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Ask a Master Gardener: Germination test

by Peter Sutter, For the News Tribune | January 31, 2021 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated January 31, 2021 at 12:19 p.m.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the grow lights inside are delightful. Well, the grow lights aren't on yet, but it is a good time to start thinking about getting things ready. It will be time to start some seedlings before you know it. In fact, if you would like to try your hand at starting some Begonia or Pansy plants, now is the time to start them. I have not tried to start either of these flowers from seed, but I have thought about it maybe next year.

If you are planning on using new seeds or seed you saved from last year's crop, you are good to go. But if you are using older seeds or some you are not sure about, now is a good time to test their germination rate. If you wait till time to start the seedlings or do not test them at all you might be setting yourself up for a disappointment.

A common germination test is called the paper towel test. This is the style of germination test best suited to the home garden, since all you need is a paper towel and a zip-top bag. And the seeds to be tested, of course. The paper towel needs to be wet, but not dripping. You can use a spray bottle to mist it down until it is as wet as needed. Dipping the paper in water or holding it under the faucet and wringing it out can be a little rough on a paper towel. You really need an intact piece of paper towel for this project. If water beads up around your fingertip when you press on the paper towel, the towel is too wet.

Chose 10 seeds from the packet or jar you are questioning and line the seeds up on the towel about 2 inches from the edge. Roll or fold them up in the towel so that you have them enclosed in the wet paper towel, and slip the whole thing into the zip-top bag. Seal the bag. Now, place the bag in any spot where the temperature is suitable for germinating that seed. Different seeds like different temperatures to germinate.

Wait a day or two, then start checking for germination. You can count a seed as germinated when the root (the first part to show) comes out fully from the seed. Count the number of seeds that have germinated each day, and take note of that number, keeping track also of the day. The test is done when all the seeds have germinated, or the maximum time for normal germination has passed. Germination time will be indicated on the seed packet or if you have no packet, your own experience will suffice. If a seed goes moldy, remove it and count it as dead. You should also remove the seeds that germinate as you count them but be sure to keep a record.

Add up the number of seeds that germinated. If all the seeds sprouted, that is a 100 percent germination rate. Those seeds will have a long life ahead of them. If seven seeds sprouted, you have 70 percent and so on. Sixty percent and lower and the seeds are probably not going to last much longer.

This germination test will tell you if you have good seed or not. It will also help you with how densely you plant the seeds. If your favorite heirloom tomato comes up at 30-40 percent, you'll need to plant extra seeds, about three times as many, to get a good stand.

There are a few more seeds along with Begonia or Pansy that will need to be started soon to get good transplants this spring. Geranium, Impatiens, Lobelia, and Petunia all need to be started in February. In the vegetable department cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, etc.) and lettuce should be started the end of February. In fact nice lettuce transplants can take four to six weeks, depending on the warmth and light level. For six weeks, you would need to start the seeds by Feb. 7 for the optimal lettuce planting date of March 21.

Peter Sutter is a life long gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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