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How to Grow Cumin

Cumin is the second most popular spice in the world, second only to black pepper. A member of the parsley family, cumin seeds have been prized for thousands of years and are best known in their ground form as a spice added to curry dishes.

Widely cultivated and used in the cuisines of North Africa, the Mediterranean and Iran, cumin has a warm, earthy flavor that adds depth and a bit of spice to a wide variety of foods. Cumin is a popular spice for beef and lamb, but it's also suitable for use on root vegetables and beans.

Spice maker McCormick states that it's one of the top 10 spices sold in the U.S., where it's commonly used in Mexican recipes (stews, tacos), Middle Eastern dishes (hummus, stew and eggplant) and Indian cuisine, where it's often featured alongside chili pepper, turmeric, mustard seed, coriander seed and peppercorn.1

Cumin also features a starring role in many spice blends, including chili powder, garam masala, sofrito and bahaarat. Traditionally, cumin seeds were carried by brides during wedding ceremonies as a symbol of faithfulness, and in ancient Greece the seeds were used as a table condiment similar to salt today.

It was also used medicinally to aid digestion, support breastfeeding and treat health problems including fever, diarrhea and vomiting.2 While you may be tempted to head to the supermarket to stock up on this versatile spice, you can easily grow cumin in your own backyard. Once you collect the seeds, put them in a coffee grinder and you'll have fresh, ground cumin whenever you need it.

How to Grow Cumin

Cumin is a flowering annual plant that grows to be about 12 to 20 inches tall. Its short-lived flowers are pink or white (flowering begins midsummer) and yield the cumin seeds used in cooking. Recommended for USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 10, cumin is a plant that takes about four months to reach maturity and prefers a hot growing season.

This means if you live in an area with a short growing season, you'll need to start the seeds indoors, only transplanting them outdoors when temperatures (lows) will be at 60 degrees F or above and the plants are about 2 inches tall. For a general guide, start the seeds indoors about four to eight weeks before the final frost in your area.3

Seeds should germinate in about seven to 14 days, and soaking them prior to planting (for about eight hours) may increase germination rates. Cumin seeds don't tolerate transplanting well, so it's best to use biodegradable pots that can be planted directly into the soil when the time comes.

And because each cumin plant only produces a small number of seeds, you'll need to grow a lot of plants if you plan to use the seeds regularly. Cumin does best in full sun, so choose a bright, sunny spot in your garden and sow the seedlings about 4 inches apart, shallowly in the soil (about one-fourth inch deep), in rows that are 18 inches apart.

You can also plant cumin in containers, and some suggest planting them in clumps rather than rows, which helps support the sometimes-spindly plants as they grow and keeps the seed pods from spilling over onto the ground.

Seedlings should be kept moist and watered occasionally, especially in dry weather, but avoid overwatering, as this plant enjoys well-drained, sandy soil (but will tolerate most soil types as long as it's fertile). If you live in a region with long periods of dry heat, cumin may benefit from misting.4

Overwatered cumin plants can develop root rot, while the plants are also susceptible to aphids, wilt, blight and powdery mildew. That said, they're also known to attract beneficial insects to your garden that can help keep other pests away.5

How to Harvest Cumin

Cumin plants must be watched closely late in the growing season as, left unattended, the seeds will dry and scatter on the ground, making harvesting difficult if not impossible. The plants may also ripen at different rates, so be prepared to harvest some of the plants while leaving others behind.

The seeds are ready to harvest when the flowers are done blooming and the clusters turn brown, typically in the fall.

The dried stems can then be cut down near the ground and seed clusters placed in a paper bag (upside down) to dry out and catch the seeds, which are yellow-brown in color and similar in shape and size to caraway seeds. The Homestead Garden recommends:6

"When some of the plants are ready, cut down five to six cumin plants at the stem and place the pod clusters in a paper bag. Tie it and hang the bag upside down in a warm, dry place. After seven to 10 days, the pods will have dried. Rub the pods between your fingers and the seeds will drop out for immediate use or for storage …

You can also thresh the bag when it is ready to harvest: beat the bag against a hard surface to dislodge the seeds. Sift the seeds through a mesh cloth to remove the chaff."

Be sure the seeds are completely dry before storing them in a cool, dry location away from direct sunlight. The seeds can be saved for about two years. The seeds can be used whole or ground, but to preserve freshness and flavor, grind what you need just before cooking.