I start most all of my vegetables from seed. And over the years I’ve come to recognize that, without some additional care and handling, scattering a pack of 100 vegetable seeds into the ground can result in anywhere from 5 to 50 little sproutlings. And by scattering I mean carefully laying them out in my perfect dirt in perfect little rows. But still, in the early days of the Bell Back 400, my direct seed germination rates were shockingly low.
But I learned.
And this was not just an issue related to direct seeding. I also came to realize that it’s disappointing to set out 25 seeded starter pots under grow lights, and get maybe 12 sprouted seedlings out of the batch.
Whether it’s in the ground or in starter pots, when you’re producing a really low seed germination rate, you start to wonder. Was it the quality of the seeds? Was it my lack of seed parenting skills? Nature or nurture.
I’m no Dr. Phil, but I have learned quite a bit about bringing plants into the world. Turning them into productive flowering and fruiting members of society. And I’ve yet to have a tomato plant wreck my car or violate curfew.
Okay, sloppy metaphor mixing aside, I have come up with a few tips around making the most of your vegetable seeds. How to maximize germination rates. And how to ensure those seedlings turn into productive plants.
Here is what I have learned from growing the listed selected vegetables about how to successfully start them from seed.
If there’s interest, I’ll expand this post to include other vegetables I have experience with.
Beet seeds are just plain spotty when it comes to germination rates. Here’s a little tip. Beet seed coats contain a chemical coating that inhibits germination. Soaking the seeds in warm water for a couple of hours prior to planting will help dissolve the chemical and soften the coating. I plant beets every year, and the presoaking has worked wonders for me.
Another tip. Beet seeds need to be tight with the dirt. Beet seeds, like many other edibles, need to feel tightly tucked into the soil. Plant the seeds, cover with soil and firmly tamp them in.
Beets are sensitive to toxic substances in the soil. They won’t do well in areas treated by pesticides.
By the way, a beet seed is really a seed ball. Each ‘seed’ actually contains 3-7 seeds.
If you’re starting beets from seed, soak them, plant them and be ready to thin the sprouts that will be popping up. The sprouts you pull up are great on sandwiches or in salads, by the way.
Don’t bother planting cucumber seeds in the garden before temperatures get really warm Cucumber seeds like warm soil in the 80 degree Fahrenheit+ range. At temps below 60 degrees F, they are more likely to rot than sprout.
Use succession planting during the growing season to ensure a steady supply of producing cucumber crops. Out here in the heat of North Texas, we get maybe 2-3 months of good cucumber production before the plants start wilting. I usually plant new seeds every 2 months to allow new growth to replace the wilting crops.
After planting cucumber seeds, soak the area with lukewarm water. Again, cucumbers like a warm environment.
Don’t thin your young cucumber seedlings too early. Wait and see what plants survive any early cucumber beetle onslaughts. When the plants reach a decent size, cut the weaker plants to the ground to thin the crop. Pulling them may hurt the adjoining good plants by damaging the entangled roots.
Lettuce is a cool season crop. And it grows so quickly that I rarely ever start it inside under lights. Don’t plant lettuce seeds too deep, they will rot if the sprouts can’t get to light quickly. Generally about a quarter inch deep is good.
Succession planting lettuce will work well to extend your production. Lettuce will bolt when it is fully developed. No matter what the weather conditions are. But long days and heat will accelerate the bolting process. Keep a new batch of seeds going in the ground every couple of months to ensure a fresh supply throughout the growing season.
Also, to slow down bolting, avoid having the plants exposed to nighttime lights, such as porch lights or street lamps.
Tomatoes take a good 60-90 days before growing to maturity and producing fruit, so I typically start my tomato seeds in early February. Indoors under lights.
Like cucumbers, tomato seeds like warm soil to sprout in. Around 80 degrees F seems to work well. Another reason to start the seeds indoors. Here in Texas, I’d be looking at late spring before the ground heats up to that range. And with our typical July-August scorching temperatures, I need the plants to be fairly mature by then.
And make the sure the seeds are fully covered. Tomato seeds like to sprout in darkness.
There are tomato varieties that do well with direct seeding early in the season. And by early I mean right after the last frost of winter. Cherry tomatoes and some of the subarctic varieties actually thrive in cooler temperatures. And as with most any plant that develops from a direct seeding in the ground, these tomato plants will tend to be stronger and produce longer due to their forced early acclimation to the outside growing environment (deeper roots, more sturdy stem structure, etc).
Lima bean seeds, like most other bean varieties, are very tender and are prone to rot in cold soil. Even after germinating, a cold spell can easily kill the young plants as they are trying to absorb moisture. But even so, I don’t start my beans indoors under lights as bean seedlings do not transplant well.
I also presoak my bean seeds in lukewarm water for about an hour prior to planting. Don’t soak them much longer than that or they will start splitting.
If you are going to direct seed, you want to wait until the soil reaches the 70-75 degree F temperature range. And as bean seeds are fairly large, it’s easy to position them in the dirt to give them the best chance of surviving the germination process. Plant them eye side down to ensure that the root and cotyledons are heading in the right direction once they emerge. The extra attention really can make a difference in successful germination rates.
These tips should help in preparing you to grow some of the common spring-summer crops you might be planning for your garden.
If there’s interest, I can do a follow up post on seed starting tips for herbs. They are definitely more finicky than vegetables, and many require significant hand holding to successfully germinate and develop.
And please check out our new edible gardening community:
Whether you are growing tomatoes on your patio or have a backyard full of herbs and produce, you are Farming Suburbia.