Soak Seeds Before Planting
In most parts of the country, the process of sowing seed directly into the garden is in full swing. Either the first seeds of the season are going into the ground or, for those in milder climates, the second planting is commencing. In some northern regions, gardeners are still waiting for the end of over-night frosts and/or the soil to dry sufficiently. No matter. Everybody’s thinking of getting in their garden. And everybody wants to get a jump on things.
While we frequently urge patience on those who might plant too soon, there is a way to get quicker germination once your seeds are in the ground, a technique known to almost every gardener and practiced universally: Soak your seeds before planting. Soaking garden seeds, both vegetable and flower seeds, will swell and soften them and get their little embryonic selves thinking about coming out into the light of day. Here’s some things to consider when soaking seeds.
— First, which seeds are most appropriate for soaking? Big seeds. Wrinkled seeds. Seeds (as best you can tell) with hard coats. In the vegetable garden, this means peas, beans, corn, pumpkins and squash; even chard and beets. Smaller seeds — lettuce, radishes, carrots, and the like — are hard to handle once their soaked and don’t really need it anyway. Flower seed to soak? Sunflower, lupine, sweet pea, nasturtium take well to soaking.
— How to soak? This is the easy part. Put the seeds in a shallow bowl and cover with water as you would a bean seed before cooking. We’ve also put seed in zip-lock bags with just enough water to keep damp and then sealed the bag. Many garden how-to texts suggest using hot water. We suggest a bit of caution if you do. You don’t want the water so close to the boiling point — or to be held at a high temperature for so long time — that it “cooks” the seed. Warm water; fine. It will reduce the soaking time, which means you should pay extra attention.
Some gardeners recommend adding something acidic, like a tablespoon or three of coffee or a few drops of kitchen vinegar. The idea is to recreate conditions in an animal’s stomach, the place where many seeds first get the warm, dark, damp idea to germinate. Anybody who’s seen a berry-laden pile of bear scat understands. We haven’t tried this method — no bear would cooperate — so can’t vouch for the claim that it hurries the soaking process or increases germination rate.
— How long to soak? Just long enough for the seeds to swell but not so long that they might begin to sour and rot. Overnight is usually good. Many sources recommend 8-12 hours and no more than 24 hours. Again, too much soaking and the seeds will start to decompose. If you use very hot water, the soaking time will decrease. We’ve always liked to use warm water and start the soaking at bedtime, then plant first thing in the morning. We’ve been told the soaking water should be changed and we’ve been told it shouldn’t. In our experience, it doesn’t seem to matter.
— Particularly hard seeds like beans will benefit from scarification before they’re soaked. Scarification means nicking the seed coat (be careful not to puncture it completely) but scratching with a dull knife or buffing the seed with a nail file.
— Other considerations that I’ve learned the hard way. Don’t soak your seeds the night before a rain is expected. Wait ’til the forecast promises good planting conditions, so you’ll be able to get int the garden and not compact the soil too much. You don’t want to hold on to your seeds once they’ve soaked. You want to get them in the ground. And just because your seeds have been soaked doesn’t mean you get out of watering them as soon as they’re planted. Your good, organic soil will hold just the right amount of moisture around your seeds and allow the extra to drain deeply into the soil. So water just as you would without seeds being soaked first.
— Really in a hurry? We’ve placed beans, squash and even corn seed between damp paper towels and kept the towels moist for the days it takes to germinate. Then we placed them carefully in the planting trough and covered them gently so as not to break the fledgling stem or root. Don’t worry if its on its side. Gravity will help it find the way down. Want activities sprouting seeds this way with your kids? Go here. Find further discussion of soaking seeds — I’ve got to try that kelp trick — here.