Seed germination is one of the fundamentals of gardening, but while it might be a basic element, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. If you’ve ever planted seeds with the hopes of seeing them thrive in a few weeks only to be disappointed, then you know how difficult it can be.
Seed germination is the process by which a plant emerges from its seed, shell, or husk. For this to occur, certain conditions must be met. As a vegetable gardener, I’m typically most worried about providing moisture, a hospitable temperature, and a suitable environment from which germination can occur.
Over time, through habit and close observation, you’ll get a feel for what seeds need. Until then, this guide includes our best tips and tricks for getting seeds to sprout and the 7 mistakes you might be making that could be holding your garden back.
The Basics of Seed Germination
Different seeds have different needs. When you start out, it may seem complicated and confusing. How can you remember that tomato seeds require warmth to sprout? Are you ever going to get those finicky asparagus seeds to grow?
Just as you’ll nurture and keep close tabs on your plants, your seeds need to be cared for just as carefully. With experience, you’ll learn the quirks and pick up the knowledge to help you succeed.
Gardeners have the option of starting seeds indoor or direct-sowing outdoors. Your choice depends on a few factors. Some plants don’t enjoy the transplanting process so should be direct seeded right where they’ll remain (carrots, beets, peas, etc.).
You may not be able to direct-seed certain plants, though, if you live in a climate like mine. I need to start tomatoes early, for example, because otherwise, they’d never mature quickly enough before the first frost. That said, when attempting to germinate seeds outdoors, there are plenty of ways for things to go wrong. You have less control over the outcome.
As a beginner, if you’re worried about successfully germinating seeds, opt for starting your plants indoors. That way you can control the environment, adjust moisture levels, and much more. Once you have more experience you can tackle outdoor seed germination.
Seed Germination Requirements
So what are the requirements for successful seed germination? While there are some exceptions, seeds need the following to sprout:
- Proper air flow and access to oxygen.
- The right amount of moisture.
- Correct light levels – some seeds require light to germinate, but many don’t and in some cases light can prevent germination.
- Correct temperature.
There are lots of methods for seed germination, and you can experimentto see which works best for you. Different ways involve using a paper towel, rock wool, water or soil as a medium to sprout seeds. We’ll cover the soil method because that’s the most common and it makes it easier to transplant your sprouts when you are ready.
Start with clean, fresh soil. You don’t want to use earth from your garden or re-use potting soil because it can contain things that will kill your seeds. Place the dirt into your chosen containers. You can use disposable containers made just for sprouting seeds, or you can re-use existing containers, but be sure to scrub them clean before putting the soil in.
Poke a hole with your finger into the soil. Check the seed packet or an online guide for the right depth. Cover the seed with soil.
Moisten the soil with a spray bottle. You can also drizzle water into the container, but just be sure not to add too much or the seeds can float or shift around.
Cover the container with plastic wrap, glass or clear plastic to hold the moisture in. Check moisture levels each day to be sure the soil stays moist but not wet.
Seeds that are Easy to Germinate
Assuming you’re meeting all the right conditions, here are some easy seeds for practicing the basics of seed germination.
- Beans(There’s a reason beans are so often used in elementary classroom school experiments! They sprout quickly and without much fuss)
Another bonus is that all the above plants are easy to care for post-sprouting, too.
Seeds that are Difficult to Germinate
Oh boy, how I love to eat asparagus, but germinating this vegetable from seed is more than a little tricky. It’s why it’s a lot easier to purchase crowns. Just because a seed is taking it’s sweet time doesn’t mean all hope is lost, though. Here are a few vegetable seeds that require a little bit more attention or take more time to germinate:
- Many herbs
The above seeds take a long time to sprout, especially if certain conditions aren’t met. In my experience, these are the most stubborn veggies.
Know Your Seed’s Special Requirements
Knowing the basics helps, but even if you do everything as you should, your seeds still might not sprout. That’s why it’s important to know what your specific seeds need.Some plant seeds require special treatment, and they won’t grow reliably unless those conditions are met.
Certain seeds are covered in a tough coating or shell that makes it harder for moisture to penetrate. Gentle nicking that layer is key to enabling germination. The process is called scarification.
These plants include:
- Morning Glory
- Moon Flowers
- Some peas
Other seeds require exposure to freezing temps before germination can occur. The process, known as stratification, may require a visit to the fridge or freezer.
These plants include:
- Anise hyssop
- Black-eye Susan
- Butterfly Weed
Other plants need to be boiled before planting.
- New Jersey Tea
Then there are plants that need to be kept humid with a change in temperature. For instance, some seeds need to be kept warm and moist, followed by a period of being cool and moist, or the other way around. This simulates natural conditions and tricks the seeds into sprouting.
These plants include:
- Canada anemone
While most seeds don’t need light to sprout, some do.
Regardless of what you are planting, be sure to check the seed requirements.
When addressing a particular how-to topic, I prefer to focus on the potential problems you might encounter than throw out a comprehensive list of ‘must do’s’ and ‘facts.’
The truth is, I’ve learned so much from my mistakes as a gardener and being aware of potential problems is a helpful way to avoid them, but making mistakes is also part of the hobby. You can know all the right things to do something and still run into trouble.
Below are some of the most common problems people have with seed germination and how to avoid them.
1. Incorrect Moisture Levels
There’s some debate about what the ideal way to moisten the soil is when germinating seeds. People have their own personal preference. Should you water from above or below?
Keep in mind that I’m taking about germinating seed and not caring for a seedling. The goal is to moisten the seed, and either method can get you there. Too dry, though, and you’ll end up with poor seed germination results.
While some seeds may vary, the basic idea is that you want to keep the soil moist but not boggy until your seedlings sprout. You can do this by misting your seeds after planting and then covering them with plexiglass or plastic wrap. Keep an eye on the soil and don’t let it dry out.
2. Wrong Temperature
Seeds don’t always require warmth. Temperature requirements vary a lot. Unfortunately, there seems to be a common misconception that all seeds need to be coaxed to life by a heat mat or by the warmth of the sun. That’s not the case.
Different seeds germinate at different temperatures. I use heat mats to help sprout my eggplants and tomatoes, but lettuce seed prefers to grow in cooler soil.
An online chart that lists ideal soil temperatures is mighty handy. Find one, print it and paste it into your gardening notebook for future reference.
Exposing them to the wrong temperatures, however, doesn’t always mean you won’t succeed with seed germination. It’s likely that the process will take longer, though.
3. Old Seeds
Keeping seeds fresh is critical to ensure successful seed germination. Stale seeds won’t have a high sprout rate, which is the ratio comparing germinated and un-germinated seeds. This could be because of inadequate storage methods or because you purchased old seeds.
It’s also possible that the collected seeds were not viable, to begin with. It happens. If you’re consistently experiencing poor germination rates, look at your own seed saving and storing methods. Otherwise, consider choosing another seed supplier.
4. Finicky Seeds
Not taking into consideration the individual needs of different plant seeds will lead you down a road of disappointment. Be aware of the unique needs of the plants you’re trying to grow.
Most packets feature information about the length of time a seed will take to germinate. Remember that the listed time frame accounts for ideal or near-ideal conditions.
5. Special Light Requirements
Most seeds don’t require exposure to light to germinate. I bet you’re surprised by that. So what’s with all the heat lamps and special light fixtures being marketed to gardeners?
Those tools are meant for your seedlings. Once your seed has germinated, it will require light to grow, but in most cases, darkness is what’s preferred beforehand.
Check your seeds light requirements so you can be sure they are getting what they need.
6. Disappearing Seeds
Have you ever sown seeds in your outdoor garden only to come back a few days later and find a fraction of them germinating?
It could be you’ve got stale seeds on your hands or unfavorable conditions, but the more likely culprit is a hungry animal gobbling up your meticulously planted seeds.
It’s one of the reasons I prefer starting most plants indoors, even some of the tougher to transplant ones. I have too many critters around who are eager to munch on seeds or seedlings.
Depending on what you are dealing with, there are many different ways to keep hungry animals at bay.
7. Wrong Depth
There’s a reason a seed packet has instructions, but it’s oh so easy to completely ignore the guidelines, isn’t it?
We take so much time to properly space plants so that they have enough breathing room, but gardeners often ignore planting depth.
Not good with measurements? Lost your seed packet? The size of the seed is a good indicator of how deep to plant it.
Small seeds like lettuce do better if you sow them shallowly. A big seed like that from a squash will do better planted a little deeper. The rule of thumb is to plant 3 times the depth of the seed. A 1-inch seed should be planted 3-inches deep.
Tips and Tricks
I’ve spent a lot of time working out how to make my seeds thrive. Below is a list of my best tricks, so you don’t have to spend your time making the same mistakes I did.
Store seeds properly!
Don’t skimp on this. A packet of seeds for a home gardener can last more than one season if properly stored. Don’t just throw half-open packets into a bin and call it a day.
Seed packets have handy expiry dates to let you know when they’re past their prime. But keeping seeds storedappropriately is the best way to keep them fresher for longer.
Follow the same rules as you would for medications. Store in a cool, dry place, away from the sun. Old pill bottles or small jars are useful containers for seed.
Not sure if that old packet of seeds is still good? Perform a freshness test. This is also a useful way to sprout seeds with lengthier germination times so they can be direct sown at a 100% success rate (unless animals get to them).
Get out a single sheet of paper towel and wet it, so the towel absorbs moisture but isn’t sopping wet and crumbling. Place your seeds onto the paper towel and gently place it into a ziplock bag.
Write the date with a sharpie and keep an eye on the progress. After the expected length of time check to see how many seeds sprouted versus those that did not emerge.
If most of the seeds haven’t sprouted, your batch of seeds probably isn’t worth keeping around.
Use the right soil mix
Seeds may germinate quickly, but there’s nothing more discouraging than heading to check on them and finding your little infant plants all dead because of disease. Using a sterile, high-quality starter mix is essential to avoid spreading of fungal and bacterial diseases.
I’m a big believer that all gardeners should carry around and use a notebook at all times. Get that thing dirty, write in it until it’s tattered, but don’t forget to write everything down. Especially when you’re in the seed germination process. Keep tabs on all the variables, and from one year to the next you’ll learn from your scrawlings and be better able to adapt your methods and planting choices.
Now that you have the basics, it’s time to get going with your own seedlings. Be sure to share your own tricks and mistakes as you experiment with seed germination in the comments below.
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- General Information.
- Temperature and Light.
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One easy way to make seeds germinate faster is to presoak them for 24 hours in a shallow container filled with hot tap water. Water will penetrate the seed coat and cause the embryos inside to plump up. Don't soak them for longer than 24 hours because they could rot. Plant the seeds immediately in moist soil.What are the 5 conditions of germination? ›
All seeds need water, oxygen, and proper temperature in order to germinate. Some seeds require proper light also. Some germinate better in full light while others require darkness to germinate. When a seed is exposed to the proper conditions, water and oxygen are taken in through the seed coat.What 4 things are needed for seed germination? ›
Temperature, moisture, air, and light conditions must be correct for seeds to germinate.What are the 3 main things that a seed needs in order to germinate? ›
The Right Environment to Germinate
Seeds need the proper temperature, moisture, air, and light conditions to germinate.
There are four environmental factors that affect seed germination: Water, Light, Oxygen, and Heat.What can hurt germination? ›
Too little nutrients can stunt growth, too much nutrition can damage the roots and prevent the seedling from taking in water. Low temperatures. Most seeds like a soil temperature of around 65°-75°. Excessive moisture and overwatering.What makes seedlings grow faster? ›
Inorganic fertilizers provide immediate nutrients to plants and help them grow faster. Organic fertilizers take longer to release in the soil, but they create a healthier soil over time. If your goal is to take an existing plant and make it grow faster, then use inorganic fertilizer.Should you cover seeds when germinating? ›
To speed germination, cover the pots with plastic wrap or a plastic dome that fits over the seed-starting tray. This helps keep the seeds moist before they germinate. When you see the first signs of green, remove the cover.
Seedlings tend to need a fertilizer that's high in phosphorous. Phosphorus stimulates root development and is a component of photosynthesis. Look for a 1-2-1 N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) ratio on the fertilizer label.What is the best way to start seeds? ›
Damp paper towels, napkins and coffee filters can all be used to germinate seeds, or even test if seeds are viable—just place seeds on a damp paper towel, place in a plastic bag and store in a cool, dark place to encourage rapid growth. Once the seedlings sprout, transfer them into loose potting soil.What are the 7 parts of a seed? ›
Step 1: Imbibition: water fills the seed. Step 2: The water activates enzymes that begin the plant's growth. Step 3: The seed grows a root to access water underground. Step 4: The seed grows shoots that grow towards the sun. Step 5: The shoots grow leaves and begin photmorphogenesis.How often do you water germinating seeds? ›
Until seeds have sprouted, keep the seed bed moist, never allowing it to dry out. Water with a fine-spray hose nozzle or watering can which will provide a fine misty spray and not wash away the soil. Water often enough (usually about once a day) so that the soil surface never dries out, but remains constantly moist.What causes a seed not to grow? ›
Too much or too little water is the most likely reason for seeds not germinating. With too little or no water, seeds remain dormant. With too much water, seeds become susceptible to rot or infection from soil-borne fungi (also referred to as "dampening off").Why do seeds germinate faster in the dark? ›
The presence of light tends to inhibit their growth. The light decomposes carbonic acid gas and expels oxygen which leads the seed to harden. These gases are key factors that promote germination. In dark environments, the gases remain undisturbed and germination is favoured.Should you water seeds every day? ›
Do you water seeds every day? Yes, seeds normally need to be watered at least once per day to keep the soil moist, not permitting it to dry out. In especially warm climates (or depending on your soil or garden setup), you may need to water more than once per day.What temperature kills germination? ›
You can quickly kill seeds and harmful micro-organisms in soil using your kitchen oven. Heating your soil to temperatures between 180 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit will kill any seed in the soil after 30 minutes.What is usually not needed in germination? ›
Factors such as oxygen, water and temperature are required for seed germination, but the light is not an essential factor amongst other factors.
Baking soda on its own can't be used to fertilize plants, but you can use it with other products to make a good replacement for Miracle Gro garden fertilizer. Just combine 1 tablespoon of epsom salt with a teaspoon of baking soda and a half teaspoon of household ammonia.What does Epsom salt do for plants? ›
Epsom salt – actually magnesium sulfate – helps seeds germinate, makes plants grow bushier, produces more flowers, increases chlorophyll production and deters pests, such as slugs and voles. It also provides vital nutrients to supplement your regular fertilizer.Is baking soda good for your plants? ›
Baking soda helps the plants become less acidic and prevents fungal growth.What liquid helps seeds to grow? ›
The results of our experiment indicate that plain water is the best growing liquid for seeds. However, seeds may also grow in sugar water.What seed can grow in 3 days? ›
Chives. Chives are a great herb to grow on your kitchen counter! They come up very quickly—it'll only take 2-3 days for chives to sprout. Additionally, they are quite happy at room temperature, just place it near a sunny window.Should you wet seeds before planting? ›
As a general rule of thumb, your seeds will sprout even if you don't soak your seeds before planting, but with soaking the germination time decreases, and the germination rate increases. Seeds that have a continual flow of moisture to uptake have much higher chances of success.Is it better to germinate seeds in soil or paper towel? ›
Many seeds germinate much quicker in paper towels (versus seeds that are started in soil). The heat, moisture, and controlled conditions inside a plastic baggie help them germinate in only a few days (or less, depending on the seed).Should you water before or after seeding? ›
Before you cast out new grass seed, it's important to start with watering. Nature designed seeds to respond to moisture, so it makes perfect sense that watering grass seed properly is imperative to kick-start the germination process that results in healthy growth.Can you use Miracle Grow on seedlings? ›
Once your seedlings are nestled gently into the soil, you'll need to water and feed them. Add Miracle-Gro® Quick Start® Planting & Transplant Starting Solution to your watering can, and again a week later, with regular watering in between.What helps seedlings grow healthy? ›
Keep your soil moist, but try to avoid soaking it. As your plants' root systems develop, they will take up more water each day. Your potting mixture will also determine how well water drains from your system. Overwatering can also create soil conditions where small insects like fungus gnats thrive.
You won't have to water after they are planted, preventing seed movement. Create a mini greenhouse by covering the seed tray with a plastic tray or plastic wrap. This will keep the moisture and warmth inside, and you shouldn't have to water again till after the seeds have germinated.What are some factors can cause poor germination? ›
Abiotic factors such as drought, light, salinity, seed burial depth, soil pH, and temperature as well as disturbance events such as a fire, flooding or tillage can play an important role in initiating or inhibiting seed germination [3–4].What are the 4 conditions required for germination? ›
Temperature, moisture, air, and light conditions must be correct for seeds to germinate.What causes poor germination? ›
Causes of poor seed germination are most generally from either poor seed to soil contact or dry soil conditions.