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Soak Seeds Before Planting

Tips and tricks to speed germination and get a jump start on the planting season.

Soaking SeedsIn 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.

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— 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 in the garden and not compact the soil too much. You don’t want to hold onto 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. Find further discussion of soaking seeds — I’ve got to try that kelp trick — here.

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13 Responses to “Soak Seeds Before Planting”

  1. Brian on February 17th, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    These are good comments, except that when you scarify something, that includes using an acid (vinegar works) or scratching the surface of a seed. Typically this is done on harder seeds, seeds with an impermeable outer coating or seeds that are difficult to germinate. These are usually trees, not veggie seeds that require scarification. But soaking seeds does several things one of which is it prepares a seed for germination while making it less vulnerable to organisms in the soil.

  2. Joan edwards on March 30th, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

    Morning glory seeds really require soaking, even some scarification prior to soaking can help. Butterfly weed too, and perhaps a freeze-thaw experimentation prior to soaking theses, as they seem difficult to germinate, and they are one of my favorite plants.

    • Nancy O'Neal on April 19th, 2016 at 11:53 am #

      Hi, can you explain the freeze thaw method for butterfly weed? I have some seed but didn’t realize they take FOREVER to germinate. Thank you!!
      Nancy

  3. Heather on April 18th, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    Fantastic article, very informative and entertaining. Especially enjoyed discussion of bear scat because “scat” referring to feces is hilarious.

    • Lee Virginia on March 4th, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

      “Scat” is actually the proper term that biologists and others in the field use (which, obviously, means the feces of wild animals).

  4. keith on February 15th, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    Thank you for the information on seed soaking.
    keith

  5. Tanya on March 5th, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

    Great article. Thank you.
    I appreciate the one comment about the morning glory seeds – thanks!

  6. Jocelyn on March 22nd, 2016 at 7:34 am #

    Great article! I have a couple questions if anyone is up for answering.
    What to soak the seeds in? I’ve heard some say to use glass and place in the sunlight and others say to not let them in the sun while they soak.
    Any reason to put a little bit of fertilizer/soil/nutrients for this stage?
    Thank you!
    Jocelyn :)

    • S S on April 5th, 2016 at 2:36 am #

      @Jocelyn- I don’t think it really matters. For what it’s worth, I just use a bowl of water which I leave out in the kitchen overnight. I neither try to get it closer to the sun nor keep it in darkness.

    • H. on July 24th, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

      I have read that fertilizer before seeds emerge is not a good idea but that fertilization should begin only after plant put on their “real” or “true” leaves, which usually means 4 leaves (the second set of leaves).

  7. reddog-soldier on August 13th, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    What I have done in the past to get my seeds (any large or small ones), I have tried to replicate the internal digestive-track of a bird, fowl, or chicken. When we butchered chicken or geese, I would retain the crawl, and intestines portions. It might sound gross to a civilized, urbanite, but for us, we just insert the most hard shelled seeds, (soaked prior) that germinate most beneficially and productive via scarfing. Leave the digestive crawl contents, and whatever else intact, allowing your seeds to be situated in this conducive environment. Just enclose the seeds and allow the seeds to germinate. Then take each one and place them in a small pot, preferably. The seeds will be embedded, so be careful when extracting them. When you dress out the goose, or large turkey’s crawl, you’ll have adequate room to saturate your seeds in the pouch and intestines. But with the intestines, be sure to slit them so to make opening once the seeds began sprouting. I have had less germination from inside large intestines, just as in the Gall, or Gizzard. So this germination process is simply placing seeds, Chili pepper seeds, inside a deceased fowl’s digestive tract. Finally, place the entire digestive track in a medium spot, that you can watch for any signs of decayed rotting. It will become smelly after a while, but will see the results. Good Luck.

  8. prose on September 14th, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    I always thoroughly water the soil itself in the pot/s and let the water drain through. Then I plant the seeds by gently poking them in with a pencil end or whatever and cover with a little soil, also using the pencil end. That way you don’t have to water after planting and risk washing away the seeds or whatever. Makes it so much easier!

  9. Aurel on February 2nd, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

    Please help! Does anyone have any suggestions to improve the germination of paddy seed? Should it be soaked in warm water or should I rub it against sandpaper?

    Thanks in advance!

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