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5 Tips to help with Tomato & Pepper Seed Germination

Newly Germinated Seeds

Newly Germinated Seeds

Although there are many factors to consider in growing healthy tomato plants from seed, getting the seeds to germinate in the first place can sometimes be tricky.  After 15 years of growing peppers and tomatoes for market, I’d like to share a few tips that have helped influence germination success at my farm.

1) Seed Viability Relative to Germination:

  • Shelf life:  Tomato seeds tend to last much longer in storage than most other seed (i.e., onions need to be purchased fresh every year).  Just make sure they were stored properly (cool & dry) and you should have around a 4-5 year shelf life for tomato seeds.  Pepper seeds are considered by most growers to have a 2-3 year shelf life.  Fedco seed company puts out an informative chart on saving seeds, which includes estimates of shelf life for a range of vegetable seeds.  Click here for Fedco chart.
  • Storage:  Humidity shortens the life of saved seeds more than any other aspect.  Make sure seeds have wintered over in a cool and dry environment (such as in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator or freezer).  Dry storage at less than 65 degrees F will give you good germination results.
  • Vigor:  A number of online gardening sites explain how to test a few of your seeds for germination before planting.  Just be aware that even if your older seeds germinate, if they are too old or shriveled they may have a scant supply of food stored in their endosperm and the plants may end up weak and/or stunted.

2)  Seed sowing tips:

  • Potting soil can be fluffy with air and seeds need to make good contact with the soil in order to germinate.  Moisten your potting soil before placing it in the flat or container, drop the flat on the ground from a few inches above the floor to settle the soil into the container cells, and then make sure your seed makes direct contact with the soil.  I use a #2 pencil to lightly push the seed into the cell and then use the pencil to push a bit of soil over the seed with enough pressure to make sure it securely covered
  • Very fine seeds do not need to be covered, just press them lightly into the soil.  A few seeds need light for germination (check your seed packages for which ones).
  • General rule of thumb is to cover seed to a depth of three times their size.

3)   Water & Germination:

  • Water must be available to the seeds in order for them to germinate, but some air must also reach the seed for it to absorb the oxygen it needs.  I mix my potting soil with very hot water until it is damp but not soaking wet.  A good test is to squeeze a fistful of your moistened soil, checking to see if only a few drops of water squeeze out rather than a stream.
  • Check your flats daily to make sure they have not completely dried out.  If they become too dry, moisten them gently with a spray bottle.  Peppers, in particular, do not like to germinate in wet soil.

4) Timing & Temperature:

  • The length of time it takes for your seeds to germinate is heavily related to soil temperature.  Tomato seeds should germinate within 5-6 days if you can keep the soil temperature around 80º F.  Peppers take a little longer with a little higher temperature (7-8 days at 85º F). Remember this is soil temperature, not ambient temperature.
  • Speeding things along:  I usually get germination earlier than the standard charts predict by placing bottom heat under my flats using 100-watt light bulbs (see this post for my seed-starting setup).  A nice infographic on the relationship between temperature and timing of germination can be found here from Easy Homesteading.

5) Special Germination Tricks for Difficult Seeds

  • Pre-soaking seeds:  Soaking seeds in warm water overnight before planting helps to soften the seed coat and speed up germination.   Many seeds, even if it is not stated in their steps of seed germination, will benefit from pre-soaking.  I don’t usually pre-soak tomato and pepper seeds, but I always pre-soak parsley, sweet peas and nasturtium seeds
  • Scarifying seeds:  This refers to the process of literally damaging the seed coat, usually by scratching the seed with sandpaper and then soaking in water.  Some seeds (i.e., woody plants in the legume family) are so hard and well protected by their seed coat that the seedling is not able to break through it on its own.  Tomato and pepper seeds do not need scarifying, but some of the larger seeds with hard seed coats would benefit from this.
Seed-Starting Reference Book

Seed-Starting Reference Book

 

I have been starting tomato and pepper seeds for market now for 15 years.  The book that I found to be most useful throughout my adventure is The New Seed Starter’s Handbook, by Nancy Bubel.  This book is research-oriented, comprehensive, and provides the scientific rationale behind each method she promotes.  For more thorough information on the tips offered in this post, I would highly recommend Nancy Bubel’s book.

Seed Sowing: Strategies for the Winter-Weary Gardener, Part 1

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

by Cyndy Crist

Now that February has arrived and the hours of daylight are lengthening, many gardeners I know are becoming restless to dig in the dirt and nurture green and growing things.  I am definitely no exception, and a growing array of potted primroses, forced spring bulbs, and flowers emerging from begonias being overwintered inside can’t quite scratch my gardening itch. So I’ve decided to try my hand at several winter seed sowing and growing projects.

I’m going to start with three variations of fairly typical indoor seeding projects and will soon start a fourth, an outdoor approach to winter seed starting that I learned about at a Master Gardener meeting recently.  I’ll describe today how I’m getting started on the indoor projects and will report in later on the outdoor project and the outcomes of all four efforts.

Indoor Seed Sowing Projects:

Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)

Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 1:  I have undertaken three small, indoor projects, all very easy and straightforward but each just a little different from the others.  I’ll be interested to see how the results compare. One is a darling little organic oregano growing kit given to me by my sister-in-law for Christmas. It includes soil, seeds, and a bamboo pot.  It’s pretty ingenious, even including three little feet to stick on the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage and a lid that doubles as a plant tray.  The packaging was so great that it has been cute sitting on a shelf, but since the whole point is to grow some oregano, I resolved to do just that.  The pot has now been filled with soil, the seeds scattered on the surface and then topped with a little more soil, everything gently watered in, and a little plastic wrap settled across the top to create a mini-greenhouse. Now it’s safely ensconced on a shelf out of direct sun per package directions. Once the seeds sprout, I’ll remove the plastic, move the pot to a sunnier spot, continue watering, and wait to harvest my tasty herbs.

Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)

Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 2:  The second project comes courtesy of a recent find in the sale room at my neighborhood Anthropologie store.  The package includes organic parsley seeds embedded in a piece of paper accompanied by a plant stake made from an old teaspoon.  Part of the attraction for me, frankly, was the spoon stake that can be reused in my herb garden; I’ve also long been curious about this “seeds in paper” approach to growing, so this was my chance to check it out. Following directions on the card, I prepared a pot with soil, tore off pieces of the paper (looking for concentrations of seeds), laid them on the soil, covered them with a little more soil, and carefully watered them all in.  The stake is now in the pot, which is in a sunny space in my sunroom.  I only used a portion of the paper provided, so if I don’t give this first planting what it needs to grow, I can try again, either inside or outside.

 

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 3:  The third project was inspired by an article in the January 2013 issue of Martha Stewart Living. This one required me to assemble my own potting soil, container, and seeds.  Following the idea in the article, I retrieved a plastic container and lid from my recycling bin (a decent-sized box that had contained romaine leaves) and made small drainage holes in the bottom with an X-acto knife.  Next, I filled the container with potting mix and sprinkled a mix of lettuce seeds on top of the soil.  Per directions on the seed packet, I added about another ¼ inch of soil on top of the seeds and gentled watered them in.  The lid is now serving as a plant tray and the container is in one of the sunniest spots in my sunroom.  If all goes well, I’ll be able to harvest my own microgreens in the weeks ahead, either by gently pulling out small clumps of greens or by cutting them carefully.

Tips to remember about Seed Sowing & Growing:

  1. I know that two of the most important things about indoor seed starting are ensuring that the seedlings get enough sunlight and providing enough, but not too much, moisture.  I think all three containers are small enough that I can keep them in places that get sufficient light in or very near a window in my south-facing sunroom, but I know I will need to pay close attention to them to be sure they’re getting enough light on a consistent basis to grow well.  Today was a beautifully sunny day, so things are off to a good start, but I know I can’t count on the same level of brightness every day.
  2. Perhaps even more importantly, I’m going to need to be careful about watering.  Drying out is deadly to tender little seedlings, but it’s also easy to overwater them and kill seedlings with kindness.  A deluge of water can dislodge tiny root systems before they’re strong enough to hold emerging plants in place.  Sitting water can cause dampening off and other forms of mold that are fatal to any plants, but especially to little baby ones.
  3. Humidity is also helpful to seedlings as they’re sprouting, so keeping a plant tray filled with water should be helpful.

 

Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)

Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)

I know what my little green babies will need, but I’ve learned the hard way that knowledge and good intentions don’t always carry the day.  If I manage to maintain enough focus to guide them along into stages of maturity that will enable me to harvest and enjoy them, I’ll be a happy gardener.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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