It can be difficult for serious herb gardeners to find all the unusual herbs, especially wellness plants, that they’d like to grow in their herb garden. There are several ways to troubleshoot this problem, including growing your own hard-to-find, unusual herbs! In this article, we discuss various methods of growing your own herb stock, including direct sowing and winter sowing. We also discuss the benefits of growing your own, which include saving money and controlling variety for growing success. Don’t wait – start your herb garden or grow it bigger this year!
Before you begin learning how to grow hard to find herbs, you’ll need to have a realistic list of herbs you’d like to grow. To compile that list, please read the following articles:
—>>>How to Plant a Wellness Herb Garden<<<—
—>>>9 Wellness Herbs to Grow<<<—
These articles will help you decide exactly which wellness herbs you need and get you started thinking about which herbs you’d like to grow.
Finding Unusual Herbs
Once you have a working list of wellness herb plants you know you’ll use AND be able to growing in your climate (growing zone), you need to decide:
- Whether you want to grow those herbs from seed
- Or whether you want to find a source for plants that have already been started from seed and are for sale, aka “seedlings.”
There’s no shame in buying an already established plant from your favorite local nursery—goodness knows I end up doing it a bit every year, as much as I grow from seed.
The only real roadblock to purchasing wellness herb plants is in the wellness or “medicinal” part. Some wellness herbs are too obscure for your nursery to stock them for herb nerds like you and me. Echinacea or witch hazel may seem like normal plants to have in the garden, but most people don’t grow either for their wellness benefits, if they grow them at all.
Also, your local nursery may sell lavender plants (for example), but do they sell the variety that will survive your climate?
Criteria For Finding Unusual Wellness Herbs
Let’s make a quick list of several issues we might encounter specific to growing wellness herbs:
- We need a certain kind of herb that our local nursery doesn’t offer
- The specific variety of herb we need isn’t available locally
- The herb isn’t available at the time of year we want to plant it
- We need many seedlings of this herb in order to fill plant guilds or because we have a large herb garden/homestead
- The cost of the herb is prohibitive
Getting Started – How to Grow Unusual Herbs
You may not be ready to grow all the wellness herb plants you need from seed this year. However, the reality is that you’ll most likely need to learn this skill at some point simply because of any of the issues we’ve listed above.
Find a Quality Herb Seed Source
For this reason, let’s talk about finding a quality unusual/wellness herb seed source. First, order an herb catalog from a quality seed house—in fact, order one from two or three different sources. Or look online at their offerings.
My favorite seed house for wellness herb seeds is Strictly Medicinal (www.strictlymedicinal.com; formerly known as Horizon Seeds), which specializes in all kinds of herbs, but particularly those that can assist with supporting your health and well-being.
Strictly Medicinal seeds are always viable, the packets have great information on them, the catalog is a wealth of knowledge, and the people behind the seeds are some of the nicest with whom you’ll ever do business.
Other Seed Houses with Quality Unusual Herbs:
- Mary’s Heirloom Seeds – These seeds have all performed well for me and Mary is very gifted at seed education (look for her videos online). Her online catalog is very informative and the customer service is great.
- Mountain Rose Herbs – Since they specialize in wellness herbs, their selection of seed is great!
Vetting the Herbal Seed Houses
Whatever company you chose to begin with, when your catalog arrives, start dissecting it by reading the description of each herb and take notes on herbs of interest. Keep your favorite herb book close by as a reference to answer any questions that arise about the plants which the catalog isn’t answering.
If you have further questions, call the company and ask. What you’re really doing with this exercise is finding a vendor with whom you want to work.
Ask yourself some questions like:
- Which company has the inventory I need?
- Will the company be a good educational resource for me?
- Is their website helpful?
- Is their ordering process easy and what does their customer service look like?
- What about ethics—am I going to stay away from Seminis and De Ruiter (sister companies of Monsanto), genetically modified or even innocuous hybrid seed?
Get Ready to Grow Unusual Herbs from Seeds
As I said, you may not be ready to start growing your herbs from seed this year since it is a step above keeping a plant alive in a pot on your deck. However, you will get there eventually and it’s good to begin with the end in mind.
Remember, if you want to create a wellness herb garden, the chances are that you’ll exhaust the resources of your local nursery within a few years. You’ll just be so herb savvy that you’ll discover you’ve moved beyond the simple basil and sage options and need a wider variety from which to choose.
So, go back to the library and get a book on seed starting, take a local class (try your university extension and/or your local seed exchange group), ask your gardening nerd friend if you can come see their seed-starting set up and pick their brains about what they do. Then jump in to herbal seed starting!
Ready to Grow a Few Unusual Herbs?
Alright, let’s get down to brass tacks. How do we grow our specialty wellness herb?
First of all, please read the following article because planting herbs directly into the ground – called “direct sowing” – is a very simple way to propagate herb plants.
—>>>Direct Sow Herbs<<<—
Direct sowing can be done in late fall, early spring, or anytime during the growing season except high summer (if you live in an area with intense summer heat). Which herb you plant at which time of year will depend on the seeds “germination requirements”.
Some seeds actually need the cold of winter in order to sprout. Others can’t tolerate any cold at all. How do you know which is which? Read the seed packet, look on the seed house’s website, and look in your herb books.
Drawbacks to Direct Sowing Herb Seed
Direct sowing works wonderfully well – except when it doesn’t. Here are some cons to direct sowing herb seeds:
- Direct sown seeds require an undisturbed seed bed, which is their little place in the garden to germinate. If you’re late putting down later summer/early fall mulch or wood chips, you might bury the new seeds too far down. This can prevent germination.
- Cats and other digging animals might disturb newly emerging seedlings, which can kill them.
- New seedlings can get covered in spring mulch because you neglected to label or otherwise set apart the seedbed of the direct sown herbs. I do this. all. the. time.
- As another labeling problem, you forget which seeds you planted where. You can usually figure this out once the growing season progresses and the herbs have leaves or flowers, but you might accidentally plant something else in that spot before then. I do this all the time, too. I’m such an airhead gardener sometimes.
Still, if you’re smarter about labeling than I am and diligent about setting apart protected space for direct sown herbs, this method can work really well for you. Incidentally, you can direct sow herbs all throughout the growing season (except high summer) and anywhere in the garden including raised beds, flower gardens, around fruit trees, etc.
Start Seeds Outdoors with Contained Winter Sowing
As I said, often you direct sow herbs in the late fall or spring. Some seeds require that all danger of frost has passed – that’s where direct sowing comes in handy. These seeds like basil that can’t take frost but do sprout very well, can be planted right into your garden. They will grow nicely if you keep their seed bed moist and keep the cats from scratching at them.
However, what about the herb seeds that can take some frost? What about the herbs seeds that actually require cold weather to germinate successfully – a process called “cold stratification”?
The best success I’ve found with growing these kinds of herbs is to sow them into prepared containers in the winter. Yes, in the winter. This process is often called Winter Sowing.
Grow Winter Sown Unusual Herbs for Success!
I’ve started seeds indoors for my entire gardening career and it’s worked well. However, there are drawbacks to indoor seed starting. Here are a few:
- Seed starting equipment takes up SPACE!
- Soil gnats can be a problem.
- I need to artificially simulate the wind to toughen up seedlings with a gentle fan.
- Sometimes I forget to water the seedlings; sometimes I overwater them.
- It’s just plain a lot of work!
My family and I are currently living in a 500 square foot tiny house that has absolutely no space for seed starting equipment. Because of this reality, I turned to winter sowing out of desperation. I had to find a method of seed starting that could reliably be done outdoors.
Honestly, I may never go back to indoor seed starting, even in a greenhouse. I love winter sowing!
How to Winter Sow Unusual Herbs
At the moment, the best place I know of to learn about winter sowing online is a Facebook group called Winter Sowers.
I’m going to give you the basics of the process so you can decide if you’d like to try this method. I’ll also give you a few other online resources for more reading, including the Facebook group (in case you’re on that platform).
It might sound crazy and counter intuitive because of how we’ve been trained to garden over the last century. However, I promise that it works. It works because the winter sowing process mimics nature and nature knows what she’s doing!
The Basic Steps of Winter Sowing:
First, gather any opaque or clear container that has a lid. Gallon milk jugs are commonly upcycled for this purpose, though they’re not the most convenient option, in my opinion. I purchased shoe box-sized plastic boxes at the dollar store and they’ve lasted three years so far (with a few casualties due to hail). It’s important that light be able to penetrate the container.
Next, make small holes for drainage in the bottom of the container, as well as rain penetration holes in the lid. The holes in the lid also allow warm air to escape in sunny weather. In essence, you’re creating a mini-greenhouse and you do not want to cook your baby plants.
You can use a drill for this or even a wood burner to melt the plastic in round holes. These holes should be sprinkled evenly to allow rain to enter from the lid and excess water to drain out from the bottom. This step is critical.
Planting in the Containers
Put your favorite potting soil mix into the containers to fill them at least halfway. The potting soil should be damp but not sopping. Pre-moisten the potting soil in a wheelbarrow or bucket to ensure that it’s evenly damp. If you squeeze some of the soil in your hand and water runs down your arm, it’s too wet. Add some more soil until it looks like chocolate cake.
Plant the seeds into the containers according to package directions for depth. Be sure to note which seeds need to remain on the surface of the soil for light germination (like chamomile).
Place the lids on the containers and put them in a dedicated spot for them to sit undisturbed until they begin to germinate and require potting up. Once the seeds have germinated and developed their first set of true leaves, they are just like any other seedling. Pot them up or plant them directly into the garden.
Troubleshooting Your Winter Sowing Set Up:
Here are some tips for the containers:
- A lot of people use milk jugs, as I mentioned, but I find them cumbersome. However, there are many people who use them successfully, so I’ll add some links for you to learn more about milk jug winter sowers.
- I have plastic boxes that have both opaque lids and non-opaque lids and both work great. Enough light penetrates the sides of the boxes with non-opaque lids for the seeds to germinate.
- Be sure to weigh down your winter sown boxes to prevent the wind from disturbing them. I use t-posts laid across the tops of the boxes because the posts are long and just the right weight. However, rocks or bricks also work.
- I suggest you put a layer of cardboard and wood chips under your winter sown boxes to prevent them from becoming soggy and saturated in a large rain event. Any medium that will provide good drainage under the boxes will work. Some people place their winter sown boxes on decks or even outdoor shelves and that works fine. I’ve found that in my climate and perhaps suiting my personal tastes, my winter sown boxes perform better when connected to the earth – sitting right on top of the turf.
- Do NOT let the soil of your winter sown boxes dry out, even while it’s still cold. This isn’t usually a problem during the winter if you have precipitation, but as spring advances, check your boxes regularly. Warmer weather can dry them out quickly and this spells death for the seedlings.
Placement and Germination:
- Because my spring weather is variable and I get warm days followed by cold days, as well as lots of moisture, I sprinkle the surface of my potting soil with cinnamon as a deterrent to damping off disease and any other fungus that might be in the soil.
- Again, because my weather is variable, I put my winter sown seeds on the north side of my house to discourage them from sprouting too early in the season. An extra early sprout can be damaged by excessive frosts that might follow. My spring weather is very mercurial!
- Some days are so warm that it’s necessary to remove the lids entirely so as not to cook the seedlings. On the north side of my house, I only need to do this rarely. It’s usually about the time that the seedlings have gotten so tall that they need lids off all the time so they can continue to grow. I know it’s about time to plant them in the garden when they get that tall!
Save Those Seeds!
If you do have seeds sprout only to be damaged by frosts later in the season, don’t fret. One of the desirable results of winter sowing unusual herbs is that only the strongest survive. This creates very hardy, healthy plants.
From these strong survivors, be sure to collect seed and/or take cuttings. These mother plants will create strong generations of herb plants!
—>>>Read Seed Saving for the Easily Confused to learn how<<<—
The benefits of cultivating seed stock that is especially acclimated to your garden and growing conditions can’t be overstated. This is how we gardeners tackle the uncertain future. Whatever you may believe about “climate change” as it’s bandied about in our culture, the weather is always a concern for gardeners!
Don’t be tempted to coddle those winter sown herbs – don’t bring them inside, don’t cover them, don’t baby them. Let the strongest survive and save seed from them later. If they don’t survive, try sowing them a few more times. If that variety still doesn’t survive, move on and grow something else.
Though this photo shows spring sown zinnias and not a winter sown herb, here’s an example of what I mean:
Which Unusual Herbs are Suitable for Winter Sowing?
To figure out which unusual herbs you can winter sow, read the seed packet or catalog and look for phrases like the following:
- Pre-chilling Requirements – look for words like stratify, refrigerate, freeze/frost
- Self Sows
- Sow Outdoors in Autumn/Early Spring
- Hardy Seeds
- Direct Sow Early
Winter sowing does NOT work for any seed that can’t take frost. For example, basil and nasturtium. (However, you can use this same method of outdoor seed sowing during the growing season to germinate hardy, healthy seedlings that are frost sensitive. It’s the exact same process accomplished in warmer weather with frost-sensitive seeds.)
List of Unusual Herbs to Winter Sow
- Bee Balm
- Lemon Balm
- Motherwort, and other worts like lungwort and St. John’s wort
- Savory, Summer and Winter
- Self Heal
- Sweet Cicely
Please note that some herbs like marjoram, and even parsley and oregano, may not be able to tolerate cold weather according to their seed packet. However, the reality is that they will often do just fine with winter sowing because the process makes them stronger.
Look for the hardiest varieties of seed you can find (ones that can take more cold than others). Know your growing zone, and then experiment with them to see how it goes.
Angi from Schneider Peeps created an “Understanding Your Climate” course that might help if you need know more about your growing zone.
Overcoming the Uncertainty
Winter sowing leaves some gardeners scratching their heads or shaking them in disbelief. It sounds crazy and they can’t bring themselves to trust the process.
As we discussed in our guild plants article, we can trust the process when we’re mimicking nature. One way that herbs, even the heat-loving Mediterranean ones, propagate themselves in the wild is by setting seeds and releasing them at the end of the growing season.
These seeds scatter all over the area and sit in the soil waiting for the right conditions to sprout. They go through the chill of autumn, the cold of winter, and the rains of spring. The outer layers of the seed breakdown through all these weather events until, finally, it’s time for the seed to sprout.
Sometimes, the earliest emerging seedlings do die off in a hard freeze. Others will survive, and more will continue to sprout throughout the emerging spring. Trust this process.
Advantages of Winter Sown Herbs
The greatest advantage of a winter (or any outdoor) sown seed is that it is naturally stronger than it’s indoor-sown counterpart. Outdoor sown seeds are:
- Acclimated to the vagaries of the temperatures – they’re used to the crazy weather!
- Physically stronger because of their endurance of wind and weather.
- Far more healthy with immune systems that have developed in outdoor growing conditions.
- More adaptable to change overall.
- Endure transplant with a higher rate of success because they’re generally tougher than their indoor-sown counterparts.
Also, remember that when you grow your own unusual herbs, you can control which variety you cultivate to ensure that they will thrive in your climate.
Is it Too Late to Winter Sow my Unusual Herbs?
Generally, if you’re still experiencing winter conditions, it’s not too late. Seeds don’t germinate based on when you’ve sown them. They germinate when the growing conditions trigger them. So, if you’re still cold, they’re still cold.
Also, remember that you can use this winter sowing method for germinating healthy, hardy seedlings all year round (except the zenith of summer when nothing wants to grow).
Having said that, however, some herbs, especially the semi-woody ones like lavender and rosemary, require several weeks of cold stratification to germinate successfully. They can also have low germination rates, so don’t worry that you’ve done something wrong if not every seed sprouts.
At any rate, if you’re on the cusp of spring where you live, you might want to wait until late autumn or winter of this year to winter sow them. Or you can try it now and see what happens!
FYI, I usually start my winter sowing just after Christmas. I prep the boxes, the soil, get the seed in, set them out, and forget about them until March or April (in my zone 6 climate).
For more information on winter sowing for all plants, not just herbs, please visit Winter Sowers on Facebook. This is a great resource for information on everything winter sowing.
Where to Buy Unusual Herb Plants
Even after all that, if you just don’t have time for seeds this year but want to begin your wellness herb garden, never fear because you will be able to find some local to you. Even if you can’t find all the ones you want, usually readily available are:
- Cayenne Pepper
Remember, these are all culinary AND wellness herbs! Be sure to ask your local nursery to consider order or growing herbs for wellness. It can’t hurt to ask.
Online Herbal Plants
I’ll be honest, unless you have a very small yard and a very big budget, stocking an entire herb garden with mature plants will be cost prohibitive. However, a few herbs here and there shouldn’t break the bank altogether.
There are some online vendors who sell wellness herb plants. Just be sure to find one that’s domestic to avoid complications with shipping. If you’re in the States, Strictly Medicinal sells some potted herb and root cuttings that I’ve availed myself of in those times I just really didn’t want to try to propagate something complicated.
Also, Crimson Sage out of California has an exquisite catalog of wellness herb plants and they’re very helpful if you have questions.
If you know of a quality resources for wellness or unusual herbs seeds, plants, or roots, please list it in the comments section for other readers’ benefit!
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