Whether you’re a fuzzy neophyte or gnarled veteran of the backyard garden, we should never lose our fascination with the seed germination process. It is magical how such little things, buried in darkness, will quickly emerge from the surface, full of life and independence.
If you’re growing vegetables for the very first time, it’s helpful to understand how plants propagate. So be inspired by your vision of a bountiful harvest of fresh produce, but don’t get so intoxicated that you merely “wet it and forget it.”
For a seed to germinate, it must be viable (alive) and non-dormant (no chemical or physical barriers). Your best bet is using fresh seeds, either saved from a working garden or purchased fresh or stored from a reputable source.
Germination begins when water is absorbed by a dry seed. Essentially, this is an awakening stage in which biological systems are reactivated by cell hydration. Next, stored food is transferred to the embryo’s growing points, which expand until the seedling emerges. You can help this process by keeping the soil loose and well-aerated, avoiding heavy or overly wet soil. Store-bought peat provides optimal conditions: water and oxygen retention, without pests or disease.
Temperature is an important environmental factor affecting germination and subsequent growth. For many plants, optimal sprouting temperature ranges between 80 and 90 degrees. It the weather is cool, or you live mauka, you can improve germination by bringing the seed bed or pot indoors and placing it in a warm location, such as next to a sunny window or on top of the fridge.
Most seeds do not require light to germinate. In fact, certain seeds, like some onions, are inhibited by light. However, lettuce seeds are a notable exception and do prefer light.
Keep It Moist
Once germination has begun, you must maintain a continuous moisture supply. Even a temporary drying out could result in the seed’s premature death—the most common source of failure. This is because seeds are near the surface, which is the first area to dry out between waterings.
As demonstrated by my daughter Yazzy, you can keep moisture from evaporating by stretching clear plastic wrap over the container tops. Leave several inches of clearance above the media for the emerging seedlings. Please remove the covering as soon as germination occurs, because the high humidity inside is conducive to fungal diseases that can attack a succulent sprout.
Yazzy had a blast demonstrating the ease and fun to be had planting tomatoes. Try it with your keiki, too!
Ty McDonald, Landscape Industry and Consumer Horticulture, Kona Cooperative Extension, UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources