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Jump-Start Your Seeds

Use these tricks to speed germination, then plant up some pots

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Columbines brighten both sides of my shady, front-yard path. The little congregation on one side came as plants from a catalog, while those on the other were nurtured, by me, from a palmful of shiny, black seeds to a drift of long-spurred flowers. Guess which ones give me the most satisfaction? Maternal pride isn’t the only reward that I get from starting seeds. I’ve also gained a greener thumb and a fatter wallet—a packet of seeds provides 20 or more plants for the price of a single potted plant.

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For the best results, consider the plant’s natural habitat

Many seeds are simple to grow. Scratch up a patch of open soil, scatter the seeds, and there you go. But other seeds will do best under more controlled conditions, or with special treatment that mimics the conditions of their native habitats.

The seeds of many plants that are native to regions with cold winters, for example, germinate most readily after a period of moist chilling in a dark place. In the wild, that’s what winter provides them. It’d be wasted energy—and very anti-Darwinian—if the seeds sprouted in late summer or fall only to be laid low by winter cold. Instead, they wait out the inhospitable winter. During the seeds’ deep sleep, their seed coats soften, until the warmth and moisture of spring make them explode into growth.

For other seeds, especially many desert dwellers, a period of rain (or synthesized rain, a.k.a. the garden hose or a good overnight soak) may be all that is necessary to burst that seed coat wide open.

On the other hand, more extreme treatment may be necessary to get the most out of wildflowers from hot places. In the Southwest, it can be fire that turns the key. I had a lot of trouble getting Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) to sprout with abandon until one year when a kitchen fire scorched an envelope of seeds. That’s the end of them, I thought, tossing the charred seeds out on the bank. Naturally, every last one sprouted into a vigorous, healthy plant.

How do you know which seed needs what? Read the package, for starters. The information that is crammed onto the back of a seed packet is like having a plant encyclopedia at your fingertips. Planting dates, time until bloom, instructions, special needs—it’s all there, even if you do need a magnifying glass to read it.

When seeds are harvested commercially, they don’t get to experience the natural cycle of the seasons—the cold, the heat, the rain—and they may need to be tricked into growth. Here are three easy techniques that will fool just about any reluctant seed.

Speed sprouting by presoaking seeds

Presoaking is my number one secret for success in starting seeds. This simple procedure exposes the seed embryo to moisture, which is the primary impetus for making it grow. I pour hot tap water into a shallow container, empty a packet of seeds into the water, spread them out, and let them stand for up to 24 hours. Soak the seeds for any longer and they might rot. The seeds swell as water penetrates the seed coat and the embryo inside begins to plump up.

I presoak just about everything except for the tiniest seeds. But I’m always careful not to presoak my seeds until the night before planting them in pots or in the garden. Once the seeds have swollen, get them into moist soil immediately, then keep them wellwatered until they’re up and growing. This simple technique can shave several days off the usual germination time.

The other two techniques that are sometimes needed to break the dormancy of stubborn seeds have names so big that they frighten many gardeners off: stratification and scarification. But these are just fifty-dollar words that describe simple techniques.

Some seeds need moist cold; others need nicking

“Stratification” means supplying a period of moist cold to trick seeds into thinking that they’re experiencing winter. If you’re sowing indoors in spring, presoak the seeds, then place them in a zip-top, plastic, sandwich-size bag filled halfway with moist, seed-starting medium. Top off the seeds with another inch of moist medium, and then put the bag in an undisturbed corner of the refrigerator (at 34°F to 41°F). Check weekly for signs of germination. When the seeds begin to sprout roots, carefully transfer them to pots, fishing each seedling out of the bag with a spoon to keep soil around the new roots and to avoid disturbing delicate new growth. Then, care for them as you would any other seedlings.

Seeds that require cold treatment can also be planted outdoors in fall or stored in a refrigerator through fall and winter, and then, in spring, planted in pots and started indoors or out. For outdoor seed starting in fall or winter, plant the seeds in pots as usual, but spread a thin layer of very fine gravel over the top of each pot so the soil won’t get washed out by rains. Washed, natural- colored (undyed) aquarium gravel works well. Wherever you overwinter the pots—in a cold frame or against the wall of a garage—make a level layer of moist sand. Bury the pots to their rims, keeping them close together. This insulates them from severe cold and prevents them from tipping over and spilling. When seeds germinate, move the pots to a sheltered nursery area.

The third process, “scarification,” means nicking the seed coat with a knife or sandpaper so that life-giving moisture can reach the seed’s embryo. If a seed is big, and I can’t dent it with a fingernail, I give it the knife. A small, sharp, pocketknife blade or a rat-tail file is ideal. Don’t go at it too zealously; you need to remove only a very small slice or section of seed coat. You can also line a jar with a sheet of sandpaper cut to fit, screw on the lid, and shake the jar like a maraca until the seed coats are abraded. Scarify seeds just before planting. Seeds nicked too long before planting may dry out and be worthless when they finally reach the soil.

It’s easy to care for seeds planted in pots

I plant most of my seeds—especially slow-growing perennials and annuals— in pots. It’s easier to care for the seedlings and there’s no weeding. You can identify a slow-starting plant by checking the seed packet. If it advises starting the seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost date, you have a slow starter.

Traditional advice is to plant seeds thickly in a flat or tray, then “prick out” individual seedlings for repotting into larger containers. But I prefer to start just a few seeds in 2-1/4-inch or larger pots, eliminating the need for transplanting altogether. I thin the emerging seedlings with scissors or just plant the whole cluster in the garden.

Soilless mixes help prevent seedling disease

I use a commercial “soilless” seed-starting mix—a blend of milled sphagnum moss, vermiculite, and other sterilized components—so I rarely have trouble with damping-off disease, a fungal problem that causes seedlings to wither and die. To prepare for planting, I pour all but a small portion of the mix into a large bowl and moisten it thoroughly with warm water. Next I fill the containers—plastic pots saved from my periodic nursery buying sprees—to ½ inch below the rim and gently pack the medium to eliminate air pockets. Containers recycled from previous uses should be first sterilized by soaking in a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water.

When the pots are ready, I snip off a corner of the seed packet (or its interior glassine envelope of seeds) and carefully shake three or four seeds into each pot, allowing at least ½ inch between each of them. The tiniest seeds can slide out too quickly so, for better control, I fold a small piece of stiff white paper in half, pour the seeds into the strip, and dole them out by lightly tapping the paper strip. If the seeds are large enough to easily see, I use my fingertip (making sure it’s dry so seeds don’t adhere to it) to push each seed gently against the moist, soilless mix, so it makes good contact. Instead of burying the seeds, I use a sieve to cover them with a thin layer of the reserved seed-starting mix. If the seeds require light to germinate, I don’t cover them at all. I then make a label with the plant’s name and date, and push the marker into the pot so that it doesn’t protrude above the rim.

If I expect the seeds to germinate within a few days or weeks, I cover the pots with a sheet of plastic wrap, glass, or clear plastic to preserve moisture, and check daily. When sprouts appear, I remove the covering. I start a lot of seeds, and don’t worry about providing them with bottom heat to speed germination—I just try to keep things simple. If the seeds are likely to take a long time to germinate—some stratified seeds may spend months in a pot before sprouting—I don’t bother covering them and just take care to keep the soil moist.

Once the pots are planted, I set them on a cookie sheet or other shallow tray for easy transport to a cold frame or other seed-starting area. The trays also make bottom watering easier. It’s important to keep the seed-starting medium moist to speed germination; I use a very fine mist to water the pots from above, or pour water into the tray and let the pots soak it up from the bottom.

Photo/Illustration: Scott Phillips

Young sprouts need light and a little fertilizer

Since seedlings need light, I place trays of pots on south- or east-facing windowsills. I’ve started as many as 800 pots of seedlings in a season, so windowsill space can be gone before all the pots are placed. If that happens, I move to the basement, or anywhere else indoors, and rig shop lights with fluorescent tubes. Some books recommend tubes that emit specific kinds of light, but standard inexpensive fluorescent tubes also work well. To keep the light source close to the seedlings, I mount the lights on chains so they can be easily moved up or down. Seedlings need 12-16 hours of artificial light daily. As for temperatures, room temperatures in the mid-60s are adequate for young seedlings. Warmer temperatures would be fine too. If I’ve sown the seeds in pots outdoors in or out of a cold frame, I don’t worry about providing additional light or fret about the temperature.

After seedlings emerge, I use a watersoluble fertilizer weekly to encourage growth. Fish emulsion or any type of fertilizer will work, but I use Peters or Miracle Gro. If the label doesn’t recommend a strength for seedlings, I mix at the ratio recommended for container plants. If the directions specify “outdoor plants” or “indoor plants,” I follow the recommendations for indoor plants. If there is only a recommendation for outdoor use, I cut the amount of fertilizer in half. For my fertilizers of choice, that is about 1 teaspoon per gallon of water.

Toughen up seedlings, then plant them in the garden

As soon as the seedlings have two or three pairs of true leaves, they’re ready to go out to the garden. But before pampered seedlings go out into the big, wide world, they need toughening up. The aim is to gradually acclimatize plants raised indoors to the rigors of outdoor life. Without this step, known as “hardening off,” tender plant tissues may be damaged by the unaccustomed stresses of sun, wind, and weather.

Begin by moving the seedlings outside to a shady spot protected from the wind and leaving them there for no longer than a couple of hours on the first day. Gradually lengthen their outdoor stays and move the plants into a sunnier spot, if that’s the exposure that they will eventually be planted in. After a week or so, the plants should be ready to go in the ground. A drizzly, gray day is perfect for transplanting—plants will be protected from the desiccating effect of the sun and the moisture will help them settle in quickly. If the weather won’t cooperate, plant late in the afternoon so seedlings get their start in the cool of the evening.

Water your plants well before transplanting them, and water the garden soil until it’s well-moistened but not sopping wet. Slide the plants out of their pots and into place, firm the soil around each with your fingers, and water with a fine mist. Be sure to keep the soil moist until the plants start growing well.

Make a seedbed for sowing seeds in the garden

Most annuals, and perennials that bloom the first year from seed, are easy to grow from seed sown in place in the garden. They sprout fast and grow quickly, so that you don’t have to spend much time separating husky weed seedlings from puny flower seedlings. If plants can’t hold their own until I get around to pulling weeds, I plant them in pots.

Once you’ve chosen a spot that suits the plant’s needs, clear away any existing vegetation and loosen the soil to at least one shovel’s depth. Spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter—such as compost or aged manure—atop the loosened soil, then work it in thoroughly with a hoe so that the soil texture is light and moisture-retentive. Rake the surface to a fine texture, breaking up any lumps with your hand. If you are planting annuals or biennials among existing plants in a perennial garden, use hand tools to prepare a small seedbed that won’t disturb the roots of neighboring plants.

Scatter seeds directly onto the prepared soil. Be sparing: try to space small seeds at least 14 inch apart, and larger seeds, like purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), ½ to 1 inch apart. Then, rake a thin layer of soil over the seedbed. In tight spaces, just scatter a few handfuls of fine soil over the seeds. Use weather-proof labels to mark the seedbeds. Lastly, water with a fine mist. It’s vital to keep the soil moist while the seeds germinate and until the seedlings are established.

Many seeds are simple to grow. Scratch up a patch of open soil, scatter the seeds, and there you go. But other seeds will do best under more controlled conditions, or with special treatment that mimics the conditions of their native habitats.

How To Germinate Seeds 3X Faster ( & What NOT to Do)

January 15, 2021

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This is our FAVORITE method to germinate seeds quickly. As passionate gardeners, we have been using it to start seeds for over 10 years! It works great for all herbs, flowers, and vegetables seeds.

For most types of seeds, this is our go-to gardening secret! 🙂 Germinating seeds in 1/3 time with 3X more success, yes, you have to try this!

In this article, we will look at when and how to use this seed germination method. Comparison of two methods: germinating seeds on paper towel vs. germinating seeds in soil, plus some helpful tips we have learned along the way, and readers questions at the end!

Definitely check out the tips, because there is one thing that you should NOT copy what the nurseries do!

And feel free to download this pretty (and free ) printable planting calendar when you start the seeds! =)

Or make this seed storage box from cardboard boxes! ( Some of the helpful resources are affiliate links. Full disclosure here. )

Our favorite method to germinate seeds super fast with much more success.

We discovered this method to start seeds from an older book- Planning The Organic Vegetable Garden. It made such a huge difference , we just LOVE it and have been using it every year for the last 10+ years! This method is called pre sprouting, or pre germinate in the book.

Step one: germinate seeds on paper towel

All you need is a plastic or glass container with a tight lid. Clear ones will make it easier to see through, but not required as the seeds don’t need light to send out roots.

Put a piece of paper towel or white paper on the bottom of the container, add water till the paper towel is thoroughly moist, but no puddles of water.

Sprinkle seeds in groups on the damp paper towel, close the lid, and make a note to yourself what type of seeds are where, especially when you have seeds that look identical, for example- broccoli, kale and cauliflower.

Place the container with seeds out of direct sun.

This is very important, because a closed container can get super hot, and all the germinating seeds would die from the heat.

Start checking on them the next day. If the seeds are really fresh, some will germinate in as little as 1 day! The fastest germinating seeds include everything in the cabbage family – bok choi, broccoli, kale, cauliflower etc, and lettuce.

The slowest seeds to germinate are pepper, eggplant, fennel, celery, which may take 5+ days. The rest such as tomato, beets, chard, squash, onions, will take about 3 days.

Step 2: Plant germinated seeds in pots

It is important to have pots and soil ready to go.

As soon as you see roots coming out, plant them right away. If the roots get too long, it will be hard to separate the roots from the paper towel. If that happens, just plant the paper towel!

It may seem hard to pick up a tiny seed, but it really is quite easy. you can use a tooth pick, or just your fingers, which is what I do.

Plant them at a depth of 1-2 seeds size ( shallow depth for small seeds, deeper for bigger seeds) , and gently mist them daily for the first week.

We also like to put the pots in saucers and fill the bottom with water till the soil in each pot is saturated, then empty the saucer. It will take a couple of days for the little green leaves to pop out. Now they will need full sun to grow strong and healthy! Below is an extreme example of how much we love this method! =)

If you try these DIY / decor / garden / craft projects, tag us on Instagram at @apieceofrainbow, we would love to see what you create!

Comparison of germinating seed on paper towel method with germinating seeds in soil.

Here’s how to plant seeds in soil, which is what most people do:

In a pot filled with soil, sprinkle some seed, add a thin layer of soil, water thoroughly. And wait.

Sounds familiar? Once you try the paper towel method to start seeds, you will rarely go back to the soil method. Here’s why.

Pros of germinating seed on paper towel:

  1. Great success rate: Have you ever scatter a whole packet of 300 seeds, just to have 3 plants survive? The reason is soil tend to dry out, while the paper towel maintains consistent moisture level. When we germinate seeds on paper towel, we sow 12 seeds if we want 10 broccoli plants, because almost all of them will germinate and grow. When we get fresh seeds from a good seed company, the germination rate is almost 100%!
  2. Test old or new seeds: If you have seeds that are a few years old, germinating seeds on paper towel is a great way to quickly test if they are still alive. We have been able to grow healthy plants from cabbage or tomato seeds that are over 5 years old! If you store seeds in a cool and dry place, some can have quite a long life. We also use this technique to find out if the new seeds we got are good quality.
  3. Faster germination: For example, cabbage seeds take 1-2 days to germinate on paper towel and another 2 days to leaf out, while it can take 2-3 times longer if sown directly in the soil.

Cons of germinating seed on paper towel:

There is one extra step of planting the germinated seed in soil. So if you want to plant a whole field of flowers or vegetables, this method will not be practical.

Now you see the pros and cons, it is very easy to see which method is better for the home gardener!

FAQ and helpful tips we have learned:

90% of the time we use this method to germinate seeds, but we sometimes direct sow seeds that grow super easily and super fast, or less attractive to pests, such as arugula, radishes, or carrots.

Although you see seedlings grown in six-packs at nurseries, I think it’s a fantasy because those plants were grown in perfect greenhouse conditions with daily fertilizers.

It’s very hard to grow seedlings to that big in a six-pack for home gardeners. We prefer to grow them in 4 inch pots like these, or a long deep planter like in the above image. This allows the seedling to grow quicker and bigger before being transplanted, so they don’t disappear with one bug bite!

Have pots and soil ready! Because the seeds could germinate in as little as one day! If your seeds grow into the paper towel, yes, you can plant the paper towel.

For the first 1-2 weeks after planting them in pots, mist the seedlings or gently water them, and keep the soil moist. They are fragile and can fall over easily!

Our favorite seed companies are Baker Creek Seeds, and Everwilde Farms both are started and ran by some great passionate people! Just look at that gorgeous green corn from Baker Creek, irresistible!

If you try these DIY / decor / garden / craft projects, tag us on Instagram at @apieceofrainbow, we would love to see what you create!

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Wish you a beautiful and bountiful garden this spring!

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Reader Interactions

Comments

Wow! This is a really in depth blog post! I had no previous knowledge of seeds, so this is very helpful!

if you use a weak tea solution, (dilluted unsweetened tea) it provides a boost to starting seeds as well combined with this method.

Please can’t understand chart that says just to show how much we love ABC stands for what and 123 stands for what.. Thanks for you in advance for your reply

The chart you referred to is the one with seeds? I think that’s just a way of remembering which seeds are where. You can make your own grid then keep track of what you put in each part of the grid. EXAMPLE: A5 is where you put the tomato seed, c7 is where the cucumbers are.

Ananda – this is AWESOME information!! Wish I’d known this years ago since I grow all my veggies from seed. THANK YOU!!

with your GREEN thumb yours will start in 1 hour i bet! =)

This is really cool! I will have to add some planters to my balcony this season!

I wish I had a green thumb and was able to do this!

Kyla Currier, you don’t need a green thumb to have a garden. I don’t have one, my husband did, but we divorced 25 years ago. I learned some essential things from him, that are necessary to having a nice garden. Through trial and error of leaving out the essentials, I have wasted quite a few growing seasons!
If you follow these few simple absolute musts, you will be suprised at how simple growing a garden is:
1.The Seeds: Germinate just like this article explains. Super simple and reliable. Follow package directions for sunliight. (Full sun, or partial,for less- 2. The Soil: And this is crucial. It must be turned over, either by digging, or tilling. First year is there hardest, subsequent years are a matter if turning over with shovel, but 1 St time garden, the rocks need to be picked out , and the clumps of dirt broken up. 3. Also crucial: FERTILIZER… Depends on your soul, but basically, if you can just put some manure on/in (usually your local cow/horse farm will gladly let you take some out of his stalls, take your shovel! free of charge. Dump it on, shovel it under, evenly. Ideally, this should be done in the fall, after your last hardest, so it can break down over the winter, and not risk burning, or over fertilizing. Although I have had to put in in in Spring, just before planting, and I just made sure to use about 1/4 the amount, and get the OLDEST Pooh in the field/barnyard. And my plants loved it. Just make sure to evenly distribute. 4. Water: Make sure to check your soil daily, to make sure it is moist, (if not, water with hose — never during mid day heat), continue to check daily, in the evening or late afternoon until you get accustomed to how your particular soil drains/maintains moisture., due to your climate and rainfall. Be creative, you don’t always have to stand there and hold the house. If soil gets dry, plants WILL wilt and quickly die, also, continued dry soil will effect produce production. Mist plants in the eve, or morn, they will love you! 5. Lastly, everyone’s favorite part of gardening…WEEDING. Pull weeds between rows after watering (roots pull out easily). Stay on top of it, avoid plant killers, it’s poison you will end up consuming. Weeding is necessary to allow sunlight to get to the entire plant. AND, the VEGGIES will get all the watering, instead of the weeds. Same with nutition from your soil. AND THATS IT!! I’m confident if you follow these few simple rules, you will have tastier, healthier food, for a healthier you. Keep in mind kids LOVE learning, and being helpful. Andy if you want to start extra small, you can try some tomato plants in 5 gallon buckets, on your porch. Like I said,cI DO NOT have a green thumb. I don’t even have any house plants, because they tend to die every winter. But girl, I can grow tomatoes, cukes, and squash and zukes as good as anyone, and miles better than the grocery store has to offer. It’s prob not too late if you get in in THIS week!! HURRY. You’ll be so glad you did, And it is so rewarding, and good for the soul to get DOWN TO EARTH. ☀️🌱😊

thank you so much Ronni for sharing so many great gardening tips! 🙂

thank you for providing this in depth description and response of what to look for when begginning techniques outlined in the article. you rock!!

What an awesome idea! I had a tiny garden last year that I adored, but we’ve since moved to a place where I can have a garden about eight times the size of my former one. I’m SO excited to get started, and I’ll definitely use this method!

wow that’s awesome!! wish you a great garden natalie!!

Wonderful post! I have not tried planting from seeds yet but I will this come Spring. In the past I have grown roots from stems and that proved to be gratifying. Your advice will surely come in handy when I have a try at planting seeds 🙂

i am sure your garden will be so lovely cara!!

I have ALWAYS wanted to have a small garden, but have not yet taken the plunge! Maybe this year will be the year!

This takes me back to school when we used to grow seeds on kitchen roll! This is such a helpful and insightful post 🙂

i love the name “kitchen roll”!! xx

Great advice. In my case, it seems like it takes ages for them to grow.

I absolutely love this method – it looks like a great way to be more successful than I have with seeds in the past. Not only that, but I do have some old seeds that I’d love to try this on!

i can just imagine how yummy your garden to table dishes are!! xo

What a brilliant tip! I love how easy it is to get through your seeds this way- I definitely have a few packs where I’m not sure they’ll ever grow. 🙂

Oh I love this I’m such a green thumb and absolutely love these tips Thankyou
Rosie
http://www.rosedogandco.blogspot.com.au

No way. I’ve never thought to do this but I definitely am going to now. I love gardening but really dont like the sowing gamble. lol. Planting 300 and only getting 3. Thanks for sharing!

thank you erin! wish you a bountiful garden!! xx

What a good idea! I don’t have a green thumb at all, but I really like these tips, it makes me want to retry this whole plant growing thing! (:

hope you will! it’s really rewarding! =)

This is GENIUS! I can’t wait to try it out!

I taught 4th grade for many years and this was the method I used to pre-sprout. Great post!

kids always know the best ways to do things! =)

Oh my gosh, this is genius! Pinning this so I don’t forget this amazing trick! Thanks for sharing!

wish you a great garden kelly!!

oh wow this is so cool, I am not much of a gardener so this looks interesting to me

Such an awesome trick! I used to plant a garden every summer growing up!

This looks like so much fun! Definitely want to start my own garden now!

Germinate seeds 3X faster with more success in 1 day! Best secret to plant herbs, flowers, & vegetables from seeds. Our favorite fail-proof gardening tips!