What is seed germination? Do you need to start them indoors? Can you plant seeds without germinating? Read this article to learn more. Direct sowing is planting seeds directly in soil. This gardening practice is simple if you use the right kinds of plants and can yield great results with proper care and attention. Direct sowing, the technique of planting seeds directly in the outdoor garden, works well for many plants. Learn the correct techniques for this method.
5 Methods for Germinating Seeds + Can You Plant Seeds without Germinating?
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When you are starting your first garden, the whole process of germinating seeds can seem like a mystery. Do you need to start them indoors? Can they germinate directly in the soil? Can you plant seeds without germinating?
These are all excellent questions typically asked by new gardeners. And they are reasonable too. We hear so many vocabulary words thrown at us when we start learning how to grow things that it can all be confusing.
Can you plant seeds without germinating? You can plant seeds without germinating them first. This is called “direct sow” where the seeds are put directly into the soil without first sprouting or germinating them indoors.
Table of Contents
What is Seed Germination?
Seed germination is the process of seed growing into a plant. In gardening, we typically refer to germination as the process of taking a seed to a sprout.
Usually, we are looking at germination to tell us that the seeds we are using are viable. It can take a lot of work to grow flowers and vegetables. Even before the seed is ever planted beds have to be prepped, soil prepared or amended and weeds removed. Then there is seed selection and deciding when to plant.
After all of that work, what if your plants never grow? How will you know if it was the seed or something else?
Germinating Seeds in Soil
If you want to germinate seeds directly into your soil, there are a few steps you should take and a few caveats you should be aware of.
1. Prepare Your Soil
You’ll first want to prepare your soil to receive the seeds. Your soil should be nicely tilled and loose so that your seedling can easily establish a root system as it emerges.
You may want to ammend your soil to make sure it has all of the nutrients your seedling will need to thrive. The best way to know what your soil needs is to test it.
A soil test meter, like this one, is a great way to check the pH of the soil. Depending on what you are growing you may need to add it to best suit the plant.
2. Add Water
Your soil should be moist but not soaking wet. The moisture will help to soften the seed and promote germination. During this process, you’ll want to try and make sure the seed never dries out.
Many seed starting kits offer a lid to help trap moisture inside the container. When you are sowing directly into a pot or garden, one thing you can do to help the soil retain moisture is using plastic sheeting to cover the bed during the germination process.
3. Keep it Warm
Most seeds need a warm environment to grow. Warmth and moisture are the perfect equation to help a seed sprout.
A good rule of thumb is to know the sun requirements of the plants you are trying to grow and make sure that your garden bed or pot is in a location that matches.
It makes sense that if a plant normally grows in full sun, for example, that the seedling also germinates best in full sun.
Keep in mind that if you are planting early or happen to have a cold snap, a chill could kill the sensitive plant. It happens in nature, and it can happen in your garden, so it is one thing to be aware of (and a reason some prefer to germinate seeds indoors).
4. Don’t Plant to Deep
One mistake new gardeners will sometimes make is planting a seed too deep into the soil. Your seed packet may provide you with some instructions but, in general, smaller seeds should be planted closer to the surface, and larger seeds can go deeper.
Of course, planting seeds close to the surface makes them a yummy target for seed eaters, like birds, who may be passing by. A plastic covering, or even light weight bird netting, will help protect your seeds from being disturbed while they have a chance to grow.
5. Be Patient
Germinating seeds outside can take longer than germinating them indoors. There are wider temperature fluctuations. It can also be harder to maintain consistent moisture in the soil.
Both of these factors can lead to slower germination. Don’t stress out if you don’t see seedlings popping up right away, just be patient!
4 Ways to Germinate Seeds Indoors
1. Use Peat Pellets
We’ve all seen these kits in the store. Typically right next to the seed section you’ll find any of a variety of different seed starting kits. The easiest of these is the peat pellet kit.
I mean, what can be easier, you add water so that the pellets expand, put the top on and set it in a sunny place to germinate. Pretty soon, you’ll have perfectly germinated seeds ready to plant in their new home.
Best of all, the peat pellets transfer right along with the seedling so you don’t have to worry about damaging the sprout when you move it.
2. Use a Paper Towel
Many seeds can be germinated simply by gentling sandwiching the seeds in between two layers of wet paper towels. The paper towel is then usually placed in a plastic sandwich bag or even an old tupperware container.
The idea here is just to get the seeds to the point where they have sprouted, and then transfer them to soil for further growth.
This is also a great way to check if the seeds you have are viable. By germinating in paper towel, you eliminate any concerns you might have about soil type or quality.
If you don’t have paper towels handy, any sturdy paper product can work. Coffee filters make an excellent substitute, for example.
3. Seed Starting Trays
While I already mentioned the peat pellet trays above (because they are my favorite), there are a variety of other seed starting trays on the market that can do just as good a job.
In fact, these can be more economical than the peat pellet system. You will need to take into consideration whether you want a system with a top or not. Drainage is also a factor, you may need a pan to sit underneath them to catch excess water that drains out.
You don’t need a commercial system either. You still need to purchase seed starting soil for most tray systems. You could add that soil to any of a variety of other “containers” including empty eggshells eggs, paper cups, etc.
4. Germinating Seeds in Sand
Sand can be an excellent substrate for germinating seeds as well. It has great drainage, retains heat and is easy to come by. It’s one way to keep your seeds moist and help them to germinate.
You can use pure sand or a 50/50 mix of sand and seed starting mix for this germination method. According to the Indiana Crop Improvement Association, a good result from sand germination is 93% or higher!
Direct Sowing: Starting Seeds Outdoors
Growing from seeds indoors is one way of starting your garden. Another option is to tuck seeds directly into soil outdoors. Planting seeds this way is called direct sowing, and it is an easy process that yields great results.
Unlike indoor seed starting, direct sowing involves unpredictable elements: weather, wildlife and insects. Even so, many vegetables, annuals, herbs and perennials sprout easily from seed sown directly into garden soil.
How to Plants Seeds
Direct-sow tap-rooted vegetables, such as carrots or radishes, that do not transplant well as seedlings. Beets transplant well, but they prefer growing in cool soil so there is no reason to start them indoors.
Heat-loving crops that need a long season to produce, such as tomato, pepper or eggplant, don’t yield as strong a performance when they’re direct-sown, especially in regions with short growing seasons. Start these seeds indoors. Other heat-loving crops, such as pumpkin, squash, cucumber, beans and melons, thrive when direct-sown after all danger of frost is past.
Some flowers, including Sweet Pea, Larkspur and Bachelor’s Buttons, germinate best in cool soil and should be direct-sown early in the growing season. You also want to direct-sow bloomers that don’t transplant well as seedlings, such as Morning Glory, Nasturtium, Poppies and Moonflower.
Annuals that require a long time to grow from seed are best started indoors. Examples include Cleome, Petunia, Nicotiana and Amaranth. Other warm-season annuals, including Cosmos, Marigold and Zinnia, grow quickly from direct-sown seed.
How to Plant Flowers from Seed: Step-By-Step
Prepare Soil – Use a rake or hand fork to loosen soil. Break apart large soil clumps, and remove debris, such as sticks, rocks and roots. Add amendments to soil, such as fertilizer and organic matter, to create the most ideal growing situation. Finish by creating a level surface.
Dig In – Most seed packets describe planting depth. The rule of thumb is to plant at a depth equal to three times the seed diameter. There are exceptions. Some seeds require light to germinate and should rest on top of soil. Press such seeds firmly against soil using a board or trowel to ensure that moisture cradles the seeds.
How to Sow Seeds:
- If your soil has a high clay content and tends to crust over as it dries, cover seeds with commercial seed-starting mix.
- When sowing extremely small seeds, such as carrots or nicotiana, mix seeds with sand to aid in dispersal.
- When sowing larger seeds, including peas and beans, create a long furrow and dribble seeds at the proper spacing. Alternatively, use a bamboo stake, dibber or pencil to form individual planting holes.
Moisture Matters – After planting, water seeds with a gentle mist or shower. Avoid using a strong splash or spray, which can dislodge seeds. It is vital to keep soil consistently moist. In a sunny spot, this may mean watering twice a day.
Stake The Spot – Mark planting areas, especially if they are tucked between existing plantings. Use garden markers, stakes and string, tall sticks, plastic cutlery — anything that clearly defines where seeds are buried.
Identify Seedlings – Learn what your seedlings will look like so you don’t mistakenly pull them as weeds. Some seed packets show seedling appearance; you can also find illustrations or photos online. When in doubt, let the seedling remain until you know for sure if it is friend or foe.
Thin Seedlings – Thin seedlings as directed on the seed packet. You will disturb roots less if, instead of pulling seedlings you are removing, you snip seedlings at the soil line with a fingernail or a tiny pair or snips or scissors.
Watch For Pests – Keep an eye out for and protect seedlings against Slugs, Snails, Cutworms and other insect pests.
How to Direct Sow Seeds Successfully in Your Garden
Colleen Vanderlinden is an organic gardening expert and author of the book “Edible Gardening for the Midwest.” She has grown fruits and vegetables for over 12 years and professionally written for 15-plus years. To help move the organic gardening movement forward, she started an organic gardening website, “In the Garden Online,” in 2003 and launched the Mouse & Trowel Awards in 2007 to recognize gardening bloggers.
Julie Thompson-Adolf is a master gardener and author. She has 13+ years of experience with year-round organic gardening; seed starting and saving; growing heirloom plants, perennials, and annuals; and sustainable and urban farming.
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
- Working Time: 30 mins – 1 hr
- Total Time: 1 – 4 wks
- Skill Level: Beginner
- Estimated Cost: $5 to $20
Growing plants from seed is one of the most economical ways to add plants to your garden. And while starting seeds indoors under lights or in a sunny window is a very popular method, there is an even simpler way. Direct sowing is the method of planting the seeds directly into outdoor garden soil. There is no special equipment, and there are no little pots and flats to mess with. You don’t have to worry about transplanting (and the related risk of transplant shock) or hardening off your plants.
That’s not to say that direct sowing is foolproof, or that it is the right method for every plant. Plants that require a long growing season—including tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants—won’t perform well when direct-sown in cool-weather regions. And plants that require very specific germination conditions are best started indoors. But a surprising number of vegetables, herbs, annuals, and perennials can be sown directly in the garden.
Although direct sowing is an uncertain art, subject to the whims of weather and local wildlife, the enormous cost savings mean that occasional failure is a fair price to pay. A garden started from direct-sown seeds costs a fraction of what it costs to start a garden from potted nursery plants.
When to Direct Sow Seeds in the Garden
When to plant your seeds will depend on the plant species and on the climate in your region. Many vegetable seeds can be planted as soon as the frost is fully out of the ground in the spring and the soil can be readily worked, but some seeds may require warmer soil to ensure that they will germinate and sprout. Some seeds can be sown in the fall, depending on the climate and the seed. Research the plant species and read the requirements listed on the seed packet to learn the best planting time for the seeds you want to grow.
Before Getting Started
Each plant species has its own preferences for soil type, planting time, sun and water requirements, and care. Do some research on the species you are planning to grow in order to learn these preferences. You may find that only certain areas of your garden are suitable, or that your soil type will require some added soil amendments.
Most plants grow best in a soil type known as “loamy”—soil consisting of a balanced mixture of sand, clay, and silt. If your soil is very dense (clay) or very porous (sandy), amending it with organic material such as compost is often recommended. Other amendments may be recommended if your soil’s pH level is too acidic or alkaline to grow the plants you want. A soil analysis performed by your university’s Extension Service or a commercial testing lab is the best way to learn about your soil and what amendments might be needed.
What You’ll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Garden fork
- Hose sprayer with mist setting
- Seeds for planting
- Plant markers and string
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
Prepare the Soil
Start with loose, weed-free, level soil. Take some time to prep the area first by removing all weeds, rocks, and sticks, and break up large clumps of dirt. Loosen the soil with a garden fork, add soil amendments if required, and rake the area into an even, level surface.
A recent soil test can be useful in learning the composition of your garden soil. The test will tell you what amendments are needed to make the soil optimal for the types of plants you want to grow. Almost all soil will be improved by thoroughly blending in some organic material, such as well-decomposed compost, peat moss, or manure, but you don’t want soil that is too rich, as not all seeds germinate well in extremely fertile soil.
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
Prepare the Seeds (if Needed)
The seed pack instructions and your research may indicate that some seeds will do best with some prior preparation. For example, seeds for some plant species need to be slightly softened by soaking them in water before planting. Others may need to be “scarified” by rubbing them against fine sandpaper. Scarifying helps thin the hard shells on some seeds, making them more easily absorb water, germinate, and sprout more easily.
Some of the seeds where scarification is recommended include lupine, nasturtium, sweet pea, and morning glory. Some plants, including perennials like milkweed, need a cold/moist period to germinate, called stratification. While it often occurs naturally when seeds drop from a parent plant in nature, going through the cold, wet winter to weaken the seed coat, you can place these seeds in a container with moist seed starting mix, put them in the refrigerator, and mimic nature. A good book on plant propagation will tell you how to best prepare seeds for direct sowing.
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
Plant the Seeds
Follow seed packet instructions for planting depth and spacing. Some seeds require light to germinate and prefer to be sown directly on top of the soil. With very tiny seeds, the sowing method is often to pinch the seeds between the thumb and forefinger and sprinkle the seeds into the soil by rubbing the fingers together. Larger seeds usually need to be buried at a prescribed depth—sometimes individually and sometimes in small clusters to ensure proper germination.
The general rule for planting seeds is that they should be planted three times as deep as the diameter of the seed. With very small seeds, this can be a matter of simply sprinkling a light dusting of soil over the seeds. But there’s no need to get out the tape measure; seeds aren’t all that picky and will often germinate regardless of soil depth.
For edible row crops, you can drive stakes and hang string to ensure that you achieve straight rows when planting. This is not essential, but straight, well-spaced rows can make weeding and other care tasks easier if you have a lot of plants to care for.
Commercial seeds will gradually lose their ability to germinate over time. A new packet of seeds may have a 90 percent germination rate, while a three-year-old packet may have a germination rate of only 50 percent or even less. There’s nothing wrong with saving partial packets of seeds, but just be aware that you may need to plant the seeds more densely to ensure that enough germinate and sprout.
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
Moisten the Soil—and Keep It Moist
The single most important step after planting seeds is to keep the soil evenly moist. Nothing hampers germination more than letting the soil dry out. You do need to be a bit careful about how you water, though. A strong blast from the hose will either wash your seeds completely out of the bed or mess up the spacing if you surface-sowed them. Use a “shower” setting on a hose wand or a “rose” fitting on a watering can to get a gentle flow of water for your seeds.
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
Mark Planting Location
Make sure to mark where you planted the seeds. Small craft sticks labeled with indelible marker work well for this. This is important whether you planted new annual or perennial seeds in an established ornamental bed or are sowing veggies in your edible garden. Marking seed locations lets you monitor the progress of germination and helps keep track of your garden’s layout as planting season progresses. Without labeled markers, it’s all too easy to crowd your seeds with additional plantings or to accidentally pull “weeds” that are actually your newly sprouted seedlings.
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
Recognize the Seedlings, Thin as Needed
Know what your seedlings look like. When they are newly sprouted, it’s often hard to tell a weed from, say, a tomato seedling. The first leaves to appear are the cotyledon, or “seed leaves.” Wait for a set of true leaves to appear to help you identify your plants well. There are websites you can reference to see what certain seedlings look like, and some seed packets have photos or drawings on them, as well. Knowing what your seedlings look like ensures you won’t pull them by mistake while plucking weeds.
Your newly sprouted seedlings may require thinning to maintain optimal spacing for growing to maturity. This is especially true of very tiny seeds, like carrots or celery, which are often planted by sprinkling them over the prepared soil. If allowed to grow too close, they won’t be able to mature into sizable plants, so shortly after the seeds sprout, thinning can begin.
Follow the seed packet’s recommendations for proper spacing between plants, and make sure to perform the thinning gently, so as to avoid disturbing the fragile new roots of adjoining plants. Rather than pulling the seedings from the ground, some gardeners like to pinch or snip them off at ground level to avoid disturbing the soil.
You may need to thin a second time as the plants grow larger and begin to crowd one another. For many vegetables, the seedlings plucked during thinning make an excellent addition to salads and other dishes.
Many plants, especially flowering annuals, will readily self-seed by dropping their seeds from ripened flower heads. You may find, for example, that last year’s snapdragons, zinnias, foxgloves, or marigolds have done all your direct-sowing for you. This is especially true if your habit was to let the flowers go to seed rather than deadheading them. Self-seeded plants often sprout up in dense clusters of seedlings, so you will need to thin them out to make sure your garden doesn’t get overgrown with volunteers. Even the most attractive plants soon seem like weeds if they are growing where you don’t want them.
The Spruce / Meg MacDonald
Care for the Seedlings
Young seedlings are somewhat frail and need careful attention for their first few weeks—especially when it comes to keeping the soil moist. Daily watering using light mist is generally a good idea, but in hot weather, twice-daily watering might be needed.
Follow seed packet recommendations for fertilizing. Normally, feeding is not necessary until the plant gets large enough to begin setting flower buds. With some plants, seed packages may recommend feeding with a diluted fertilizer for the first month or so, until the plants are strong enough to tolerate full-strength feeding.
Also, be diligent in weeding around your young seedlings. Weeds will compete for water, sunlight, and nutrients, so regular weeding is a necessary task.