Steps Of Seed Germination

8 comments by David Schulze

Not too long ago, I was watching an episode of Green Acres where Mr. Douglas is complaining to the county extension agent, Mr. Kimball, that the soy beans were not growing as they should. Mr. Kimball asked if he was following the growing instructions. Mr. Douglass said that he was. Mr. Kimball then asked him if he was doing such and such. Mr. Douglass said that he wasn't. Mr. Kimball then pointed out to him that if he does not follow the directions exactly, then how can he expect the crops to grow correctly.

I wonder how many home gardeners do the same thing: "Do not follow the directions but expect great results".

One thing that comes to mind is seed depth. Most seeds will do great when planted at a 1/4 inch. Some of the larger seeds can go a bit deeper. We have had people complain that our seeds did not grow, but when asked how deep did they plant them, they will answer "1 to 2 inches". We explain below why their seeds did not surface.

Even I myself fell into this trap. I was not reading the directions for putting on organic fertilizer. I would fill my container with 1/2 a gallon and then turn it on. Come to find out, I only needed two ounces. So we pay more attention to this now and even have a measuring cup.

When starting seeds, the most important thing to remember is not to plant them too deep. Placing the seeds in 1/4 inch of soil will do. Larger seeds like beans and squash can be buried at 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch.

The seed is a living embryo that contains enough energy to germinate and break the surface of the soil. If planted too deep, the seed will run out of energy and die before it breaks the surface. Once it breaks the surface, it produces the energy it needs through photosynthesis to keep growing.

It is best to actually measure how deep the hole is with a measuring stick or one of our special measuring ruler. It is the first of its kind. You can email us with your address and we will send you several.

Special Update: 6-14-2020: For many years I have said that planting the seeds no more than 1/4 inch was the most important thing. I have come to realize that this is not exactly true. Soil temperature is probably the most important thing. You have to know at what temperature your specific seed will germinate. 

Each variety has its special temperature where it will start to germinate. They are not all the same by variety or family. For instance, lettuces--some like it chilly, some like it warm and some even like the temperature to be hot. 

You have to know where the seed packages are produced in order to get the right plant date or just look it up on the internet. For instance if you buy one of our seed packs, which are from the deep south, and it says, "Plant after danger of frost and the soil is warm,"  then we can plant shortly after the last frost.

We will have our last frost and then it warms up quickly. In the north, after the last frost is different because they will still have night time temps in the high 30's and 40s. For most seeds this is not warm enough. 

A lot of gardeners think that they can plant after the last frost but they do not pay attention to the second part of this which is, "and the soil is warm."  Warm being at least 70 degrees, constant. Day or night, the soil needs to be at 70 degrees

Don't be fooled by warm days. If the nights still get cold, the soil may not be warm enough. When the days warm up, we start to get the itch to plant. But wait. Buy a soil temperature thermometer (same as you use in the kitchen) and actually see what it is.

End of Special Update.

Keep the soil moist, but not wet with a soil temperature of at least 70 degrees. Over-watering will drown the seed. A good rule to follow is the dirt should be moist so it feels like brown sugar up to your first knuckle. If it feels dry like salt, it is too dry. If it feels like wet flour then it is too wet.

The best watering for germinating is bottom watering. Put your starter pots in a tray, fill 3/4 with water and let them soak up the water they need until the seeds germinate. Watering from the top can dislodge the germinating seeds and kill them.

Seeds should germinate in about 7 to 14, and sometimes even 21 days. But chili pepper seeds and strawberry seeds can take as long as 30 days from the day the first seedling comes up.

If starting indoors, seeds need 14 to 16 hours of daylight a day. A grow light will be needed. A regular florescent or lamp light will not do the job. If you are going to start indoors, you will need to make a small investment. Putting pots on a window sill will not work in most cases. If the seeds do not get enough light, they will grow tall and thin. Then they will die. 

Also a window will act as a magnifier of the sun. It can get too hot for seeds to germinate and cook the new seedlings to death.

If using a planter with a cover, do not use a heat pad. The cover and heat pad combination will create too much heat and humidity. One or the other is enough.

Keep in mind that most store bought planters have holes pre-drilled from 3/4 to 1 inch deep, which is too deep for many seeds. You may have to put a bit of filler in them so that the seeds are not buried more then 1/4 inch deep.

I would not use potting soil/garden soil from Home Depot/Walmart/Lowes as these contain more organic material (lighter than soil so cheaper to ship) than they do soil which is okay for mature plants but not seedlings. Go to a nursery and see what they recommend. Some nurseries have a germination/garden mix which works really great.

Also, know that in the garden, birds, ants, and other insects like seeds for dinner. It is possible to plant them and have them stolen, especially smaller seeds. Even worms will eat the seeds. 

Do not use any fertilizer until plants are six inches tall. Then only use half of what is recommended until plants are a foot tall (12 inches). Use an organic fertilizer.  Most chemically made fertilizers have salt in them. Too much salt in the soil and the plant roots will not absorb water like they should which will result in wilted plants.

When transplanting outdoors, plants will need to be hardened off for 7 to 10 days. If you take the plants from the controlled environment to outside without hardening them off, they could flounder and die, or not grow very well.

Click here for information on how to harden off plants.

More on Steps of Seed Germination

Some additional things that have come to my attention are below.

Soil temperature plays a great part in germination. Most seeds will germinate in soil temps of 70 to 75 degrees--a few like it at 80 and some will germinate at temps less than 70 especially if they have been treated with a chemical that aids in germination.

If the treated seeds are organic, they lose their organic certification when they are treated with these chemicals. 

There are some treatments that are organic, though. You will have to do some research to find out what these are since their are many of them. These treatments come in blue, green, red, yellow and orange from what I have seen so far.

Nicking seeds is the process of opening the seed coat prior to planting them. This process makes it easier for water to penetrate the seed coat and reach the seed inside its protective cover.

Soaking can help. Many hard-shelled seeds, such as nasturtium, sweet pea and morning glory, germinate better if they are pre-soaked. By placing the seeds in a bowl and covering them with warm water to soak overnight, you can help the hard shell soften so the seedling can emerge.

Now I have tried soaking pepper seeds mixed with fish fertilizer. The article said it would help. I tried with the fertilizer and without. I let them soak overnight and several nights. There was no difference between the soaked ones and the non-soaked ones when I planted them.

Keep in mind that gardening is not an exact science. You may need to try several things before reaching your own conclusions about what works and what does not work.


  • Kay

    I was planning my fall garden and just realized you had all this great information on your website. Thank you. It is very helpful. I would like a few of your seed measuring sticks. I had one, but don’t know where it is now. You can include them in with my order that will be Soon coming if that is more convenient for you. .

  • Jayne Obrien

    I would love to have a ruler for planting seeds, i think i am placing them at the correct depth but a ruler would really help

  • Linda Pendergast

    I am retired from growing flowers for a living and I want to say that you have the knowledge and I will be a regular customer, however, I bought some of your seeds thru Amazon and didn’t get a ruler…☹️ 6 White Rock Road Coventry RI 02816, thanks!

  • Lo Bell

    Could we please have a few seed measuring sticks, 102 Autumn Way, Huntsville, Tx, 77320, thank you

  • Carolyn Carhart

    I enjoyed your post on seed starting. I am currently growing seedlings in my attic using grow lights and I’m very pleased with my results so far. I read that you would send measuring rulers to those of us that send your our email. I have difficulty with measuring how deep to plant seeds, so this ruler will help me with that.

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