The very act of planting a seed in the earth has in it to me something beautiful. I always do it with a joy that is largely mixed with awe. Celia Thaxter                                                                                           

The process of germinating seeds is magical.

It starts each January when my garden is covered with snow and working in the yard feels like a distant memory. I go online, download seed catalogs, and dreamily click on page after page. Envisioning what the seeds from each packet will become, I see the colors, smell the scents, and touch the leaves. I make a wish list of specimens that catch my eye. I feel extravagant as I begin to tally up the cost of my order. But then I remind myself that the cost per plant is so minuscule that it would be criminal not to buy them.

Seed Packets

Seed Packets


Once the seeds arrive, the preparation begins.

Here are some tips on what to do ~

1. Wash and sanitize all containers (a dab of bleach in soapy water does the trick).

2. Separate the seed packets into piles based on the time needed to reach maturity, whether they are early or late sowers, and whether you plan to sow the seeds directly outside or get a head start by sowing indoors in early spring. (If you sow them indoors, then take them out to the garden as fledgling plants — usually four to eight weeks later, after any chance of frost has passed — the blooms will appear weeks or even months earlier.)

seed germinating

3. Use a window with a Southern exposure to germinate sun-loving seeds such as cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, cosmos and sunflowers. Just move the seeds away from the windows at night or put newspaper between the window and the seeds to ward off the cold. To maintain high humidity, either cover the container with a plastic bag or use the clear plastic domes sold with sowing flats.

4. Rig up a germinating room using fluorescent lights. A few years ago, I bought 12 fluorescent lighting fixtures, each 4 feet long. I attached them to 2-by-4-inch pieces of wood that are about 8 feet long and hung from chains; that way, the height of the lighting unit can be adjusted as the seeds turn into seedlings and, eventually, plants. This system gives the seeds the optimal 14 to 16 hours of light per day. Keep the lights 2 inches above the pre-germinated seeds, and when they become seedlings, raise the lights to 4 inches. I set up this system in my basement, but you can use any room in the house.

Hyacinth beans

5. Buy a sowing medium that is specifically for seeds – the package will be labeled “seed starting mix”. Fill the containers to the top with it, tamp down to compress the feather-like texture, and then add more sowing mix to bring it to the top again.

6. Plant number of seeds in one container based on their size. With large seeds such as sunflowers and sweet peas, limit yourself to two or three in  a 2-by-2-inch container; with tiny poppy and nicotiana seeds, you can sprinkle in a dozen. Simply press larger seeds into the soil until they’re slightly covered; sprinkle smaller seeds on top of the soil. Then water the containers from the bottom and cover with a plastic dome or bag to conserve humidity.

At its essence, the Zen of germinating seeds is about taking delight in all of the rituals of selecting, ordering, preparing, planting, tending and then waiting. When all the seeds are sown, I pause and give thanks. It reminds me of when I used to tuck my children under the covers and feel that all was good and right in the world.

germinated seeds in windowboxes

Soon I see that what was a dormant seed has nuzzled its way through the earth and sprouted into a green stem with two leaves ready to unfurl, and I’m filled with a sense of wonder. No matter how many years I do it, I always have an emotional response to this life-affirming process.

SOME SEEDS THAT I GERMINATE (this in no way excludes the dozens of others that I use in my garden) 

Sweet Pea ‘Cupani’s original’

Tarahumara, Autumn Beauty, Giant Primrose, Giant White Seeded, and Hopi Black Dye Sunflower ( I germinate several varieties)

Bouquet Dill

Bull’s Blood Beet

Japanese Giant Red Mustard

Pole Runner Bean – Golden Sunshine

Rhubarb Chard

Red Calabash, Paul Robeson and Beefsteak Tomato ( I germinate several varieties)

Zinnia ‘Red Spider’  (I germinate several varieties)



Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Renees Seeds

Seeds of Change

Select Seeds

Territorial Seed Company

Wildflower Farm

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN. Does germinating seeds in soil have a special meaning for you? What varieties do you germinate?

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