Commercial Herb Plants: Doomed to Die?


The raison d’être of today’s article: I saw these overcrowded and doomed-to-die basil seedlings in a local farmer’s market the other day. A perfect example of how not to grow herbs!

Poor horticulture has begun to dominate in the field of herb plants. More and more herb sellers (supermarkets, public markets and even garden centers and nurseries that should know better) now offer pots jam-packed with seedlings, with ten plants or more growing in a dense clump. This results in a pot that looks nice and full, even mature, but the plants are so densely packed they’ll most likely die fairly soon after their purchase. Essentially, this is planned obsolescence.

A single pot may be suitable for 10 very small seedlings, but as they grow, they start to compete for resources: space for their roots, minerals for healthy growth and, most of all, enough water to stay healthy. Overcrowded pots will need extra watering, probably 2 or 3 times per day, quickly exhausting even the most enthusiastic gardener.

Why produce such horrors? Because the container looks fuller and more mature (though, inevitably, it contains only very young seedlings), so it’s more attractive and therefore it’s more likely that consumers will choose it over a well-grown and truly healthy plant all on its own in a pot.

Also, once the first pot is dead, the merchant hopes that you will come back for a second one. Then another and another. I heard one supermarket clerk tell a woman that herbs are naturally short-lived: you simply had to buy new plants every two to three weeks! In the herb business, planned obsolescence pays off!

The Rule: One Plant Per Pot


This is how herbs (here basil seedlings) should be sold: one plant per pot.

Healthy herbs, ones that will live long and produce an excellent harvest, are sold one plant per pot. Okay, maybe there’s a small straggler sharing its pot, a seedling that germinated late and that the grower didn’t get around to removing. You can do so when you get the pot home. The important thing is that the plant has to have space to grow well.

Usually these young healthy herbs are sold small pots (six-packs or 2½ inch/6,5 cm containers), ready to be planted in the ground or into a larger pot when you bring them home.

When looking for herbs, therefore, and want quality plants, just follow the rule: one plant per pot. It will give you the best results!

Can You Save Crowded Plants?


These overcrowded basil seedlings are starting to collapse from stress. Thin out the pot, leaving just one specimen, without delay. It may still be possible to save it.

It’s too late and you’ve already bought a pot of overcrowded seedlings? Yes, you could save them… or more correctly, it, as you’ll want to leave just one. Don’t wait until the plants start to die, thin out the pot as soon as possible. Be heartless and cut the surplus plants to the ground, simply leaving just one seedling in the pot. If you catch it in time, it can still have a full and productive life.

Can you separate seedlings from crowded pots, then grow each plant in its own pot? You’ll notice that the grower often specifically sows the seedlings very densely to discourage this kind of thing, but if the seedlings are very young, with few roots, it is sometimes possible to disentangle them. To do this, place the root ball in a bowl of water and let the soil “melt away” (it will slowly drop free from the rootball), then gently pull on the seedlings, holding them by a leaf, not a stem, to separate them. If you succeed, you should, of course, pot them up, each in its own pot, without delay.

Sow Your Own Herbs

Obviously, you can save even more by sowing the herbs yourself… and doing it right.

Some herbs are mainly grown from seed. These fast-growing, easy-to-sow varieties, such as basil, parsley, chervil and dill, are the ones that are usually grown crowded in their pot. (Growers don’t crowd cutting-grown plants or divisions; they’re more expensive to produce.) Why not sow them yourself … and sow them properly?

basil plants

Sow seeds 3 to a pot, then thin to just one plant. Easy peasy!

You can produce the number of pots you would like for only a few cents each and seed packs for herbs are widely available on the Internet as well as in any good garden center. And it’s so fast! In three weeks, basil and chervil seedlings, for example, will be as big as the plants sold in the store… and will probably have cost you 20 times less!

Sow 3 seeds per pot (always sow more than necessary in case germination is uneven) and, when the plants come up, cut back any surplus seedlings, thus leaving only one plant per pot. It’s so easy!

But back to our rule of the day: when you buy herb plants, always choose one plant per pot!

A Seed-Starters Glossary


20150414April is the main season for sowing seeds of vegetables, annuals, herbs, etc. indoors. Garden centers are presently full of displays of seed packets of all kinds and there is an even bigger choice when you order by catalog, either by mail or online. But what about the mysterious vocabulary seen on the back of seed packs and in printed and virtual seed catalogs? For many beginners, it’s like a foreign language! To help you, here are a few terms you may encounter and their definitions.

Acclimatization: A vital action taken just before transplanting seedlings outdoors. It simply means to place the seedlings, still in their pots, outdoors in the shade for 2 or 3 days, then in partial shade for 2 or 3 days, then in full sun for 2 or 3 days. The seedlings are now “hardened off” and ready to transplant to their permanent location.

Annual: a plant that completes its life cycle, from germinating to seed production, in one single year, then dies. Ex.: cosmos, marigold, sunflower.

Biennial: a plant that completes its life cycle in two years, usually producing a rosette of leaves the first year and flowers and seed the second. It dies after seed production. Ex.: foxglove, parsley.

Perennial: a herbaceous plant (not woody) that lives more than two years and that blooms more than once. It does not die after flowering.

Botanical Name: see Scientific Name.

Bush-type: see Non-Running.

Chlorosis: when leaves contain insufficient chlorophyll. They are often pale, yellow, or yellow-white. An iron deficiency, or lack of iron, is a common cause of chlorosis. See Nutrient Deficiency.

Cold Treatment (Stratification, Vernalization): subjecting to cold seeds that must go through a cold period before germinating. Usually they are sown in pots and placed in a refrigerator for several weeks before exposing them to heat. An alternative is to sow them outdoors in the fall in a cold climate where they will naturally undergo cold temperatures. Many perennials, shrubs, and trees from temperate climates require a cold treatment.

20150414BCotyledon: a seed’s first leaf, usually simple and often very different appearance from mature leaves. Most seedlings have two cotyledons, but there are seedlings with only one cotyledon, more than 2 cotyledons and without any cotyledon.

Cross-Pollination: The transfer of pollen from the anther of a flower of one plant to the stigma of a flower of another plant of the same species. It is usually carried out by insects, birds or wind.

Cultivar: a plant raised and multiplied by humans, that does not exist in nature. It’s name is typically written between single quotes (‘   ‘). The name derives from “cultivated variety”. Ex.: in Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Sonata White’, ‘Sonata White’ is the cultivar name.

Determinate: said of a tomato plant (and a few other plants) in which each branch ends in a cluster of flowers, which therefore limits its upward growth. Determined tomatoes make fairly small plants and don’t always need staking. They tend to produce all their tomatoes at about the same time.

Indeterminate: said of a tomato plant (and a few other plants) whose flowers appear in the axils of branches and not at the stem tip. Therefore the stem continues to grow in height throughout the growing season. These tomatoes need staking or a large tomato cage. They may produce less fruit at once than a determinate tomato, but usually do so over a long harvest season and often give double or triple the yield of a determinate tomato.

Dioecious: refers to a plant whose male and female flowers are borne on different plants. The asparagus is dioecious.


On this female flower (monoecious), you can see the ovary that will later become the fruit.

Monoecious: refers to a plant that produces separate male flowers and female flowers on the same plant. Often the female flower is easily recognized because it has a small ovary at its base in the shape of the fruit to come. Squash, melons and cucumbers are monoecious.

Perfect Flower (Bisexual Flower, Hermaphroditic Flower): said of a flower that has both male and female organs, thus both a stigma and stamens. This is the most common situation in nature.

Direct Sowing (Direct Seeding): sowing a plant directly outdoors where it is to grow. Beans, marigolds, and corn are often direct sown.

Do not cover: said of a seed that should not be covered with soil at sowing, usually because it is either very fine or requires light to germinate, or both.

GMO: genetically modified organism. Said of a plant into which humans have inserted genetic material from another plant or even an animal without going through pollination. There is, for example, corn containing the genes of Bt genes (a bacteria) and varieties of canola and soybean which with inserted genes that make them resistant to herbicides.

Hardening Off: see Acclimatization.

Heirloom Vegetable (Heirloom Plant): an old variety. Some authorities consider a plant having been introduced more than 50 years ago to be an heirloom variety, others prefer the definition “before the 1940s”. Most heirloom vegetables are produced through open pollination, that is pollination carried out by insects, birds, or wind. Examples.: ‘Brandywine’ tomato, ‘Golden Bantam’ corn, etc.

Hybrid: plant resulting from the crossing of two different breeds, species or genera. F1 hybrids are the most common type of hybrid and are the result of a first generation cross (F1 means “1st filial generation”). Usually, F1 hybrids are more robust than non-hybrid plants, but more expensive, because they have to be manually pollinated in a greenhouse setting. F2 hybrids, less common on the market, are seeds of F1 hybrids, thus the second generation (2nd filial generation). They are cheaper, as they are generally produced by natural pollination, but tend to give less reliable results than F1 hybrids.

Last Frost Date: the date used to calculate when to plant tender plants, referring to the approximate date when you can expect the last spring frost to occur. On seed packs and in seed catalogs, you’re often told to plant or sow outdoors so many weeks (6 weeks, 8 weeks, etc.) before the last frost date. You can ask a local garden club or garden center for the last frost date in your region, then simply count backwards to find the right date for sowing seeds.

Latin Name: see Scientific Name.


In the case of a nutrient deficiency, it’s hard to tell which mineral is missing: in this leaf, the damage could be a lack of iron or of nitrogen. Applying a complete fertilizer will solve both.

Nutrient Deficiency: results from the lack of a vital mineral in the soil (phosphorus, potash, nitrogen, zinc, boron, iron, etc.). It can have various symptoms include discolored or deformed leaves or slow growth. Treatment with a complete fertilizer (containing all the trace elements, such as a seaweed or fish fertilizer) will usually overcome a deficiency.

Organic: various definitions. Organic seeds are harvested from plants that have not been treated with synthetic (that is to say, chemical) pesticides or fertilizers. Organic pesticides are derived from natural sources, not from chemical synthesis.

Running: said of a squash with long creeping stems that require a lot of space in the garden, like a pumpkin. This is the natural state for squash.

Non-Running (bush type): said of a squash that produces a short stem and a rosette, taking up less space in the garden than a running squash. The zucchini is the best known non-running squash.

20150414CPeat Pot: pot made of pressed peat, usually used for seedlings that will not tolerate transplanting. The peat pot allows roots to grow right through its sides and bottom and can therefore be transplanted into the garden without removing it. The roots of the plant will then grow right through the peat pot into the surrounding soil.

Pelleted Seed: seeds covered in a product (usually clay) which facilitates their handling.

Pinching: removal of a plant’s terminal bud (bud at the end of the stem). Pinching stimulates branching, giving a more compact and attractive plant, but may delay flowering. It is traditionally done by “pinching” the top growth between the thumb and forefinger, but can also be done using pruning shears or scissors.

Requires Light to Germinate: said of a seed that germinates only in presence of light, be it sunlight or artificial lighting. These seeds should be sown without covering them with soil and the pot should be placed in a brightly lit spot.

Scarification: action of filing, nicking, or cutting a seed before sowing it. It can also involve soaking it for several hours in warm water. The goal of scarification is to penetrate very hard seeds (morning glories, hibiscus, etc.) and thus accelerate their germination.

Scientific Name (Botanical Name, Latin Name): it consists of two words, the first being the genus name (name shared with related plants, much like a human surname) and the second, the specific name, which determines the plant accurately. For example, Solanum tuberosum is the scientific name of the potato and Solanum melongena, of the eggplant. Both share the same genus name, Solanum, because they are closely related, while the specific name serves to make it clear to which type of Solanum the writer or speaker is referring. The scientific name is usually written in italics when possible.

Self-fertile: refers to a plant whose flowers can self-pollinate, that is to say that its own pollen can ensure seed production. Most plants are self-fertile.

Self-sterile: said of a plant which has to be pollinated by another variety in order to produce seeds. Many fruits (blueberries, apples, pears, plums, cherries, etc.) are self-sterile or partially self-sterile. It their case, it is always best to cultivate at least two cultivars of the same species nearby, as cross-pollination is necessary for them to produce abundant fruits.

Stratification: see Cold Treatment.

Thinning: removing some seedlings or fruits in order to allow room for others to grow better. Usually this is done by cutting the excess plants or fruit stalks the base.

Transplanting: moving a plant from one place to another. In the case of seedlings, this is usually from the pot in which they were sown into a larger pot or into the ground.

Treated seed: seed has been treated with a fungicide to prevent rot in cold or wet soils. This treatment is not considered acceptable to organic gardeners.

Untreated Seed: seeds that have not been treated with fungicides and therefore acceptable in organic gardening.

Vernalization: see Cold Treatment. It can also mean subjecting growing plants to cold to stimulate flowering.