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Germination is the process in which a seed sprouts into a seedling, ready to grow into a mature and productive plant. Germination occurs naturally when a seed is exposed to the perfect environmental conditions to sprout, but these conditions vary from one plant species to another.

If you are starting plants from seed, understanding exactly how each seed germinates helps ensure the best chance of success.

What Is Seed Germination?

Germinating pea seeds.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

Germination is the process by which seeds turn into plants, also referred to as sprouting. 

A seed’s development into a plant requires the perfect environmental conditions, including the right soil and levels of moisture, sunlight, and oxygen. Temperature is one of the most crucial factors in seed germination and often the reason why seeds fail to germinate.

“When a seed is exposed to the proper conditions, water and oxygen are taken in through the seed coat. The embryo’s cells start to enlarge. Then, the seed coat breaks open and the root emerges first, followed by the shoot that contains the leaves and stems”.

Mary Beth Bennett, WVU

How To Start Germinating Seeds

Every type of seed needs slightly different environmental conditions for optimal germination rates. The guide below will work for the vast majority of seeds, but some need more specialist care.

Seed Starter And Record Keeper Planner

Want to start seeds indoors but need help staying organized? This simple downloadable seed starting kit includes both a seed starting plan to help you set dates for planting and a seed starting record so you can keep track of the specific fruits and vegetables you’ve planted.

In Soil: This is the simplest method of germinating seeds. Use containers like plastic trays or plant pots and fill them with good-quality seed compost. Plant your seeds at the recommended depth, and place them by a window for maximum sunlight and warmth.

In Water: Speed up germination by soaking seeds in water, which softens the seed coat. Alternatively, try placing seeds on a soaked sponge or a damp paper towel. Once you see the first seeds start to sprout, carefully pick them out into compost using tweezers.

In A Propagator: Summer vegetable crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers need higher temperatures and humidity to germinate. A heated propagator creates the perfect environmental conditions for these types of seeds, maximizing germination rates with minimal effort.

How Often Should You Water Seeds While Germinating?

Spray the water to sapling.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

Seeds almost always need water in order to successfully germinate. Aim to keep the growing medium or soil moist at all times, but avoid waterlogging as the seeds may rot before they sprout. Never allow the soil to dry, and use a fine mist spray to water to avoid disturbing the delicate seeds.

Once germination occurs, try to water seedlings at least once per day. Again, a fine mist spray is ideal, but make sure the plants are well-ventilated to prevent fungal diseases such as damping off. Never allow the soil to dry out completely, as young seedlings will quickly wilt and die.

How Do You Keep Germinating Seeds Warm?

In addition to water, your seeds will need warm temperatures in order to grow. The temperature may vary according to the type of seedlings you have. Generally, summer crops need higher temperatures than plants grown over winter.

Most seeds will germinate at temperatures of 65-75F. When you see the first seedlings emerging, gradually reduce the ambient temperature until around 10F to prevent scorching.

Seedlings are highly susceptible to cold temperatures and must be protected from frost until they are old enough to be planted.

How Do You Plant Seeds After Germinating?

Tomato Sprouts Greenhouse, Sprouted Tomato, Potted Tomato Seedling.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos

Once your seeds have germinated, they need to reach a certain size before they can be planted out into their final growing position or moved into a larger pot. For most seedlings, this is when you can see the first set of ‘true’ leaves, which appear after the cotyledons (seed leaves).

If you notice any of the signs below, your seedlings are running low on nutrients and must be planted out as soon as possible:

  • When the cotyledon turns yellow or when they start to fall off
  • Once the true leaves start to turn yellow
  • If they appear too crowded and have tall, thin stems

Transplanting seedlings at the ideal time results in healthy plants with vigorous growth that are less susceptible to pests and diseases.

Seedlings can either be transplanted into a larger pot or container or planted out into their final growing position. 

To transplant seeds into a larger pot, you will need a bigger container than the initial one. Fill the containers with potting soil and moisten thoroughly. Make a small hole in the center of the potting soil and carefully move each seedling into its new pot.

If you are transplanting seedlings in a garden, use a rake to level the surface and break up any large lumps of soil. Dig a planting hole, making sure that it is bigger than the root ball of your plants. Gently ease the seedling out of its container and place the root ball into the ground.

Fill the hole with soil and water gently to help the roots settle in the ground.

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