One of the most frustrating things about starting vegetables from seed is waiting for them to emerge from the soil. You can eliminate the wait time by pre-sprouting seeds. Presprouting seeds, is a method used to germinate seeds before they are planted into a growing medium.
I had pepper seeds that were several years old. I hated to throw the package away without checking to see if they were still good. I checked the viability of the seeds by doing a seed germination test.
About half the old seeds sprouted and the rest were duds. I planted the sprouted seeds and watched the seedlings carefully to see if they would grow. I didn’t expect much from them, but they did grow into healthy transplants that were eventually planted into the garden.
After experiencing how easy it was to see which seeds germinated, I decided to pre-sprout more of my indoor seedlings. I routinely pre-germinate tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, Swiss chard, melons, cucumber, squash, cilantro, spinach, and kale.
Benefits of Pre-Sprouting Seeds
A seed is triggered to sprout by warmth and moisture. Normally, you sow a seed into a growing medium, such as damp seed starting mix or peat pots. Then you cover the seed with soil, water, place in a warm spot, and wait for the seed to sprout and break through the soil surface.
Pre-sprouting lets you germinate the seeds first, and then you can place the sprouted seed with the root into a seedling container to grow. You can see the seed and don’t have to wonder if it is doing anything under the soil. Other advantages of pre-sprouting your seeds include:
- Saves money: Instead of throwing away older seed packages, you can pre-sprout to see if some of the old seeds are still viable.
- Conserves space: You don’t have to sow a whole tray of seeds hoping that at least half will germinate. Instead, you pre-sprout the seeds in a small container, and only plant the ones that germinate.
- Saves time waiting for seeds to sprout: Pre-sprouting accelerates germination because the seeds can be given ideal moisture, air, and temperature conditions indoors.
- Excludes the bad seeds: You only plant the seeds that geminate. Simply throw away the duds.
- Eliminates the need to thin out seedlings: With pre-sprouting, there is no need to toss three or four seeds into a pot and hope at least one will germinate only to have all four seeds sprout forcing your to eliminate the extras.
How to Pre-Sprout Seeds
It may be helpful to review this article to get your seed starting area setup: 10 Steps to Starting Seedlings Indoors
Materials needed to pre-sprout seeds:
- Containers or plastic bags: Any container or zipper bag will work. My favorites to use for pre-sprouting are the plastic see through mini muffin bakery containers or egg cartons. These are divided into small cells that are ideal for organizing and labeling individual seeds. The cover can be snapped closed to keep in moisture. Since the containers are clear, you can check on the seeds without opening the cover.
- Paper towels: A damp paper towel will help deliver consistent moisture to your seeds without drowning them. Too much moisture will cause your seeds to mold or rot.
- Water resistant labeling material: I cut strips of white duct tape.
- Water resistant marker: Sharpies work well and will not wash away if splashed with water.
- Spray bottle: A spray bottle filled with water is the easiest way to moisten the paper towels without soaking them.
- Seeds of choice: Larger seeds seem to work best. Try pre-germinating tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, Swiss chard, melons, cucumber, squash, cilantro, spinach, and cole crops.
- Warm and safe area: Moderate heat will help your seeds germinate quicker. Consider locating your containers in a warm area, such as near a heat source, or on top of the refrigerator. Around 70°F to 75°F is average for most seeds. Choose an area away from drafts and a place where the containers will not be knocked over or forgotten.
- Seedling containers: Have your seedling pots ready to plant once the seeds germinate. I like using soil blocks to grow seedlings. I make up a tray of soil blocks ahead of time so I am ready to transfer seeds when they sprout.
Directions for Pre-Sprouting Seeds
Step 1: Line your container with paper towels. I like several layers of paper towels, so I fold them in half and cut to fit. If you are using plastic bags, fold and cut your paper towels to fit.
Step 2: Label your containers. Use a water-resistant marker to label your containers or bags.
Step 3: Dampen your paper towels. Spray the paper towels with your spray bottle. You are aiming for the paper towels to be damp, not dripping. If you notice the water pooled in your container, dump out the extra.
Step 4: Add your seeds. Spread your seeds out on top of the damp paper towel. If you are using containers, simply close the cover. If you are using plastic bags, fold the paper towel over the seeds and place in the bag.
Step 5: Place in a warm area. Locate your seed containers in a warm area away from drafts. Also consider choosing an area where the container will not be knocked over or forgotten.
Step 6: Check seeds daily. Examine your seeds each day for germination and to make sure the towel stays damp. Spray the towel if needed.
Step 7: Transfer sprouted seeds to growing medium. Some seeds will sprout quicker than others. As soon as a seed shows tiny roots it is ready to plant. Carefully transfer your sprouted seed to your prepared seedling containers or soil blocks. Be very careful not to damage the root. If you do, the sprout will die. If the root has grown into the paper towel, snip around it and plant paper towel and all.
Place the sprouted seed on top of your growing medium and cover with dry seedling mix. Mist with your spray bottle and place under your growing lights.
Step 8: Keep your seedlings warm and moist. Use your spray bottle to keep the soil surface moist and continue caring for your seedlings as described from step 5 on in this article: 10 Steps to Starting Seedlings Indoors.
This article was originally published on March 5, 2014. It has been updated with additional information, photos, and video.
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