The Secret to Starting Herb Seeds

Herb seeds, unlike their more more-cultivated vegetable counterparts, need some extra care and attention to germinate properly.

by Dawn Combs

 The Secret to Starting Herb Seeds - Photo by Heather/Flickr (

Have you ordered your seeds yet? If you’re behind, let me help you feel a bit better by admitting that we haven’t ordered any of ours yet. It’s disgraceful, I know, but there it is. I’m watching my husband pour over the seed catalogs as I write this. It’s usually my job, but I delegated it this year and so I get to sit outside the process and only offer my opinion occasionally on color or species preferences.

A couple weeks ago, I was teaching a beginner’s course on home health care, and I always think its important to get into a bit of basic botany and seed-starting whenever teaching self-sufficiency. For many years, when I taught about plants, I took for granted that everyone knew them from their humble beginnings. As I began to take more questions at the farmers’ market from frustrated would-be herb gardeners, I realized that we really needed to talk about the plant from the place it begins: the seed.

Is It Important To Buy Organic?

This is a common controversy. Most people decide to buy the less expensive seed because, after all, they will raise the plant without chemicals so it doesn’t really matter. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay to skimp on seed. Think about how amazing these nuggets of unrealized potential really are. Inside each acorn is everything the oak tree needs to know to become a tree and produce its own acorns. Its DNA is set, its programming is complete, all before the first drop of warm spring rain hits the seed coat.

If the parent of that seed grew in soil that was heavily doused with chemicals, the parent’s tissues were saturated with a foreign formula. When the mother tree began to develop its offspring, she had no choice but to make them up from her own body. Buying organic seed, then, is just as important as how you will raise the plants because the environment in which they were created is written on each and every cell.

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Are There Special Considerations When Planting?

Yes. Herb seeds can be finicky. Most of the plants we use for medicine have retained much of their wildness. They haven’t been fooled around with in order to cater to our need for convenience. This means that they often take their own sweet time germinating. It simply won’t do to fold them into the ground and hope for the best. They all have their adaptations that have protected the young generation from dying before they have a chance to live. Strategies can range from a fleshy bump on the outside of a bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) seed, which entices ants to plant it in its chosen soil, to a staggered germination time within seeds of the same age and environment.

Here are some strategies for preparing seeds for optimal germination:


Plants like the water lotus (Nelumbo lutea) seed must be “damaged” by either filing or using sandpaper to wear down the seed coat in a few areas. The plant expects to have its seeds floating around in a pond, and so it developed a tough exterior to prevent the plant within from becoming waterlogged or germinating at the wrong time. The size of the seed is attractive to fish that chew at them until the seed coat is worn away. There are many herb seeds that need this kind of attention before they can germinate properly.


The bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) likes to live through a cold snap before it can germinate. Stratification can mimic the freeze and thaw of a Midwest winter. One of the simplest ways to do this is to moisten a paper towel, place the seed in the center and fold it in half. Insert the paper towel seed pack inside a zip-top bag, and pop it in your freezer. Each seed has a different need, so freezer time will vary.

Every seed is different, no matter what kind of plant it will grow to be. With herbs we must understand that they are often not as cultivated as the humble tomato. The name of the game is often understanding what they life would be like in the wild and finding a way to give that to them in your own way. Best of luck with your seeds this year … and if you haven’t ordered yet, thanks, I needed the moral support!

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