Posted on 34 Comments

The Science of Seed Germination

Seedlings of 'Bright Lights' chard at Hayefield

I’ve gotten quite a few emails asking about seed-starting in the last few months, mostly from those of you who took part in my seed giveaway last fall. The same thing happened last year, so I should have known to give specific sowing directions along with the descriptions. I guess it’s just that my usual approach to starting seeds these days is about as low-key and low-tech as you can get, so I normally don’t think much about the details. See, my fantasy seed-starting setup would look something like this:

Seedlings at Black Creek

The reality looks like this:

Seed-starting setup at Hayefield

Yeah, just a couple of 4-foot shop lights with ordinary fluorescent bulbs and a heating mat on a portable rack right here in my office. So even though I sow well over 100 kinds of seed every year, I have to keep it simple. Only those that really need an early start and/or warm temperatures (coleus, basil, alternanthera, cotton, tomatoes, and so on) get the full lights-and-heat pampering, and they have to be spread out into early March, late March, mid-April, and early May sowings.

Indoor-sown seedlings of Alternanthera dentata ‘Purple Knight’ at Hayefield

Indoor-sown seedlings of Alternanthera dentata ‘Purple Knight’

Once they’re up, most have to deal with the seedling shuffle: out on the porch or into the unheated greenhouse during the day and back into the house at night. It’s not optimal, but it works.

Anything that can possibly wait for outdoor sowing, either in pots or right in the garden, does wait.

Seedlings started outdoors at Hayefield

And anything that I know will self-sow has my blessing to do just that (well, within reason).

Self-sown Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’ seedling at Hayefield

Self-sown Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’ seedling [March 21, 2012]

If I need to deliberately start more of a self-sower, or if I have new seeds that need or tolerate a chilling period, I’ll sow them in pots in winter—usually in either Fafard Growing Mix or Pro-Mix BX. (I use the same mix for all seed-starting, growing, and container plantings.) Then I top the pots with a quarter-inch or so of grit: either Turface or Profile Soil Conditioner (shown below) or fine aquarium gravel. The grit isn’t absolutely necessary, but I think it helps to keep the growing mix from crusting over when it dries out.

Seeds sown for outdoor treatment at Hayefield

The sown pots then get settled into some vacant space in one of my holding beds…

Seed pots outdoors at Hayefield

…or put into a cold frame, or set out on the porch steps, and left there to sprout whenever they’re ready to in spring.

Angelica archangelica ‘Corinne Tremaine’ seedlings at Hayefield

Angelica archangelica ‘Corinne Tremaine’ sown in early January and placed outside; germinated in early April

I wasn’t always such a casual seed-starter, though. Back in the late 80s, when I was still a geek-in-training, I was obsessed with starting any seeds I could get my hands on. Back then, of course, you couldn’t simply go online and order anything you wanted. I joined a bunch of national and international seed exchanges, and even subscribed to a few plant expeditions, and ended up with all kinds of rare and unusual seeds. That was all great, except for the fact that I lived in an apartment at the time, which rather cramped my seed-sowing capabilities. The solution to that came along in 1991, with the arrival of Dr. Norman Deno’s amazing book Seed Germination Theory and Practice.

Seed Germination Theory and Practice First Edition by Norman Deno

It sure didn’t look like much, with no attention to design and little if any editing, and reproduced at a copy center. At the time, I was used to working on highly polished and highly visual gardening books at Rodale, so I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed when I first saw the plain paper cover, but what I found inside absolutely blew me away.

Dr. Deno was a chemistry professor at Pennsylvania State University who developed an interest in seed germination from a scientific standpoint. He designed an approach to studying germination that was both incredibly simple and exquisitely detailed. The few materials he used for his experiments are common household items, but he applied his extensive scientific knowledge of chemical processes and drew fascinating conclusions from what he observed.

I wish I could go into more detail about some of the results I found most interesting, but you’d still be reading this post tomorrow if I did that. The key principle, though, is that all species have some way of delaying germination so their seeds have a chance to get dispersed before they sprout. Otherwise, the seeds would start growing right on the plant they form on, or around the base of that plant, and the species would not have a chance to move into new territory. In some cases, it’s a physical structure (such as a very hard covering) that  keeps the seed from sprouting right away. Most often, though, it’s some sort of chemical delay mechanism, such as a necessary drying period. Some other factors that can help to destroy germination inhibitors include exposure to moisture, certain temperatures (warm, cold, or oscillating), light, and time.

Sprouted seeds of 'Rouge d'Alger' cardoon at Hayefield

Dr. Deno’s goal, as summarized on the cover of the second edition of his book, was “the discovery and description of such mechanisms and the development of procedures for removing them so that the seeds can germinate.” By the time he published the first printing of the second edition of his work in June of 1993, he had concluded experiments on 145 families, 805 genera, and approximately 4000 species. The two self-published editions, as well as two supplements containing his later findings, weren’t ever widely distributed beyond the world of fanatical seed-starters.  But bless him, he made them available in 2010 for free public access through the USDA National Agriculture Library, so now we all have access to most of them at the links below. (Be aware that these are large files.)

Dr. Deno did not prepare an index for his germination-related works, which made it a bit challenging to find all references to species of interest in the print versions. When you access the pdf files, though, you can use the search function to hunt for the details you want. Or, you could try this index:

Dr. Deno wanted his work to be useful to growers and gardeners, so he wrote up his results for a general audience, not as scientific papers. It’s far from light bedtime reading—some of the concepts and explanations take a good bit of concentration to absorb—but you don’t need a degree in chemistry to understand and apply his process and results. I highly recommend reading the first 20 pages of the book to start with, just to get a feel for what it’s all about, then dipping into the other chapters once you’ve had time to absorb the basic concepts.

As I mentioned before, you can find everything you need to try his basic techniques around your house or in one trip to a grocery store: a roll of good paper towels; a box of cheap, thin-plastic bags (either sandwich or 1-gallon size, not the resealing kind); and a thin-point permanent marker.

Preparing for paper-towel sowing at Hayefield

Now, you may be thinking that germinating seeds in paper towels is hardly ground-breaking (so to speak), and you’d be right. You’ve probably run across the idea as a project for kids, or as a technique for testing the percentage of seed germination, as explained on sites like this one: Seed Germination. And really, even Dr. Deno wasn’t much for using the paper-towel technique for routinely sprouting all seeds for the purpose of producing plants. In some cases, he recommended sowing directly in the ground, or, for many species, in pots with an approach he called “bagging”: filling plastic pots with growing medium, pouring boiling water over the surface three times, surface-sowing the seeds, enclosing the pots in the thin plastic bags, and then setting them under fluorescent lights.

I do prefer the paper-towel technique for starting some seeds, though, and I’m looking forward to using it again this year, for several reasons.

First, it’s terrific for seeds that take a long time to germinate. Instead of having to use up growing mix, pots, and space and then wait several weeks or even months to see if the seeds are going to sprout, you can sow them in the amount of space an index card would occupy, keep them in the ideal temperature and moisture conditions, and not worry about pests or diseases bothering them. It’s also easy to tell if the seeds aren’t viable, because they’ll start rotting in the first month or so, and you can just throw them out instead of continuing to water and wonder when or if the seedlings will appear.

Clematis hederifolium seeds started on paper towels at Hayefield

Dry-stored Cyclamen hederifolium seed sown August 10; germinated early October

As Dr. Deno’s work shows, the seeds of some species need “conditioning” periods at alternating temperatures. In his experiments, he used 40°F (4°C) and 70°F (21°C) for the sake of convenience: 40°F being the average setting of a home refrigerator and 70°F being the usual home room temperature. We’re used to sowing seeds and keeping them warm until they sprout, but some seeds need some time at 40°F before they sprout at 70°F. (Dr. Deno usually used 3-month periods in his experiments, to correspond with the seasons.) Other seeds need a period at 70 and then sprout at 40. And still others, such as a number of species in Liliaceae and Ranunculaceae, need multiple cycles of warm and cold temperatures.

Clematis seeds at Hayefield

When you sow these “multicycle germinators” in paper towels, it’s very easy to keep track of the timing of the cycles and to provide the appropriate temperature no matter what the weather. And while you’re waiting, you know that the seeds are safe from being munched on by mice or other critters.

Paper towel-sown seeds at Hayefield

The paper-towel method is also very handy if you’re working with chaffy seeds. When you get seeds from seed companies, they’re usually well cleaned. Seeds from friends or seed exchanges, however, may still have a fair bit of debris mixed in, sometimes to the point where you’re not sure what is seed and what is chaff. When you sow on paper towels, you’ll notice fungal activity on the bits of chaff within a few weeks. It can be a little alarming to see that, but these fungi are interested in breaking down dead stuff only, so they don’t bother live seeds and won’t interfere with germination. I like to pick off the seeds and move them to a fresh paper towel, though, because the original one can get a little whiffy.

Mystery umbellifer?

Sowing on paper towels is a great way to learn how to identify seeds. When you know what they are and see them frequently while you’re waiting for them to sprout, you eventually build up a good mental archive what they look like, making it easier to recognize unlabeled seeds in the future. That knowledge also makes you much better at gathering and cleaning seeds, because you’ll know what you’re looking for when you’re collecting and what the end product should look like when you’re separating the seeds from the chaff.

If you’ve been given unidentified seeds and have little or no idea of what they are, the paper-towel method lets you easily experiment with various temperatures and light conditions to see if you can get them to sprout: the first step to growing and then identifying them. Observing how the seeds germinate, what conditions they germinate in, and how long it takes them can also give you clues to their identity.

Paper towel-sown seeds at Hayefield

I like this approach for very special seeds, too. Several of you have shared some real treasures with me this winter, and I want to give them the best possible conditions to get them started. And when you get just two or three seeds in a packet, when you’re dealing with something quite rare, or when you’ve spent a good bit of money or effort to get out-of-the-ordinary seeds, it just makes sense to keep a close eye on them.

Do I need to say that this approach is also a lot of fun? You can easily sow dozens of kinds of seeds at one time right on your kitchen counter, without having to deal with growing mix or watering or trying to find room for all the pots. You get the excitement of opening the towels often to see if anything is happening, and the thrill of seeing germination happening right in your hand.

Sprouted seeds of 'Gat's Variegated' rhubarb at Hayefield

Success! Seeds of ‘Gat’s Variegated’ rhubarb sprouted in 4 days at 70°F

With seeds that usually sprout at 70°F, I leave them alone for the first 2 or 3 days, then open their towels once a day for the next week or two. There’s usually a lot of action during this period. After that, I check the remaining seeds every 3 or 4 days for a few more weeks, then once every 7 to 10 days until they sprout. Seeds that need one or more 40-70 or 70-40 cycles won’t appear to be active during their first temperature period, at least, so you’ll check on them only every few weeks to make sure they are still alive and that the towel they’re in is still moist. You’ll want check on them more frequently soon after you move them to a new temperature.

Sprouted seeds of 'Gat's Variegated' rhubarb at Hayefield

When you see the first sign of sprouting, pick the seeds off the towel with tweezers and place them in a pot of growing medium: right away, if possible, or at least within a day or two. If you wait too long, the roots grow into the paper, and it can require some patience to peel away the towel and get them out without damaging them.

Sprouted seed of Alcea at Hayefield

This isn’t a technique that works well for all seeds and all situations. I wouldn’t recommend it for tiny seeds, for instance, because they’ll probably root into the paper towel before they’re large enough for you to move them to a pot. It can also be a problem if you don’t have time to check the seeds regularly and plant them before their roots get seriously tangled into the towels. And with really easy germinators, like most common annuals and veggies, sowing into pots or directly into the garden is simply more efficient.

If you want to work with some less common  species, though, or if you’re interested in learning about the science and observing the magic of germinating seeds up close, I encourage you to download the Deno book and supplements, grab some paper towels and plastic bags, and give this technique a try for yourself. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of it.

Lathyrus sativus 'Azureus' seedlings at Hayefield

Posted on 34 Comments

34 thoughts on “The Science of Seed Germination

  1. I´m admire all gardeners who have the patiens to sow a lot of seeds. I have two (2!) kinds of seeds, Chilli and Alcea. But I have six different kinds of the former and two of the latter, red and black. That´s all! Ands it to much!!

    Best of luck with your seeds, Susie. I wish I could have luck with hollyhocks! I try them again every few years, but the rust always gets them. And mmm, it’s nice to think of hot-pepper season.

  2. Hi Nan, what a well written, in plain English story about germination, thank you, thank you! Seed starting is still hit and miss for me, with lights, heat mats and refrigeration in use. I have not done the paper towel method and might give it a try. Chiltern’s does have such interesting offerings, doesn’t it?


    It’s one of my favorite catalogs, Frances. It’s hard to avoid getting carried away, so I try to limit myself to just a few new treasures from them each year. I can’t wait to see how the variegated rhubarb turns out. Sometimes it’s a blessing to not get really good results with your seed-sowing; otherwise, you end up having to find good homes for all the extras.

  3. I love sowing seeds, but am too sloppy to get great results. I also have lived in places where 70° f. was a winter dream temperature indoors. My rooms were fluctuating between 35 and 65, depending on how much I would burn wood or blast the gas heater… The biggest problem I’ve had was leggy seedlings – stretching toward the light – and then, if they did make it through a month or more of indoor (usually bathroom) torture, they would be shocked and suffer more by the move outdoors – or (more fuss but still hard on them)outdoors, indoors, outdoors, indoors, according to unpredictable springtime weather.

    So over the past few years I’ve become more of a late winter/early spring coldframe sower, and have had more luck. I can start relatively early (late February, early March). It’s not only about getting the plants to have a full cycle and flower or fruit before the first frosts, but also satisfying the gardener’s itch to be done with winter and welcome spring.

    But this post has me ready to experiment with papertowels in baggies! How fun!

    And DUH. I never thought about autumn sowing in little pots and letting them do what they want when they’re ready.

    Thanks, Nan, for such an informative post, and the Deno publication link!

    Yeah, finding a place with “70” for seeds here is a problem, since I keep the house at 45 to 50, so I have to resort to a heating mat to get anywhere close to that. The cool temps do seem to help with producing sturdy seedlings, though. I think you’ll have a good time with this technique for the trickier seeds you’re trying this year. It’s already working great for some of the mystery seeds you shared with me.

  4. Nancy,

    I always love your posts. Many thanks for sharing with everyone all your observations and green life.

    I found an interesting site that somehow reminded me of much of your writings – although her photos are nowhere near as good, nor is there as much good information on gardening. Perhaps it’s more tone and spirit that seem similar. She is in Michigan and attempting to live as lightly on the land as possible – through growing / processing her own family food, buying local, etc.



    Thanks so much for sharing that link, Barbara – I’ll check it out.

  5. Wonderful post Nancy, and thanks for including links to the books!

    (I too wish I had a seed-starting setup like that shown in the second photo, although I suspect I’ll still run out of room.)

    We all have our little (or big) fantasies, don’t we? I remember my past greenhouse jobs fondly: so much room to sow seeds and stick cuttings without having to pay the heating bill!

  6. I loved this post! In the past we would often have large trays of seeds of some difficult species hogging up space only to find that just a few have sprouted. This will definitely be a money and space saver! Thanks Nan!

    If you do try it, Jennifer, I hope you’ll check back in at some point to let me know what you think. The savings in potting soil alone make it worth the experiment.

  7. I stumbled across Dr.Deno’s work back in the late 1990s , too. You have summarized it fairly well. Your set-up and routine look so much like mine, I have to laugh; including your winter sowing in your holding bed! Thing is, it works great!

    You’re so right, Rachelle – the seeds don’t much care whether they’re in some spiffy, expensive seed-starting system or a plain old pot or paper towel, as long as they get the right temperature, light, and so on.

  8. I’m a fan of the natural method, which involved sowing most of my seed in November and leaving the pots to vernalize outdoors over the winter in a big cold frame and let them come up in the spring. It’s allowed me to sow over 400 pots of various plants this year. In year’s past, I’ve had very good success with that method. For annuals and veg, I’ll sow under the lights and on the heat mat using soil blocks, which I love because it I can sidestep transplant shock.

    That’s a lot of seed-sowing, Susan! The outdoor method does work so well with many seeds, and the spread-out germination makes it easier to keep up with potting them on. I’ve found mice to be a problem some years, though, which is disappointing.

  9. Great post Nan!! I am going to try my hand at it again. I started a few flowers here and there but never have done it faithfully. I am trying Lavender from seed this year as the budget is tight and I need more blossoms for my Lavender Lemonade.
    Thanks for the in-depth information which is so lacking in the world today!
    You Rock!!

    Thanks so much, Dianna – have fun with your own germination experiments!

  10. I am just getting ready to sow some black mondo grass seeds…this is such a timely post! Thank you for all the easy to understand and so very helpful information.

    Great, Leslie – best of luck with your seeds!

  11. You [and the info from Dr. Norman Deno] are brilliant! I would never have thought to start seeds with this method! It does bring back memories from childhood… hehehe!

    [Normally I only start peas like that, and once they sprout I throw em’ in the ground.]

    I can get an idea of what flower seeds to start with this method from your supplied photos, but what veggies do you reccomend?
    Somehow, I would think that the Tomato/Eggplant/Pepper families would do well… mainly because like, as you said, it’s better to be able to see them getting ready to grow rather than wasting prime real estate waiting on them to sprout… then I can save the fast-growers for the traditional seed starting stations I have that can be quickly swapped out for the long-term growers.

    Uggg! This just reminds me of how I am so behind on starting some seeds! I need to get my act together!

    And do not worry about not including information on sowing the seeds you’ve gifted us in the fall – the internet is a wealth of information and I can find the information I need to properly start them all~ [except I can’t save them from the mistakes I make myself, which happen, hahahaha! :D]

    Also, side note – the photo of your front porch? Yeah, mine totally looks like that during seed starting season too. ♥

    I did get this message, Donna, as you can see, so I combined a bit of your other notes here; I hope that’s ok. I was playing out in the garden during this gift of a day.

    Anyway, sure, you could do tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and the like this way, if you wish. Their seeds are large enough that you can easily pick them up with tweezers and move them to individual pots as they begin to grow. I have used the towel approach to give peas (and sweet peas) a jump start, too, planting them right out into the garden as soon as I seed them starting to sprout. (That way they’re not sitting so long in cool, wet soil.) Most veggies are so quick to sprout that it’s probably more efficient to sow them right in pots or in the garden.

  12. Extremely useful post! And I would say that your seed starting reality still looks pretty good compared to mine. Though the fantasy is beautiful – and we should always hang on to our dreams …

    So glad you found it of interest. Thanks for reading!

  13. A great, educational and motivational post!

    If it motivates anyone to sow more seeds, or ANY seeds, then it was worth every minute. Thanks, Laura.

  14. Thanks for the post, Nan! I’m still a seed geek, and likewise got my start by reading Deno’s works.I start just about all of my seeds in baggies, and look forward to each day’s inspection round, hoping to find new varieties germinating. Only the most dust-like seeds go directly to pots, but even quite tiny seeds work well in baggies. I find it helps to use coffee filters (as illustrated at instead of paper towels, since the roots seldom manage to grow through the more finely knit filter material.
    Lots of luck getting all those sproutlings hardened off and into your garden this spring :-)

    You’re not just any seed geek, Rob – you’re a SERIOUS seed geek. I got some of your donations to the HPS/MAG exchange this year (as usual), so thanks for that, and for the coffee-filter tip. I ran across a reference to someone using parchment (baking) paper too, but I couldn’t access the info, so I’m not sure of the details. I suppose the limiting factor for seed size is really how steady your hands are. I have a pretty light touch with the tweezers, but trying to see, pick up, and place tiny seedlings that way is tricky for me these days.

    1. !!! YES! I have a whole package of coffee filters I bought that sadly weren’t the right size for my machine! I was going to just use them for covering drainage holes in my outdoor pots… but NOW THERE IS A USE FOR THEEEMMMM~ Yaya! ♥

      Great, Donna! Check out the rest of Rob’s site too; he’s got loads of information for plant geeks there.

  15. Nan, thanks for emphasizing that seed starting can be such a fun way to begin the season without a huge investment… I think lots of people are intimidated by all the expensive setups that are peddled in the catalogs, but your rig looks very similar to mine and I’ve had excellent results for years in my 50-55 degree basement with ordinary fluorescent shop lights. DON’T bother buying the “grow lights” that cost three to five times as much as the regular tubes…not needed! Heat mats, though, are a necessity, especially for the heat lovers like tomatoes and peppers. Then once the seedlings are well along I can transition them to my unheated coldframe (built from a couple of old storm windows) before setting them out in the garden. So rewarding… nothing like raising a plant all the way from seed to make you feel like a real live gardener!

    Absolutely! And yes, I agree that a heating mat is a great investment: better than fancy germination systems or special lights. The seeds themselves are pricey enough – except for the ones shared by generous fellow gardeners, of course, which are often more interesting and meaningful than anything you can buy.

  16. I loved reading about this because I “invented” the paper towel method to sprout green beans for my planter boxes on our deck in Maine. I wanted to speed up the process of germination because I wanted beans before I left for the summer. I rolled them in moist paper towels and put them on top of the refrigerator. Worked like a charm. I had no idea that other people did this.

    Hah – “great minds” and all that, right? Apparently it’s been in use well before either of us, Carolyn.

  17. I set up a mini greenhouse on my kitchen counter and grow seeds in coir pots in little Burpee greenhouses that are kept warm/bright with grow lights screwed into a clamp light that’s clamped onto a wine bottle stuffed in a pot full of sand. I wrap foil between the clamp lights to keep the light focused on the seeds and it works really well. I elevate the mini greenhouse trays with old magazines and a few cutting boards. An old towel keeps the base warm. Plus, it’s by the coffee pot so I never forget to turn on my lights before work. It’s a bit crazy but highly effective. Right now I have ‘Sweet Chocolate’ pepper and ‘Yellow Brandywine’ tomato seeds growing. Yay!

    Great description of the ultimate in low-tech! The kitchen is a great place to be able to keep a close eye on the action. I’m tempted to start some tomatoes now just to have that wonderful summer smell in here, but as it’ll be at least 3 months before it’s time to put them out, I guess I’ll have to wait a bit yet.

  18. Hey Nan!
    As usual… a terrific post. I loved it. I notice you hand write most of your labels. Record keeping and labeling is such a challenge… How about a post showing how you keep up with everything? I feel like a mere mortal in comparison and keep thinking- “there has got to be a better way!”

    … I did discover that industrial Sharpie markers can take the sun!

    Hi there, Kay. Thanks for the tip on the Sharpies. I usually use pencil on plastic labels. Mostly, I depend on my photo archives for record-keeping. When I can, I start back the very beginning, taking pictures of the seeds and seed packets, and then the seedlings. When I buy plants, I try to remember to take photos of them (so I can tell where they are in the garden) and their labels at planting time. I also try to keep up with tagging my photos quickly through the summer and fall. After that, when I forget the exact name, I can at least remember where it was growing, and I can search the list of photo tags to refresh my memory.

    1. Ah ha! Wonderful! Brilliant! Photo logging…. now why didn’t I think of that?

      “Tagging photos” is that done on the camera or the computer?

      You can do it on your computer, Kay. I have a lot more details on how I do it here: Putting Words to Pictures. I hope that helps!

  19. Brilliant! Thank you! This came at just the right time for me. I was fumbling through several experiments and this blog was a lifesaver.

    That’s terrific, Thomas. If you can’t find a listing for the genera you’re working with in the main list, check out the chapter “Lists of Genera Studied Arranged by Their Plant Families.” You can pick up some interesting gems of info there.

  20. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    You’re extremely welcome, Carol.

  21. Excellent post! I don’t start seeds although I did many years ago and expect I will again (in my retirement). I am also fairly new to you blog. Of course your gardening knowledge and photography are outstanding, but it is your writing I love – kind of like talking with an old friend. Thanks.

    How kind of you to say that, Susanne. I’ve met so many neat people here that I really do feel like I writing to a friend – or rather, many friends!

  22. I love the post. The photos are excellent and the information is very thorough and easy to follow. I have started my own seeds this year and plan to expand this activity next year so I am always looking for expert advice. Thank you for sharing.

    Thank *you* for reading, Charlie. I hope you find the Deno works as fascinating and helpful and I have.

  23. I had heard of Deno’s work but never got a hard copy. How wonderful to learn it is available to all!

    Isn’t it great? I never did get the supplements, so I’m especially thrilled to be able to see them now. What an amazing gift to the gardening world.

  24. Hi Nan

    Your writing is amazing! Your photography is amazing!

    I have been a seed saver forever, and you have just given me a new way to fuel my addiction! I have never tried sowing in paper towels. I have used “Wintersowing” in milk jugs outside very successfully. But the inside seeds are always more tricky and I love the idea that I will not have to waste soil or space on non-viable seeds. I also love the idea that I can figure out what is chaff and where are the seeds.

    Seeds are so amazing and I can not wait to read Dr. Deno’s book.

    I do have a question., When you plant the sprouted seeds, do you follow seed starting requirements such as “just cover”, or “1/8inch deep”, or are you just leaving them on top of the growing medium?

    I can’t wait to start this technique!

    Thank you for this phenomenal post!


    Hello, Ellen! I’d love to hear about your results if you try the paper-towel approach. No, I don’t worry about planting depth once the seeds have germinated. If they are relatively large, I try to make a little hole for the root and set the seeds vertically; otherwise, I just set them on the surface and sprinkle a little moist mix over them.

  25. Well. I have to reply again, because this technique changed my seed-starting life. I live in an old farmhouse and there isn’t a 70 degree room in my house. My basement, where I start my seeds, is around 55 degrees. Forget starting eggplant and peppers take 3 wks (to never) to germinate (if I’m lucky). So, I placed a couple of thermometers around the house to see if I could find a 70 degree microclimate and sure enough- the only one was the top of my hot water tank. I ran an experiment- 1 baggie method of Ancho peppers and germination in 4 DAYS!!! 13 of the 15 seeds germinated too! This changes everything. No more overwintering my fav. chilies plants in the basement. No more stressing over starting peppers! Now, I’m daring to try eggplant seeds this way. Anyway, thank you thank you thank you again! You’ve made me a happy camper.

    You made my day, Laura – that’s terrific news! I wish you equally good results with the rest of your seeds. Or, maybe not *quite* those results, because otherwise you may be inundated with more seedlings than you can handle. (Is that even possible?)

    1. I told my husband we need a larger hot water heater. ; )

      I bet that went over well. Maybe a $30 heat mat instead? Just a thought!

  26. I think I’ve re-read this post three times already! I thought the only place for the paper towel method was a grade school classroom, now I know better. I’m so glad I can cut back on those pots that sit around for weeks (wasting grow light space!), even better is to be able to look in on the seeds and see what they’re doing. No more staring at a pot for a year wondering if it should be dumped or not! Thanks!

    Glad you found this of interest, Frank. I think the part of being able to see exactly what the seeds are doing is my favorite part: spotting almost the exact moment when the root tip first starts to peek out. And thought it’s disappointing, it’s also good to know relatively soon if the seeds rot instead of sprout.

  27. Thank you for this post, Nan! I have to admit, I always feel a bit of trepidation when starting seeds, for some reason. I can’t tell if it’s fear of them not germinating at all…or having too many germinate, then not having the heart to cull them out (yes…I’m a big softie). I love that we all have our disparities of fantasy vs. reality!

    Oh, I totally get that, Scott: that’s how I ended up starting my nursery, to find homes of all of the excess seedlings. But if you really put your mind to it, there are other ways to deal with the extras, and sometimes you can get great new plants in return.

  28. That was excellent. Thanks for the links. I love this seed stuff. It really makes my heart race. Hey, by the way, yesterday, I finally got around to breaking open the okra pods. I sent you two kinds of okra and a handed-down pinto bean. Happy seeding my friend. Can’t wait to try the pretzel bean cowpea. It should like our heat.~~Dee

    Thanks so much, Dee – I really enjoyed the peppers you shared with me last year and look forward to trying the okra and pinto bean. Happy spring to you!

  29. Awesome post Nan! I think I’m just geeky enough to really get into the technical aspects of those PDF files. Thanks for sharing!

    Also thank you for the pretzel bean seeds! My kids are going to love them. :)

    I was hoping you’d see this one, Dave. I know you already have lots of propagation experience, but there are lots of interesting bits of info in Deno’s work that I thought you might find useful. And you’re very welcome for the seeds.

  30. Nan

    I love Norman Deno’s book, it was recommended to me when ordering seeds from ‘Gardens North’ seedhouse.

    The only trouble is that a lot of 70/40/70 germinaters seem to skip the last warming step and germinate while still in the fridge !

    So I found the roots stuck in the paper towel thing to be a big problem. What they do over at ‘Gardens North’ is take little baggies filled with damp vermiculite and mix the seeds in it. That’s what i’m going to try this year.

    Hah – plants don’t read books to find out what they should and shouldn’t do, and their seeds are no exception! I’ve sometimes gotten seeds from seed exchanges in vermiculite; I just usually don’t keep that on hand, while I always have paper towels. I’d be interested to hear how that route works for you.

  31. Hi Nancy,
    This is a great, great post ! Very useful for all the people who joined my “Seeds of Love”. The next one will take place on January 1st 2014. I hope you could join us too.
    Greetings from Belgium,

    Hello Isabelle! Thank you for reading. I will check out your “Seeds of Love” event, for sure!

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