Grow Seeds Faster – Imbibition

Posted on: March 14th, 2013 by Judy 110 Comments

I know gardening is supposed to be slow, contemplative, restorative and filled with gracious patience. Well, life is busy and I’ve been ingesting more than my fair share of caffeine…Bye bye patience! So, I’ve been putting my horticultural energy towards experimenting with speeding up the whole seed process (insert wringing of hands a la mad scientist).

One of my favorite techniques for seed speed is soaking seeds prior to sowing them. If you’re familiar with the process then you know it’s common for large-seeded things or ones with a hard seed coat. What my non-scientific experiments have shown is that it works for EVERYTHING I’ve tried.

Time for a little science: The first stage of germination is called ‘imbibition’. That’s a fancy way of saying seeds drinking water. The process can be fast or slow dependent on available moisture. It’s the step that triggers a bunch of reactions that result in seedlings.

It’s a good place to save a little, or a lot of time. The standard method is to soak large or hard seeds in water for 6-24 hours then sow immediately. That’s great and it works. But, I’m not one to be happy with the conventional ways of doing things. What about small seeds that are slow to germinate? Are they to be forever relegated to the categories of ‘hard to grow’ or ‘for experienced gardeners’? I say NO!

Many small, slow to germinate seeds need to be sown close to the surface. Think of carrots or parsley that can take 3-4 weeks to germinate in some cases. It can be frustrating to try and keep the top 1/8” soil moist that whole time. Or, to forget a couple of waterings and get sub par results. I say SOAK ‘EM!

Before you decide to soak your seeds, you need a way to strain them from the water. Check BEFORE you soak that your strainer will catch your seeds. After you’ve removed the seeds from the water, pat them dry on a towel so that they are easier to handle, then take them directly to their new home and sow them.

This all works great, takes very little planning, saves lots of time and I do it all the time. But, my curiosity goes further. What about super tiny seeds? Some seeds are so small you can barely count them, let alone strain them from water or handle them wet. I needed to come up with an answer – EXPERIMENT TIME!

I picked the tiniest seed I could think of – Lobelia. It was also convenient that it’s normally slow to germinate – up to 3 weeks. I poured the seeds into a glass of water with no idea of how I was going to get them out. I soaked them for 24 hours. In the meantime I prepared some 4” pots with seeds starting mix. I picked large pots because you usually don’t thin out lobelia seedlings and they grow really slow when they’re young, rendering transplanting impractical.

It came time to sow the seeds and I had not planned a way to get the seeds out. So, I picked up a spoon, stirred the seeds in the water and scooped out a spoonful of water and seeds then poured it on the soil surface of one of the pots. I thought maybe a handful of seeds would germinate and I’d have enough for a nice clump in each pot.

I covered the pots to keep in the moisture and put them under my lights. Like an expecting father, I checked on them twice a day for progress, thinking if I got germination in 2 weeks I could call my experiment a success. Two days later, I saw something I never expected – germination had begun. I could see fuzzy little roots! And, not a few, but TONS! It looked like every seed had germinated. This was the amazing result I had been looking for. So, here I am sharing it with you hoping that you’ll decide to soak some seeds and experiment.

It seems very American to me to want things faster. Sometimes I lament the loss of my patience. But I suppose that as long as I’m not looking for fast food, fast cars, or fast women, I’m probably doing ok. Give soaking a try and speed up your garden.

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