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Tips for Germinating Hard-to-Start Seeds

By on March 05, 2015

Tricia shows you tips on how to get "hard to germinate" seeds started.

Sometimes we all need a helping hand.

If your favorite seeds are in the “hard-to-start” category, we have tips for you on techniques to give them a hand and get growing. The three basic methods for “encouraging” the hard-to-start seeds to germinate are:

Scarification - scar or scratch or nick the hard seed coat
Stratification - exposure to a period of cold temperatures
Soaking - hydrates seeds with tougher seed coats

Tricia demonstrates all the methods in our video, Seed Germination—Scarification, Stratification, and Soaking.

Seeds 101

A seed is made up of a seed coat that encloses the plant embryo and the endosperm. The endosperm is the food supply for the early growth of the embryo.

Scarification


Seeds that are hard to germinate often have a tough seed coat. Nasturtiums, morning glories, and moonflowers are popular seeds with hard coats. If you are not sure if the seed needs scarification, soak a seed in water overnight. If it swells up, no need to scarify.

To “scar” or abrade the seed coat and allow more water inside, use a pair of nail clippers or a file. Be careful. If you make a deep cut you can hurt the plant embryo just under the seed coat.

Stratification


Some perennial seeds need moist cold to germinate. You can mimic the freezing and thawing of winter by putting your seeds in the refrigerator. First, mix 1 part seeds with 3 parts moist sowing medium, like perlite. Place the mixture in a sealed, plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator. Check once a week to be sure the mixture stays moist. The length of time in the refrigerator depends on the plant variety. When you plant the seeds, plant the moist medium along with them.

Soaking


Soaking helps seeds with tough coats, and also draws out harmful chemicals. For legumes like peas and beans, soak them for 2-24 hours in room temperature water. Beets contain a germination inhibitor, therefore germination will be enhanced by a 2 hours soak in water.

Parsley is a special case and needs to soak for 24 hours, then have its water changed, then soak for a second 24 hours. Parsley is very slow to germinate and do best when seeds are in complete darkness. So cover seeds well and be patient when planting this out in the garden.

For more information, the very thorough, and highly regarded book, The New Seed-Starters Handbook, will be your best friend.

A short and clear booklet, with a handy list of hard-to-grow seeds and how to deal with them, is Starting Seeds Indoors, from the Storey Country Wisdom Series.

Now, go stump your friends by talking about how you’re going to stratify seeds—and enjoy your new plants!

  Comments (31)

S

I tried cold stratifying Delphinium exaltatum seeds but didn’t have any luck. Any ideas?

Posted by Sarah Benton on Mar. 26, 2012 at 4:35:16 PM

L

Basil and pesto are a basic food group.
Every seed from 2010 started 1/4” deep covered with brown paper and glass to keep in moisture. Lettuce same. Every small seed.
Same basil seed last month without covering from light didn’t come up at all.
You might mention basil in your instructions.

Posted by Llan Starkweather on Mar. 28, 2012 at 8:25:20 AM

D

Extremely difficult to start delphiniums.  I have tried on the surface, in the dark, under lights, on heat pads.  Very little success.  What’s the key?

Posted by Donna Hohenschuh on Apr. 07, 2012 at 8:01:50 PM

I

how does one germinate teak trees (tectonis grandis)

Posted by illini on Aug. 25, 2012 at 5:05:16 AM

Lian, Thank you for your suggestion! U of Minnesota says that basil germinates best when directly sown outdoors under 1/4” of soil http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/m1219.html

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Jan. 27, 2013 at 11:44:54 PM

Sarah and Donna, Delphiniums are hard to germinate. The cold scarification should have worked. Cornell Univ also suggests growing delphiniums from cuttings http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scene09de.html

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Jan. 27, 2013 at 11:48:42 PM

illini, The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew have detailed instructions about growing the hard-to-germinate teak trees http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Tectona-grandis.htm

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Jan. 27, 2013 at 11:51:03 PM

A

I’m trying to grow “fakous,” a summer squash common in the Middle East. They look like cucumber seeds but with a hard coat. I’ve nicked and soaked them to no avail. I even, as a Palestinian friend suggested, soaked them with garlic!

I’d be grateful for any tips you might have!

Posted by Allison on Apr. 28, 2013 at 9:52:36 AM

Allison, We have been unable to locate any Middle Eastern squash with that name.  All squash from that origin is similar to various forms of zucchini which do have a seed with a shell.  The lack of germination may have more to do with seed storage rather than the coat.  They may indeed need a sandy or peaty starting medium or a pre-soak to compromise the shell, but not knowing the actual name of the squash type, we are limited in what we can advise.

Please let us know other names for the squash and we can do further research.

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Apr. 30, 2013 at 4:34:08 PM

A

Thanks for your efforts. I seem to have exhausted all my avenues to find the scientific name of the plant. So it looks like growing fakous is not in the cards for me.

I thought the seeds came from a garden center of some sort. But maybe they came from someone’s kitchen—and then who knows how they were stored!

I have had great success growing another Middle Eastern plant called “mloukhia.” Which reminds me, I’d better get it planted!

Posted by Allison on May. 09, 2013 at 8:03:24 AM

Allison, Hmm, interesting vegetable mystery! Let us know how your mioukhia grows—we are always looking for new vegetables to add to our seed offerings.

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on May. 10, 2013 at 9:49:12 AM

I

Joe Bowen

Posted by I'll have to look at my notes but I Think molohkia on Aug. 29, 2013 at 2:15:55 AM

Thanks very much, Joe! Based on your suggestion I found this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulukhiyah for Allison’s second vegetable.

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Sep. 10, 2013 at 2:47:20 PM

A

Hello - this question is for Allison listed in the comments and for Charlotte. I am looking for a seed source for fakous and I can’t find one in the U.S. - any recommendations you have would be great! Thank you

Posted by Anne on Mar. 24, 2014 at 8:08:19 AM

Hello Anne,
Wasn’t able to find anything about that squash variety :( I hope you’re able to find a source.

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Mar. 24, 2014 at 8:58:25 AM

M

I have been trying to germinate narrow leaved coneflower, echinacea angustifolia with no luck at all.  I’ve stratified them for two months, with no luck.  A friend says she soaks them in water in a baggie and then freezes them for two months, thaws and plants and gets pretty good germination.  If you have any other tips, I’d appreciate them.  They are all purchased seed from peaceful valley.

Posted by Mona Twocats-Romero on Mar. 07, 2015 at 10:16:21 AM

B

Fakous is not a squash but a seedless cucumber.
That is the reason you can’t find it.

Posted by Barbara Jacobson on Mar. 07, 2015 at 11:39:12 AM

B

I was in Palestine and was shown a plant that was called “cats eggs” in English.
It had green egg shaped fruit that was full of water. We ate it. It grows wild. Any idea what it is and where to get it?

Posted by BarbaraJacobson on Mar. 07, 2015 at 12:21:25 PM

M

Ok, I have a quasi-challenge for Peaceful Valley! Hard to grow, hard to find “aji dulce” used for Caribbean dishes is a sweet version of a pepper that looks identical to the Scotch bonnet. I found only one source online. These peppers are available in grocery stores in the NE, like NY and NJ. Ten seeds were sold to me for $5, and only one germinated. Obviously, I’m being very careful with the plant and will not transplant until it is a strong plant. One more suggestion, an herb called “culantro,” from Cuba, not to be confused with cilantro. The plant looks like a low-lying weed, resembling a dandelion whose leaves are completely different from dandelion , like mini machetes with saw teeth.

Posted by Madeline on Mar. 07, 2015 at 12:57:24 PM

B

I would be so grateful if someone would help me with Michelia champaca seed germination.  I have tried using a heating pad, bottom watering, substrate/vermiculite sowing medium, with Gibberilic Acid 3,
and I have not had one single seed germinate out of more than one hundred from different seed suppliers.  HELP!

Posted by Betty Gray on Mar. 07, 2015 at 1:41:35 PM

B

In regards to germinating basil, I disagree that it germinates best by direct seeding outdoors.  I germinate basil in a germinating medium, barely cover the seed, and bottom water until the medium is moist.  The basil seed will develop a mucus looking covering which let me know the seed is viable.  Basil is very easy to germinate and grow!
As for parsley & dill, I direct seed these since they do not transplant well.

Posted by Bettye Boone, former owner Boone-Fox Herb Farm on Mar. 08, 2015 at 4:31:56 AM

Sounds like you did what you needed to do, stratify seeds. Did you keep them moist while in the cold? Just got a response from one of our nursery staff that just did some and they took 3 weeks to germinate. She covered them lightly and kept the soil moist and located in an unheated greenhouse.

I am not sure about the freezing them. You can always try a few seeds and see what happens.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Mar. 10, 2015 at 5:05:48 PM

Barbara, I did an extensive search for “cats eggs” and did not find any thing.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Mar. 10, 2015 at 5:10:37 PM

So the sounds like from all the comments that fakous is actually an Armenian cucumber.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Mar. 10, 2015 at 5:12:57 PM

C

Dearest Peaceful Valley, you are far and away my favorite source for everything gardening. Please do a video or article on winter sowing and include as many varieties as you can. Thank you so much. P.S. I winter sowed my Echinacea Purpurea, Borage, and Scullcap.

Posted by Charlene Carney on Mar. 10, 2015 at 9:47:47 PM

So peppers are challenging to germinate. You need to get the soil warm enough but you don’t want the humidity so high that damping off occurs. A heating mat is a must for starting peppers, especially hard to start varieties.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Mar. 16, 2015 at 10:13:58 AM

C

I’ve started nine varieties of basil, several kinds of peppers, way too many tomatoes, and many other vegetables, herbs, and flowers three weeks ago 1/4” deep in peat pots on top of the old-fashioned radiator in my apartment and they are all doing beautifully.  I had meticulous notes for each variety but I got carried away and ignored them.  I move everything under a grow light (on the floor in front of a radiator) after they sprout.

Posted by Cynthia Martin on Mar. 26, 2015 at 4:14:46 PM

Betty, regarding the Michelia champaca, the seed is very challenging to germinate and the more common and reliable way to propagate is from cuttings.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Apr. 09, 2015 at 10:40:07 AM

W

im trying to start some akebia quinata seeds and ive read from a couple sources that it takes about 45 days to germinate unlike the pack they came in that stated 3 to 4 months. actually the only successful attempt i seen was by putting them in a wet coffee filter in a sandwich bag, any pointers?

Posted by William Statome on Jun. 11, 2015 at 2:58:35 PM

Here is a link that I found for starting the seeds. Check it out, it might help you http://homeguides.sfgate.com/germinate-chocolate-vine-indoors-28477.html

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Jun. 16, 2015 at 4:32:22 PM

H

Valuable information thank you very much

Posted by Harold Brown on Jun. 16, 2015 at 6:31:58 PM

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