Growing Cumin To Spice Up The Garden

Recently, I’ve been on a journey to understand cumin and learn how to use it correctly in cooking.  Since undertaking this journey, this deliciously warm spice has blown my mind and has made me determined to start growing cumin at home!

If you’re anything like me and have a family of plain picky eaters, then cumin is probably a little pot of brown powder, sitting on the spice rack, months out of date and rarely, if ever used.  However, did you know that cumin is the second most popular spice in the world after black peppercorn? It seems that despite this huge popularity, a lot of people including me, have been using it all wrong. 

So, what is cumin? The herb plant Cuminum cyminum, commonly known as cumin, is grown for its seeds which are used whole or ground into a powder. It has been used in cooking and medicine throughout history, from Egyptian mummification to the ancient Greeks seasoning all their food with cumin, sprinkling it on like salt and pepper.  

In modern-day food culture, cumin is a key ingredient in Mexican, Asian, Indian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisines.  Its flavor is intensely warm and earthy, but also sweet, making it perfect for both savory and dessert dishes. The best flavor comes from using fresh whole cumin seeds, gently toasted before grinding, rather than the shop-bought ground cumin powder. 

The medicinal health benefits of cumin come from the active ingredient cuminaldehyde, which has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer and carminative properties.  It helps to improve digestion minimizing gas and bloating; acts as a detoxifying blood cleanser  and aids weight loss by increasing metabolism.  Cumin is also packed full of essential vitamins and minerals, in particular iron, calcium and magnesium.   

Good Products For Growing Cumin:

Quick Care Guide

Growing Cumin
Growing cumin is relatively simple, even for beginners. Source: klugi
Common Name(s)Cumin
Scientific NameCuminum cyminum
Days to Harvest120-150 days
LightFull sun
Water:Regular
SoilSandy loam, loam
FertilizerBalanced organic liquid fertilizer 
PestsAphids
DiseasesFusarium wilt, Alternaria blight, powdery mildew

All About Cumin

The scientific name for the cumin plant is Cuminum cyminum.  It is a warm-season annual herb from the parsley family Apiaceae, which includes parsnip, carrot, cilantro/coriander, and of course parsley.  It is believed to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean region but is also thought to be native to the Middle East and India where the majority of the world’s supply is now produced.

Cumin is a low growing plant reaching an average height of 12–20 inches and 2–6 inches across.  Smooth slender branching stems have finely dissected compound leaves with thread-like leaflets, blue/green in color.  Irregular pink or white flowers are formed in mid-summer on umbels of 5-7 rays.  Seed pods develop after blooming in early fall when the stems and seed heads begin to dry.  Seeds are oblong, approximately ¼ inch in length, ribbed and green/grey at first, turning a brownish yellow color when ready to harvest. 

Cumin cannot tolerate frost. It needs a long growing season of at least 120 days with temperatures no lower than 60ºF (15ºC). In cool northern regions, start seeds indoors ready for planting outside after the last frost.  

When planning to grow cumin it is important to understand that each plant produces a small number of seeds.  If you wish to grow large quantities of cumin, you will need to calculate how much space you require to produce an adequate crop.

Cumin is perfect for companion planting in a mixed vegetable garden. The flowers attract beneficial insects such as predatory wasps, that feed on pests like caterpillars that attack cabbage family crops. Grow cumin alongside these crops for maximum benefit.

Planting Cumin

To successfully grow cumin you will need fertile, free draining soil located in full sun.  Cumin is a drought tolerant plant, but can also adapt well to climates with frequent rainfall, as long as the soil is well drained.  Prolonged damp soil conditions can cause root rot and plant decline.

Direct sow cumin seeds outside one or two weeks after the last frost when temperatures are consistently 60ºF (15ºC) and above.  In colder areas sow seeds indoors into soil blocks or biodegradable peat pots for minimum root disturbance, 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Seed germination takes between 7 and 14 days.  Plant seedlings outside after the risk of frost has passed and temperatures are 60 degrees Fahrenheit and above. 

Cumin benefits from being slightly overcrowded or planted in clumps providing support and preventing stems from falling onto the ground. 

If you’re short on space, why not grow cumin in containers? The benefit of containers is you can start plants off indoors and move them outside when ready.

Care

Cumin in flower
A stand of cumin in flower. Source: Herbolario Allium

Growing cumin is pretty easy to grow when the conditions are right.  Read on to learn how to grow cumin in your own garden.

Sun and Temperature

Grow cumin in a location that receives at least 8 hours of direct sunlight.  The USDA zones for growing cumin are 5–10. Plants need at least 120 days of temperatures ranging from 60ºF (15ºC) to 80ºF (27ºC) to reach maturity and produce viable seeds.

Cumin does not tolerate frost which is why in cooler climates seeds should be started indoors.  At the other temperature extreme, cumin can tolerate highs of 90 ºF (32 ºC). 

Water and Humidity

Cumin plants require approximately 1 inch of water per week, allowing the soil to almost dry out between watering. The addition of light mulches such as grass clippings, straw, or shredded leaves will help maintain soil moisture levels during very hot weather. Plants can be misted to provide ambient humidity without causing any potential risk of root rot. Hand water with a hose or watering can or use timed soaker hoses and ease off on watering when the flowers and seed heads begin to turn brown.

Container grown cumin will need more watering than plants that grow in the ground.

Soil

Cumin plants grow best in fertile, well-draining, sandy loam to loam soil.  Heavier soils will require amendments like perlite to improve drainage capacity. The optimum soil pH range is 7.0 neutral to 7.5, but cumin can tolerate a wide range from 6.8 mildly acidic to 8.3 alkaline.

Fertilizing

A good balanced organic soil conditioner can be added to soil early in the year before sowing.  Feed cumin plants with a balanced organic liquid fertilizer as soon as flowering stems begin to develop. Avoid using fertilizers high in nitrogen as this will reduce the fragrance and aroma of the harvested seed.

Pruning

Cumin is an annual plant grown for its seed and therefore does not require pruning.  Damaged or diseased stems and leaves should be removed to prevent problems from spreading. Flower heads should be left on the plant to produce mature cumin seeds for harvesting. Once seed pods have been harvested, the remainder of the plant can be composted. 

Propagation

Cumin plants are propagated from seed sown directly outside or indoors in pots for planting out later.  

Outside: Sow seeds directly around two weeks after the last frost date and temperatures are 60ºF (15ºC) and above.  Sow into drills, ¼ inch deep and thin seedlings when 2 inches tall to 4-8 inches apart.  Alternatively, sow 4 seeds every 4-8 inches allowing plants to support each other whilst growing.  Rows should be 18 inches apart.  Germination outside usually takes between 7 and 14 days.

Indoors: Start seeds off indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Sow seeds ¼ inch deep into soil blocks or biodegradable pots to reduce the risk of transplant shock, and keep moist until shoots appear.  Transplant outside, 4-8 inches apart when daily temperatures are 60ºF (15ºC) or above.  Seeds should germinate between 7 and 14 days or sooner if using a heated propagator.

Harvesting and Storing

Cumin seeds
Cumin seeds can be ground into powder or used whole. Source: Gusjer

Seeds are ready to harvest after 120-150 days.  Cumin plants may not all harvest consistently, so keep a close eye on your crop to ensure you harvest on time.  If seeds are left too long on the plant, they will fall and scatter on the ground.  You may also wish to protect your seeds from birds and other wildlife by placing netting or cages over your crops.

Harvesting

Cumin seeds are ready to harvest in fall when the flowers have finished blooming and the seed heads turn brown.  To harvest, cut stems close to the ground, bundle and tie the ends together and place the seed heads into a paper bag.  Hang the stems and bags upside down somewhere warm to allow the seed pods to dry out completely. The bag will catch any falling seeds. Stems can also be left flat on trays in sunlight to speed up the drying process.

Once everything is completely dry you can start to separate the seeds from the pods.  Thrash the stems against a hard surface while still in the bag, or roll pods between fingers to separate the cumin seeds. Gently winnow any chaff, dirt, and debris from the remaining seed before storing.

Cumin plants are not grown for its foliage, however, fresh leaves can be harvested from mature plants to add a light tangy flavor to salads or used as a herb garnish to soups and stews.  Once harvested, treat the leaves like a herb or fresh salad and store in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days.

Storing

Once dry, store seeds whole in an airtight container and they should stay fresh for 2 years.  Seeds can be used whole or ground into a fine powder. However, the freshness and aroma will deteriorate much quicker if the seeds are ground.  For best results store seeds whole and gently toast them before grinding. Use ground cumin powder as soon as possible. 

Troubleshooting

Cumin seed pods forming
As the flowers fade, the cumin seed pod develops at the top of each stem. Source: Vahe Martirosyan

Cumin plants are pretty easy to grow, but there are a few things to look out for when caring for them.

Growing Problems

Overwatering cumin can lead to root rot. If plants show symptoms of decline and there are no obvious signs of pest or disease, then it is best to check soil moisture levels. You can use a soil moisture probe or your hand to test if the soil around the base of the plant feels wet.  To resolve, allow the soil to dry out and reduce watering frequency.  

Pests

Aphids (Aphidoidea) attack the young new growth on plants, feeding on the phloem sap and in effect dehydrating the plant. The resulting damage is distorted leaves and stems.  Aphids also carry a multitude of other plant diseases.  Use beneficial insects such as ladybug larvae (cococinella septempunctata) to treat biologically. Or, spray with a good organic insecticidal soap or neem oil. 

Diseases

Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungal disease that interferes with a plant’s ability to transport water and remain hydrated.  Symptoms usually appear late in the season and include, wilting leaves, drooping stems and older leaves turning yellow.  Fusarium wilt can also spread through contaminated seeds, tools and insects.  It is important to keep all tools clean and to purchase high-quality seed from trusted sources.  Affected plants should be destroyed and not composted.  Applying a biological fungicide like MycoStop to the soil has shown signs of reducing fusarium spread.

Alternaria blight is a fungal disease that flourishes in warm, humid conditions and spreads through contaminated soil and seeds. The fine delicate leaves of cumin are discolored entirely by this disease and it can quickly take hold of an entire crop.  Healthy plants are less likely to be affected, so ensure plants are well fed, hydrated and weed free to maximize air circulation. Remove and destroy affected plants and clear all plant debris to prevent fungal spores over-wintering.  Organic treatment of this disease is limited to copper fungicides.

Powdery mildew affects plants located in damp shade during hot, humid weather.  This fungal disease spreads by spores, covering leaves with a white growth resembling a dusting of flour and inhibits optimum photosynthesis.  Leaves turn yellow, dry completely and die. Good garden hygiene is essential to avoid this disease as well as removing infected foliage and relocating plants to grow in full sun.  Treat with organic fungicidal sprays such as sulfur, neem oil and potassium bicarbonate.

Frequently Asked Questions

Cuminum cyminum
Cuminum cyminum, the cumin plant, is an herbaceous and fine-leaved annual. Source: M. Martin Vicente

Q: Is cumin easy to grow?

A:  Cumin is easy to grow when the conditions are right. It needs fertile, well drained soil and full sun.

Q: Is cumin a perennial?

A: Cumin is an annual plant with a growing season of around 120-150 days during the hottest months of the year.

Q: How long does cumin seed last?

A: Cumin seeds should last up to two years if stored in an airtight container.

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