Growing crops, or any plant really, often begins with germinating seeds. Occasionally, we get a head start with plants that can be reproduced with cuttings or other propagation techniques, but by and large, it’s seed to soil that starts the garden. This can sometimes be a little frustrating, as seeds can be finicky and unwilling to cooperate. In other words, any advantage we can grab for germinating seeds is an obvious plus, so hopefully the following few tips can up success rates.
Seeds, too, have individual characteristics all their own. Some like to be barely underneath the soil, others buried two inches deep, and some simply sprout right out of the fruit they are in. Particular types of seeds should be sanded, or passed through a bird’s digestive track, or put in the fridge for a while. In short, though they are the capsules of vegetative life, how we handle seeds can’t exactly be capsulized. However, there are some general practices that can likely help with germination, and again, knowing what these techniques are might just improve production.
Acquiring quality seeds is crucial.
Sustainable agricultural practices more or less dictate that producing our own seeds is in our best interest. For one, it financially makes sense: Seeds are expensive to buy year after year, but they are free to produce. But, quality also plays a major role because, if seeds haven’t been produced or stored well, then their rates of germinating successfully fall dramatically. When we buy seeds in stores, we often have little knowledge of how those seeds were acquired or treated thereafter. So, start by looking for sources you trust and then look to produce your own when possible.
Perhaps it’s best to find a nearby friend or local farmer who produces his or her own seeds successfully. In this case, it will hopefully mean that the seeds of this particular plant are also acclimated to the climate you are in. Otherwise, go for reputable heirlooms to avoid GMOs and such.
Seeds must be stored properly.
Storage is a major part of keeping seeds viable. Most—not all, but most—work best when kept dry, inside and out, so they should be kept in water-tight containers to prevent moisture in the air from interfering. As well, stored seeds prefer a slight chill to heat, which stimulates growth of them or microorganisms. Exposure to gases, particularly carbon dioxide, can be harmful, and one of the leading ways this problem occurs is when microorganism like fungi and bacteria infiltrate seed stocks. Luckily, these microorganisms generally require water and warm temperatures to grow, so If we address those issues, there shouldn’t be an issue. Insect problems, too, can be largely solved by regulating temperature and moisture levels.
Ideal moisture levels for desiccation-tolerant seeds (those they don’t mind being dry) tend to be somewhere in the five to twelve percent range, and temperatures should be kept as constant as possible and something not far off that of a refrigerator.
Seeds ought to be soaked in water.
For some seeds, particularly really small ones for things like lettuce and carrots, this may make things more difficult, but for many seeds, it makes a massive difference. First of all, soaking seeds helps to determine whether they are viable or not. If they float, the outlook is not good. Secondly, many seeds, such as legumes and squashes, have a tough coating that softens when soaked. Essentially, soaking the seeds before putting them in the ground insures that they will get a good start.
There are a few basics to soaking seeds. Warm water is a good thing for speeding up the process, but really hot water isn’t. Seeds should only soak until they swell, which is usually somewhere in the twelve-to-twenty-four-hour range. Some growers suggest a drop or two of vinegar (or something acidic) in the soaking solution.
Timing means a lot when planting.
Timing can make a huge difference in germinating success. Not only is important to consider the seasonal timing of stuff, but also it’s helpful to pay attention to the moon cycles. The moon affects gravitational pulls, and that affects how water behaves, even in the soil. For each type of seed we plant, there might be an ideal part of the lunar cycle in which to sow. As well, timing with regards to weather also means a lot. Some moisture and cloud cover is a real plus, easing seeds into action, but really wet ground will cause them to rot, while sweltering sun will fry little sprouts.
For planting at the right time, using traditional practices for a region/climate (Here’s the US info) is probably fairly sound advice. The basics of the moon cycles are that leafy stuff and grains like the beginning of the waxing period, fruiting annuals prefer the second quarter’s brighter moon, and root crops and perennials (which establish strong roots first) work best at the full moon, moving into the waning period.
Soil conditions are integral to germination.
In permaculture, we know that soil is where a healthy ecosystem starts, so it should be no huge surprise that it makes a big difference to seed germination. It starts with how seeds are put in the soil, and it is good practice to tamp them down so that they are for sure in contact with the soil beneath them. The soil they are covered with is best when fine so that it won’t impede the progress of tiny sprouts trying to break the surface. The soil should be kept moist (not saturated) and aerated, something accomplished with the aid of organic matter, specific something like coconut coir. And, the soil should be warm, with most seeds preferring spring-like temperatures in the 15-20 Celsius (60-70 Fahrenheit) range.
Some seeds are easy to germinate and can be simply cast about, but when the going gets tough, taking a little more time to put them in the soil can help. Dry soil is basically a death nail, so be sure to water regular and have plenty of absorbent material in the potting mix. Saturated soil is also bad, so be sure the moisture can drain away when overabundant.
Lastly, there are some other considerations when using seed.
• One of the major benefits of using seeds is that options become much greater. Gardeners who only buy seedlings are much more limited. That said, it’s not a bad idea to check out the typical germination of new seeds before attempting it.
• Some types of plant really don’t like to be transplanted (roots, legumes, squashes), while some take to it readily (brassicas and nightshades), so it is important to note this when cultivating by seed. It’d be a shame to work through all the germination and watch a seedling die because it’s been transplanted.
• Agitating sprouts regularly via “petting” them will help them to grow strong and stocky. Some people use a fan to produce this effect.
• When seeds have been cultivated in protected spaces, the young plants should be “hardened” before being put in the garden. This is a week-long process of slowly exposing the plant to more and more outdoor conditions, staring with a few hours in the daytime and ultimately allowing an overnight outing before planting them.
Feature Photo: Germinated (Chris Penny)