haven’t yet seen any sprouts from the secret seed bomb I snuck into a corner of my backyard — my cue to check on the seed-filled clay capsules I lobbed into vacant lots (maybe the dry spell of the past few weeks is to blame?). So while I’m waiting for my guerrilla gardening luck to kick in, I decided to try growing herbs from seed for the first time. (I have done it hydroponically, as we’ll see, but that’s so easy it’s practically cheating.)
Seeds are intimidating. They’re so small, so vulnerable, so totally dependent on you. Too much or too little water will fell them; mess up their exposure to light or temperature, and they’re through. I just don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of responsibility. But I received a lovely set of herb seeds for Valentine’s Day, so I took a deep breath and went for it.
First method: the seed tray. A few gardening books informed me that no, you can’t just place seeds straight into the ground and expect them to grow. You have to gently raise them in a warm, safe, interior environment until they’re tough enough to go wild (not unlike teen queen Miley Cyrus and her time on the Disney Channel). You can get quite elaborate with this — think grow lights and custom-mixed “growing media” — but simple is usually a good place to start.
My base: a seed-starting tray that cost me three bucks (you can also use yogurt containers, milk cartons, and the like). My soil of choice: individual peat plugs from a local hydroponics store (more on that below). They promised to “jump-start” my garden with their “optimum water/air ratio” and “uniform wicking,” plus they cost less than a quarter each. My preparation: Soaking my seeds of choice — dill, thyme, chives, oregano, and sage — overnight in an ice-cube tray. Then it was planting time.
Here’s something I didn’t realize about some herb seeds: They’re really small. Maybe the size of a tick or even tinier. This made precision planting in my peat plugs rather difficult. Without the aid of a pair of seed tweezers (the existence of which I was unaware until I Googled it two minutes ago — who knew?), I instead used the Clumsy Fingertip Method: Swipe finger into ice-cube compartment until some seeds stick, awkwardly wipe finger on top of soil, hope at least some of the seeds took purchase, and repeat. Add labels, mist with a spray bottle, set the tray on the windowsill, and your seeds are on their way to greatness.
Oh, and seeds need extra heat and moisture to really take root. The garden store guy tried to sell me a bulky, plastic tray cover for this purpose, but I was on to him. I rigged my own cover by slipping a clear plastic produce bag over the end of the tray. Proof it works: After just a few days, delicate green shoots started poking their adorable heads up from the soil.
How thrilled am I about this early success? I check on the tray with my spray bottle in hand, cooing and making sure the tiny herbs are comfortable, approximately every 20 minutes. I’m considering sending out birth announcements.
And then there’s the hydroponic method, from the Greek hydro, water, and ponics, insert pot joke here. My parents sent me a countertop hydroponic pod a few years ago when I lived in a dark cave of a basement apartment. This seed method couldn’t be easier: Pop the included, preseeded soil cylinders in, turn on the grow light (it automatically turns on and off in a regular cycle), and add fertilizer every few weeks when the smart little pod tells you to. I’ve used it to grow bushels of basil, cilantro, cherry tomatoes, and mini geraniums in grand style.
This time, though, I wanted to break free from the preloaded seed kit monopoly. Why couldn’t I make my own, with seeds of my choosing? Hence my trip to the hydroponics store and my discovery of the peat plugs. Wouldn’t you know it: They fit perfectly in the pod. I planted a few more herbs, switched on the light, and am now checking for sprouts every 20 minutes, too. In fact, hold on … nope, nothing yet.
With three seed methods in the works (don’t forget about the seed bombs), surely I’ll find some measure of success. I’ll report back on what’s growing and what’s not — plus more exploration into the seedy (ha!) world of guerrilla gardening — as the spring progresses.