Margaret Lauterbach

Margaret Lauterbach: Get started on the right track germinating seeds indoors

Margaret Lauterbach
Margaret Lauterbach

If you’re new to starting your own seeds indoors, you may find that coir, dried planting mix or peat moss rejects water rather than absorbs it. To avoid that repulsion, use hot water to wet the medium, then let it cool to room temperature before adding seeds.

Some starting instructions advise you to put seeds in the refrigerator for a week or so to hasten germination. They do not mean putting the packet of seeds in the refrigerator, those instructions mean put seeds in the planting mixture, and then refrigerate mix with seeds.

This refrigeration of seeds with plant mix is advised by some to hasten spinach germination. At this time of year, we don’t really have to use refrigerator space, just put the mix outdoors, encased in a plastic bag (not entirely sealed, days are warm enough to cook seeds in airless bags). The bag should keep the mix safe from squirrels and birds.

Pea and bean seed germination can be facilitated by sprouting them indoors, between layers of damp paper towels or in a jar with nylon netting fastened by a canning ring over the neck. Run tepid water through the jar a few times per day, empty water and lay the jar on its side. Some folks at least soak those seeds overnight in tepid water for faster germination. If you’re growing sweet peas (nonedible flowers), many use nail clippers or files to nick the coat of those seeds opposite the “eye” of the pea too.

Seeds for hot chiles may germinate more quickly if they’ve been soaked in a solution of one teaspoon saltpeter (potassium nitrate) in a quart of water. I use small pudding cups and identify each variety with cup tags. I’ve not found that solution helps with germination of sweet peppers, but hot ones are slower to germinate. All peppers, tomatoes and eggplants germinate most quickly with good bottom heat. If you don’t have a good plant heating mat, don’t use a heating pad made for medical use, for those are not built to remain “on” for days on end.

You can use the top of the refrigerator or water heater, or even heat registers such as those found in old homes. Some use a heated farrow bed or dog bed, soil-heating cable, or even heaters from water beds. It takes more than five days at a germination pad temperature of nearly 80 degrees for most hot peppers, I’ve found.

I sow tiny seeds such as lettuce or portulaca on the surface of bottom-watered planting mix, and hold seeds moist by laying a thin sheet of glass over the top. Glass from picture frames works fine, but I know some folks use plastic wrap. Once you see signs of germination, remove glass or wrap quickly before it distorts the shape of the emerging plant. Fine seed results in very thick seedlings, handled best by cutting “paths” through seedlings with manicure scissors, before isolating individual plants for transplanting.

Once any seed germinates, I move the container to the greenhouse for direct sun. If you’re using a windowsill, be sure to turn your container each day to prevent your plants’ developing a permanent lean toward the sun. To avoid this, you could use fluorescent lights on a timer over a larger area for pots than a window sill. Grover’s Pay & Pack at Franklin and Curtis has excellent advice for proper bulbs for growing seedlings.

Cats may play havoc with seedlings, so bar them from the room you’re using for a grow room. The other main enemy of seedlings is fungus disease, resulting in collapse of the seedling at or just below soil line. This is called “damping-off.” Some folks use a chemical mix to bar these fungi, others use organic methods such as cinnamon sprinkled on the planting mix or watering with chamomile tea. Good air circulation and not overwatering help too.

Before I sow seeds, I bottom-water planting mix, so it’s thoroughly wet, and doesn’t need overhead watering for a few days. I water overhead when necessary with cooled chamomile tea, and haven’t had a damping-off death since I started using that concoction many years ago. I usually use two or three chamomile tea bags in a quart pot of water.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

Learn about growing grapes

A free class on growing, pruning and harvesting grapes will be from 6 to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 10, at the Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Registration is required at or call 608-7700. The class will be taught by Danny Trevett, manager of horticultural care and maintenance at Ann Morrison Park.