Using Paper Towels to Germinate Seeds

little plant sprout in dirt

Seeds seem to germinate mostly when they please. Some seeds will pop up right away and others will sit there for about a month before they start sending out roots and stems, even further annoyances occur if they were cold stratified well enough or require other special treatments.

Luckily, most of the main vegetable variety seeds don’t take long to sprout at all. There is a tactic many use known as pre-sprouting or pre-germinating. All you need to succeed with this is a paper towel, a container you can seal up, your seeds, and water with an optional misting bottle to apply. Typically I used this method for seeds the size of a tomato and up. Teeny tiny seeds like tobacco seeds often were better off just planted once and left alone in potting mix as they are tiny and fragile for a long time.


Why Pre-sprout Seeds?


Usually, when I was starting seeds in the past I was pulling from some of my saved seed stores and I added the pre-sprout step to make sure my germination rates were strong for that pack of seeds. Seeds eventually become unviable over time and you won’t know the seeds no longer sprout well until you notice you have fewer plants in your plant trays because nothing sprouted. Then you just wasted 2 weeks and have fewer target plants for your garden to plant in a timely manner.

If I pre-sprout and that pack of saved seeds doesn’t germinate well I just toss that whole pack of seeds and save fresh seed from what did sprout or buy the variety over again. Generally with seed saving I prioritized my storage for the rare stuff not so easily replaced.

The added bonus is temporary space savings. I used to have 2 huge grow racks hooked up to lights and with the planting trays, I could have a lot of plants growing at once. The problem is if I used seed and only half the seeds sprouted then I have a lot of empty spots in my growing trays instead of each spot having at least one plant.

Pre-spouting also seemed to start off the seeds faster where they would start showing roots in a few days instead of longer wait times with soil, though this varies seed to seed. Things like cucumber seemed to sprout within the same time frames though my chili peppers would perform better using pre-sprouting. I’m now in Minnesota so I am in a spot where every single day counts big since the season is so short and gardening is pretty difficult here.

Materials to Use

Seeds- You want to use seeds that are at least as large as tomato seeds though larger seeds work best. Tiny seeds mean tiny sprouts and you may end up with more losses if your intent is planting.

Paper towels or coffee filters- You mainly need a surface for the seeds to rest that will stay moist. I somewhat prefer the coffee filters as seedling roots don’t seem to penetrate them as well so I can get the plant cleanly off the paper. With a paper towel, I sometimes have had roots snake into them so there is more work required to cleanly detach the root from the paper.

Container to seal them up- I got a collection of clear containers that were just clear plastic with a lid. Some people use whatever plastic trash they end up with that has clear viewing and can be sealed. I often liked using the old containers that were clear plastic I got cookies in.

What I used this year.

Labels– You need to label your seeds so you know what is what. I never liked marking up my containers so I got creative with my labeling and cut thin plastic strips marked with permanent marker I could place inside my sprouting containers.

Planting containers- Every year you will probably be collecting up more and more pots either from free sources or those random store buys. I save all my pots and have a lot of good small variety pots for plant starting. You want to have those containers loaded with dirt and ready to receive plants so you can pot them up when time.

planting containers
My plants after being potted up.

How to Germinate Seeds on Paper Towels

  • You want to grab your container and stuff it with your paper material with about two layers.
  • You can sprinkle your seeds on the paper material and either drip in a tiny amount of water or use a spray bottle to achieve a moist environment where they aren’t drowning.
  • Then seal the container.
  • The seeds need to be checked often and if the paper appears to be drying then a little spray bottle action can fix it.
  • When roots are visible on the seeds they need to be planted. The roots are fragile so great care needs to be used when extracting to plant them.
  • Plant the seeds in the soil and cover them with a bit of the seed starting mix. Larger variety seeds like squash or beans are usually better off planted directly into the garden.
  • Keep everything moist and warm and either keep plants on a grow rack under lights or outdoors if the weather is warm enough. When plants are large enough you move them all to their large grow-out pots or directly into the garden.
seed starting with paper towels pinterest pin

Seed Sources

Normally my seeds were saved from my garden. My usual starter seeds were acquired from a wide variety of places. I’ve acquired them from Burpee, Johnny Seeds, Seed Savers, eBay, Amazon, and a lot of small sellers with their own tiny shops.

My Main Favorites:

Renee’s Garden is a popular site for me as there was a wide variety and a lot of stuff specifically for containers and small space gardening.

Baker Creek is another good resource for some unusual seeds. Their focus is more on heirloom varieties and keeping those strains alive.

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