Test Those Seeds Before Buying New: Easy Seed Germination Test

Easy Seed Germination Test

We buy a LOT of seeds around here.  Of course, that’s because we grow a lot of stuff.  We do buy many of our seeds in bulk to save some money but don’t always plant all of it by the end of the season.  So, when those seed catalogs start rolling in at the beginning of the year I do an inventory of what’s left from the previous year before ordering anything.  Sometimes I come across seeds in my stash from two or more seasons ago – varieties we didn’t use again right away or a veggie we skipped a year planting.  Thankfully most seeds, if stored properly, will last several seasons.  But their germination rate does drop over time and that’s important to know, especially if you’ve only got space for a few plants in your garden. Before deciding whether to include seeds as part of my inventory, or toss them and order new ones, I do a germination test.  If you’ve got seeds laying around and you’re not sure whether to toss or keep, here’s some help.

Basic Seed Germination Test

Germination suppliesWhat you’ll need:

Plastic baggies
Paper towels

How to test:

1. Tear a paper towel in half and moisten it with water.  I soak it down, then squeeze most of the extra out.  It needs to be moist but not dripping.

2. Fold the paper towel in half and lay flat on your work surface.

Seeds on towel3.  Count 10 seeds from the variety you’re testing.  Spread those seeds out on one half of the paper towel so that they’re not touching.

4. Fold the paper towel over on top of the seeds and press down lightly, essentially sealing the seeds inside.

Marked seed bag5. Mark the variety of seed, the date you started the test, and the number of expected days to germination on the plastic bag.

6. Slide the paper towel with the seeds inside the bag and seal.  If using fold-over sandwich bags, just fold it under itself to keep the towel from drying out too quickly

Seed bags7. Place the bag in a warm place out of direct sun.  If you keep your house cool, like we do, use a seedling starter mat or heating pad to help.  Be sure to put a couple layers of towels between the seeds and the heat source or you risk overheating the seeds and hindering sprouting (essentially cooking the seeds).

8.  Check the bag every couple of days to be sure the towel stays moist.  Spray the towel with water if it gets dry before sprouting.

Check your results

Once the expected days for germination have passed, count the number of seeds that sprouted.  This will give you your germination rate.  If 8 seeds sprouted you have a germination rate of 80%, which is good.  Anything less than 60% is sketchy.

Generally if my germination rate is 50% or 60%, I’ll use the seeds but plant them more thickly than I would if they were germinating better.  70% or higher germination rate, I will plant as usual.

What you’re comfortable planting will depend on how much space you have and the number of seeds leftover.  If you’ve got enough room and enough seeds to over plant, then go for it.  But if you’ve got limited space and need what you plant to germinate with some assurances, you may only want to keep seeds that germinate at 80% or better and replace those that don’t.  Either way, doing a simple germination test before placing your seed order may save you money and prevent more seeds from sitting around waiting to go in the ground next year.  Happy planting!


Watch Out for GMO Seeds, Veggies This Spring

We, as a rule, stay away from genetically modified organisms (GMO) in both our growing and our eating.  Yes, it’s impossible to stay away from them completely in any processed foods unless you are purchasing 100% organic food at all times.  I read so many labels and ingredients when shopping, I’m about blind by the time I get to checkout.  But you do what you can, when you can.  I think it’s even more important when buying fresh, unprocessed foods.  That’s part of the reason we started growing our own food to begin with.

Seed catalogsIf you’re anything like me you get super excited when all those seed catalogs start rolling in.  As professional growers (I use that term lightly) we get a ton of catalogs from all kinds of places, including those we’ve never ordered from.  Some of these are strictly for commercial growers – those who order in large quantities not suitable for home growers.  This is where I found the horrible truth that our customers will have to watch out for this season.

Imagine my dismay when, in one of those shiny commercial grower catalogs, I came across three varieties of GMO zucchini, two GMO summer squash and four GMO sweet corn.  We knew these were out there, of course, but the options to purchase these seeds hadn’t yet been in front of my face.  Times they are a-changing.  While most of you won’t encounter these seeds, it’s important you know what to look for when ordering for your gardens this year…and what you’re buying at the farmers markets.

What to Watch for When Ordering Seeds

Any seed that says it’s “Roundup resistant” is GMO.  This will mainly apply to sweet corn (in addition to soy, cotton and a host of other items a home gardener wouldn’t plant).  These have been genetically engineered to be able to withstand having Roundup herbicide dumped on it (often heavily) without damaging the crop.  Ucka.

GMO Zucchini SeedsAny seed that lists “Transgenic” as one of its attributes is also genetically engineered.  These are the zucchini and yellow squash options.  They have had genes spliced into the seeds to make them resistant to specific viruses or plant diseases.  Depending on the type of seed, the gene spliced in may be from another plant or even an animal.  Weird science, folks.

Again, you probably won’t find these seeds in your home-grown garden selections and, if you do see them, they can only be ordered in mass quantities you more than likely wouldn’t order anyway.  It’s just good information to have.

What to Watch for at Market

GMO Sweet Corn SeedsHere’s the rub.  These seeds are being offered to us, a small-scale grower who sells mainly at farmers markets.  Which means any of the growers at any of the markets you attend could be growing these.  Plus, three of the varieties of sweet corn have the SAME NAME as three varieties that were previously not GMO!  If you’ve shopped  for sweet corn and asked the name of the corn you may have heard a farmer tell you “Obsession”, “Passion”, or “Temptation.”  If you hear any of those varieties you MUST ask the farmer if it’s “Obsession 2,” “Temptation 2,” etc.  The 2nd generation of these varieties are the modified ones.  When shopping for zucchini or yellow squash most customers don’t ask the name, so you’d never know if you’re buying GMO squash or not.

It’s important to know your grower and their growing practices.  Ask them if they use GMO seeds.  Visit the farm, if you can.  Ask what organizations they belong to.  If they’re part of groups that require grower agreements to not use GMOs (like the Kansas City Food Circle), it’s a good bet they’re not using them.

As a rule of thumb, always ask the seller if they are growing what they sell; never assume.  You may be surprised that many of them are not.  They may be purchasing from multiple other farms and reselling it.  That, in and of itself, is not bad.  They are simply distributing goods grown by other local farmers.  What’s important is whether they know these farmers personally and know of their growing practices.  Ask them the names of the farms they purchase from and whether they’ve confirmed the farms are not using GMO seeds.

Many sellers purchase their goods from local produce auctions.  Again, that isn’t a big deal as long as you as the buyer know that’s what they’re doing and are okay with it.  The buyer has access to the list of who is selling and can individually verify these farms aren’t (or are) growing GMO crops.  It’s getting a bit more tricky, though, with so many new options for fresh foods grown from genetically engineered seeds.  At the auctions now, they may announce the corn they’re selling is “Temptation.”  An uninformed wholesale buyer may not know to ask if it’s “Temptation 2” and the auctioneer (or seller) may not make the distinction.  It’s becoming an even more slippery slope, folks.

Bottom Line: Know Where It Comes From

If you’re ordering seeds for your own garden, start with companies that vow to never sell GMO seeds.  Two of our favorites are Baker Creek and Johnny’s.  And always read the entire description to look for keywords.

IMG_20130608_071758-1Now, I can’t stress this enough.  It’s time to get to know your grower or seller.  Make sure you’re asking questions of your farmer.  Know their growing practices and the types of seeds they’re using.  If the person you buy from regularly is a reseller, make sure you know them well enough to trust their purchases.  If staying away from GMO foods is important to you, don’t leave that decision to just anyone.  Know where it comes from, period.

Planting Potatoes in Spaces Big and Small

Around here, St. Patrick’s Day means more than just a good ‘ol fashioned Irish celebration (even though Karin is part Irish).  That day is synonymous with potato planting.  Historically, the first day of spring usually falls around St. Paddy’s Day; it’s just a good mark to hit for one of our first rounds of planting for the season.  Any time in the spring, though, is good for planting potatoes. We got ours in on March 31st year.


Potatoes were introduced to Ireland by the British back in the 1600’s as the ideal food source.  Basically, it was a cheap and easy-to-grow food for the poor people of Britain’s first colony.  The plan backfired, though.  By the 1840’s, the potato had helped the Irish become stronger than their British rulers!

Unfortunately, the Great Potato Famine destroyed potato crops across the country soon after.  That famine, though, is credited with boosting plant breeding programs to find disease-resistant varieties and showing us the benefits of crop rotation.  And the potato is still among the easiest vegetables to grow.

Whether you’ve got a large space to work with or your garden consists of a few pots on your balcony, anyone can grow potatoes.


No matter how you plant potatoes, the rewards are pretty great.  One pound of seed potatoes can yield around 10 lbs of new ones!  Find seed potatoes online, from your local farm, farmers markets or garden centers.

Seed potatoTo increase your yield, cut larger seed potatoes into halves or thirds; just be sure each piece has 2 or 3 “eyes” in it.  Those eyes will turn into sprouts for forming new tubers.  Let them sit out for a day or two to harden the cut edge before planting to prevent them rotting in the ground.


In the Ground

The usual way to plant potatoes is to till the ground until it’s nice and loose, place the seed potatoes into the ground and cover with a good amount of soil.  Later, as the plants get larger, continue mounding the soil up around the vine to encourage new growth, which will result in more tubers.  This can be a small space or several acres; the procedure is the same.  Once the plants die back and it’s time to harvest, the soil is loosened (usually with a potato fork or mechanical implement) and the potatoes are dug up.

Potato plants


We choose an alternative to this method.  Rather than tilling the ground, we choose an area that’s already had its soil loosened by a thick layer of straw mulch the previous season.  Then, we simply lay the seed potatoes out on the ground in nice rows and cover them with a deep layer of composted manure and straw from our chicken coops and pig pens.  We’ve got great nutrients built into the straw and a good start for the potatoes.  Once the plants poke their heads through the straw, we mound more up on top.  If the straw seems to be letting in too much light (green potatoes are bad), we can add some compost or sawdust to block it out.  This method, for us, is much easier and leaves the soil below pretty much undisturbed.  Harvesting simply involves pulling back the layers of straw to reveal the potatoes … no digging required!

In Containers

An easy, space-saving (and back saving!) way to grow potatoes is in containers.  This method is also effective for preventing pests that may plague your crop, like voles or grubs.  You can use buckets or barrels or even burlap sacks.

Potato buckets

The size of your containers will determine the size of your harvest. Nancy at http://homefront.prudentliving.com/ gets about a pound per bucket.

Whatever container you use, make sure there’s good drainage at the bottom.  Drill or cut a few holes in the bottom, then add some rocks or broken clay pots so the holes don’t get clogged with soil.  Add about 2” of good soil or compost.  Place a few seed potatoes about 4” to 6” apart; 3 should fit in a 5-gallon bucket.  Layer on about 2” of soil, then water well.

Once you see sprouts push through the soil, keep an eye on them.  When they are about 4” tall, put in more soil, compost, straw or sawdust, leaving the top 1” of the sprout above the soil.  The growing medium doesn’t matter much at this point, so long as it’s thick enough to block sunlight from getting through to the bottom and the new tubers have something to sprout into.  The plants will send out tubers along the buried stem portion.   Repeat this process until the bucket is full of your growing medium, and then let the sprouts grow up and out of the container.

Water your potatoes whenever the soil is dry 1” below the surface.  If you use something other than compost as your growing medium, fertilize with compost or manure tea every few weeks to keep the nutrients coming.

The potato plants will flower when tubers are growing.  Once the plants begin to dry up and die, your potatoes are ready to harvest.  Simply turn the container over and sift through for your lovely potatoes!

Wire Cylinders

Planting in wire cylinders uses the same concept as the containers above; however, it removes the need to pile on the planting medium as the plants grow.

Potato Tower

Use the straw to form a “bowl” and keep layering your potatoes.

Using chicken wire or any wire mesh with spaces around 2”, form a cylinder shape similar to a 55-gallon drum.  Fasten the wire together and use a stake along the open edge for support.  Place a thick layer of straw in a bowl shape in the bottom, add 2” of soil or compost, layer your seed potatoes around the outer edge, then add another 2” of soil.  Repeat this all the way to the top.  Now, your potato plants will sprout out the sides of your cylinder, and across the top.  This method requires a few more seed potatoes than in containers, but reduces the need to check back with the plants to see if they need more soil.  It’s a good option if you don’t want to have to pay attention to the potatoes that often!

Follow the same watering and fertilizing instructions as for containers.  Again, the plants will die back when the potatoes are ready to harvest.  Tip over your cylinder and reap the rewards!

Growing your own potatoes is easy and there are plenty of varieties to choose from.  Pick a couple different ones to try and harvest some as young “new” potatoes and others once they’re fully mature to store for the winter.