Weymouth, Mass. — It was my wife's seed sprouter that sparked the idea. During the winter, when garden-fresh greens are not available (and even during summer when they are), the sprouter is frequently used to raise alfalfa, wheat, and other sprouts which we add to salads, stir fries, or what have you.
If there edible sprouts germinate so easily and at a pretty rapid rate indoors, surely small garden seeds could be given the same treatment to hasten, even improve, germination prior to taking them out to the garden. Right? This approach has often been used for garden peas but could it be done with tiny seeds?
I first tried salsify, also known as the oyster plant. It is grown for the white- fleshed, carrot-shaped tap root that, when cooked, has a slight flavor or stewed oysters. Its seed is long and narrow -- convenient for handling on an individual basis.
I soaked the seed overnight, then drained off the water and placed the stillwet seeds in a clear plastic bag which was sealed with a wire fastener so that little or no moisture could escape.
I had read somewhere that seeds of some cold-tolerant crops germinate best when exposed to warm temperature during the day and cold temperatures at night. So for the first two days, the seeds spent the day at room temperature on top of the refrigerator and the nights in the cold, but not freezing, temperatures inside the refrigerator. After that they were simply left on top of the refrigerator.
On the fourth day some seeds began to sprout; and on the fifth day they came out en masse. It remained, then, to carefully plant them.
First, I watered the bed thoroughly and made furrows where the seeds would go. Already in the garden was some milled peat moss (sifted garden oil or compost would have done equally well) and a sprinkler can filled with water. The seeds were then brought out and placed in the shade of a cardboard box. (At this stage it is important that the sprouted seedlings not dry out before sowing).
The seeds were placed, a few at a time, in the furrows, covered with peat moss and watered. This was continued until all the seeds were sown. (Never try to sow all the seeds before covering them or the tender little rootlets will risk being dried out by the sun).
Fine carrot seeds are too small to handle on an individual basis so the presprouting strategy was altered slightly. In the past, to facilitate sowing, I have often mixed carrot seed with sifted compost or milled peat moss before sowing it. This time, I mixed the seed in damp peat moss and spread it thinly over a wad of damp newspaper which was then sealed in a plastic bag. The bag was left on top of the refrigerator simply because that is a convenient place to leave them in my house.
Because the indoor temperatures were on the cool side at the time, I expected slow germination and never looked at the seeded peat until 6 days had elapsed. At this stage countless rootlets had appered, many of them too long and fragile for easy sowing. As gently as I could, I scattered the peat moss over the bed quickly, covering it with a thin scattering of additional peat moss. This was watered and covered with a plastic garbage bag to retain the mositure in this thin layer.
under these conditions the young seedlings poked through the surface within two days and the plastic bag was removed. Don't be concerned about how the sprouted carrot seedlings fall when you sow them this way. The roots always know to turn down and the leaves up. In this case, the overlong sprouts meant that I could not scatter them as freely as if they were smaller. As a result, some areas are too densly planted while others have too sparse a crop.
It would probably have been beneficial to cover the newly sown salsify with plastic but I never thought of it at the time. As a result, I had to water the bed everyday to be sure the still-shallow-rooted seedlings did not dry out.
Another option, of course, would be to use burlap. In hot weather, burlap would probably prove superior to plastic as there would be no danger of the soil overheating. On the other hand, you would probably have to sprinkle a little water over the burlap every day to keep the seedlings moist.
You might like to experiment along these lines with a wide variety of seeds.
Presprouting seeds is most advantageous in the cool weather of spring, although it can improve germination during the very hot days of summer, too.
A point worth remembering is this: Under any adverse conditions a tiny seed expends much of its energy just in sprouting. Germinating them in the more benign indoor climate leaves a good deal of that stored energy over to speed the plant on its way to maturity.