Growing vegetable plants from seed can save you lots of money IF your seed sowing is successful.
Do you really want to sow seeds in the ground or in a container with no “game plan,” while you pray that your seeds will germinate?
I’m not down for that.
I did that for years and I’m okay rolling the dice for some vegetables like beets and carrots, but for some of those coveted tomato, pepper and gourmet herbs, I want to stack the dice in my favor!
Understanding the fundamentals of what causes a seed to germinate and begin its life as a plant can shift the control somewhat into your hands instead of relying on luck.
Let’s begin with some basic seed 101 facts that will help inform you why some seeds need your help germinating before you plant them!
SEEDS ARE NOT STUPID!
Inside every shriveled, humble, unassuming seed is a sophisticated brain that oversees and governs its DNA: it’s plant destiny!
There is a dormant, slumbering plant embryo within the walls of that hardened fleck that springs to life when water penetrates the shell.
This phase of seed life is called “imbibition,” or “to drink up water.”
Water is the catalyst that activates dry embryonic plant cells to wake up and start growing.
Isn’t that exciting!
Chinese red long beans hanging in Foodie Gardener Shirley Bovshow’s patio.
Hard-coated seeds, like the seeds of my favorite, the red Chinese long bean, have a low germination rate because water infiltration can be difficult.
Fortunately, there are some things that savvy foodie gardeners can do to help coax difficult to grow seeds to life!
I presented the following “pre-germination” tips on the Home & Family show recently on the Hallmark channel.
Don’t overlook the fact that you have to begin with good quality seeds that have a high germination rate.
I’m a fan of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and sought them out and asked them to supply their seeds for my garden segment.
Please visit their website and order a copy of their gorgeous, eye-candy seed catalog!
By the way, the Home & Family show has a drawing for a dozen seeds from Baker Creek on their Facebook page, but it’s time sensitive!
If you are reading this blog post on the posting date, please visit the H & F Facebook page and leave a comment to enter.
Please visit and “Like” the Baker Creek Seed Facebook page as well!
PRE-GERMINATE SEEDS IN A WET PAPER TOWEL
Do you remember germinating or sprouting Lima bean seeds in a wet paper towel in elementary school?
This was one of the science projects in my and my kids’ kindergarten classes back in the day.
Lima bean seeds were the perfect specimens because you could actually open them and see the dormant embryo plant inside.
Pre-germinating seeds in a wet paper towel is effective for a number of seeds including
Keep in mind that you must plant your pre-germinated seeds immediately.
Don’t let them linger in the paper towel after sprouting or they will start to decay.
Those of you who live in cold climate areas should plan on starting your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected winter frost to get a jump start on your short growing season.
PRE-GERMINATING TOMATO SEEDS IN WET PAPER TOWEL
Depending on the variety of tomato seed, a tomato seed can sprout in a wet paper towel within 24 to 48 hours.
Scatter the seeds so that they aren’t touching (like mine above)!
This will make it easier to extract the seeds from the paper towel without taking a second seed with you.
Fold the wet paper towel with the seeds inside and place in a plastic bag.
No need to seal the bag; the seeds need air to circulate.
Place the bag on top of a seed heating mat or warm appliance.
68 to 75 degrees is ideal.
Tomato seeds should sprout within 24-48 hours.
Most of my tomato seeds have sprouted.
Each of the sprouted seeds represents a viable, living plant.
If I care for them properly, I can be guaranteed that each of them will grow into a tomato plant!
No luck involved.
Be gentle handling the sprouts when planting as they are fragile and the sprout can break off.
I’m going to plant them in small grow pots and baby them for a bit indoors.
Since I live and design gardens in sunny, Southern California, I have an advantage of being able to grow outdoors in early spring.
Try pre-germinating cucumber, squash, okra and carrot seeds with the wet paper towel technique.
PRE-GERMINATE SEEDS BY SOAKING IN WATER
Another germination technique for the Foodie Gardener is to soak hard-coated, shriveled seeds in water for 24 hours before planting.
Except for extremely hard coated seeds like morning glory and canna lily, be careful not to soak your seeds more than 24 hours.
You should see small little tails growing from your seeds after 24 hours.
PRE-GERMINATING PEAS BY SOAKING IN WATER 24-HOURS
Pre-germinate or sprout your pea seeds by soaking them in water for 24 hours.
If you don’t see sprout tails on your pea after 24 hours, remove from water and use the wet towel technique.
If the pea seed is viable, it WILL sprout!
Soak beans and other legumes and most other seeds except for tiny seeds that will become even more difficult to handle.
PRE-GERMINATE SEEDS BY SCARIFICATION
Don’t let the fancy word “scarification” intimidate you.
All it means is to scrape or nick a small part of the outer seed shell so that water can enter.
This is for seeds that you have to get “rough” with like the canna lily and morning glory seeds I mentioned in the soaking section.
Take caution in not cutting too deeply into the endosperm or inner seed area.
Just flake off the superficial top layer.
My red Chinese long beans were scarified by cutting a small spot on the seed coat with nail clippers.
Afterwards, I soaked for them for 24 hours.
The long beans swelled and doubled their size and sprouted beautifully.
Another way to scarify a hard seed is to scrape it on corse sandpaper.
I scraped canna lily seeds on the show during my presentation.
Follow the scarifying technique with soaking seeds in water for 24 hours.
Not too difficult, right?
Scarification is for the most hard-shelled seeds and should be followed up with soaking in water.
PRE-GERMINATE SEEDS BY COLD STRATIFICATION
Another fancy word!
“Stratification” is a pre-germination technique that involves subjecting your seeds to a fake “thaw and freeze” period to simulate the temperature changes that some seeds have adapted before germinating.
Now we are trying to fool nature by refrigerating seeds that require a cold period followed by warmer period.
I subjected the herb Soapwart to cold stratification by sprinkling the seed on moist horticultural sand, covering it and placing it in the refrigerator. This is the “freeze” part.
You could also sprinkle seeds on moist coir or sphagnum moss.
Don’t place your seeds in the freezer!
The refrigerator is ideal.
This particular plant will stay in the refrigerator for one month, then be taken out and placed in a cool room (58-65 degrees) for one week. This is the “thaw” part.
After the week, it will be placed back in the refrigerator (make sure sand is always moist). Continue alternating places (one month in the fridge, one week in a cool room) until the seed sprouts.
For many plants, cold stratification may take up to 3 months.
This is when your Foodie Gardener patience will be challenged.
Wildflowers and specific native plants may need to be cold stratified.
Foodie Gardener Shirley Bovshow discusses seed germinating on Home & Family show with Mark Steines and Cristina Ferrare.
The most important practice is to research information about your seeds, especially varieties that you have never sown or varieties that are known to have low germination rates.
It is comforting to know that these techniques are known to be effective in pre-germinating seeds with a reputation for being difficult!
Do you have any questions for the Foodie Gardener?
Thanks for visiting.
Your edible garden designer and Foodie Gardener,