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Cathy Peck: Solve seed germination mysteries

Seeds can be a mystery. Sometimes they germinate quickly; other times it seems to take forever and then there are the times when they don’t sprout at all.

Perennials flowers are often the most challenging. Perhaps we need to understand a bit more about what makes seeds tick.

For a plant species to survive (its main purpose), it often uses extraordinary means. Each plant has a niche where it thrives – the best growing zone, best soil, moisture, and light conditions, the place it can compete well with other hungry species, whether plant or animal.

A plant can’t pack a suitcase and move, but it does have a number of survival mechanisms, one of which is its seeds. Plants, however, don’t put all their eggs in one basket.

Some plants produce a lot of seeds but don’t necessarily expend all their energy giving every seed an embryo, thus some seeds don’t germinate. In nature some seeds become plants and ensure that the species survives. Too many little plants might grow into an overcrowded mass where all are weakened and none survive (plant birth control?).

Other seeds from the same seed pod may germinate at different times. This survival mechanism is good because if all seeds germinated at the same time, poor growing conditions, disease, insect or other predation might kill all the plants. This would endanger survival of that species. Plants often ensure survival by staggering germination times of their seeds. Some germinate immediately but others may go into a deep dormancy and not germinate for a year or longer. This can frustrate a gardener who isn’t forewarned, is impatient or simply can’t maintain the right germinating conditions for such a long period of time.

Some seeds need the forces of nature to allow them to germinate. It may take a cycle of freezing and thawing to break the seed coat or the seed coat may need exposure to certain chemicals present in the soil to break it open, allowing moisture to reach the seed itself so that it can sprout.

Other times it may take specific moisture levels and temperature fluctuations as well as daylight length to bring about the blessed event, germination. This usually occurs when it can have a reasonable expectation that it will grow, e.g., going through seasonal changes. Remember, a plant’s purpose is to live and reproduce successfully within its niche so that the species survives.

Our success in germinating and growing seeds lies in learning about and then duplicating nature’s methods. A good book such as Eileen Powell’s “From Seed to Bloom” can give you information about what it takes to germinate many types of plants. It includes advice on moisture needs, planting depth, temperature (air temperatures are higher than the soil mix in the six pack in your house), darkness or light, whether it needs a heat or cold treatment, whether the seed coat needs nicking to allow moisture to penetrate and how long it should take to germinate.

None of this will help, however, if the seeds have been stored improperly in too warm temperatures. Storing newly purchased seed in a refrigerator will aid your success. Seed sitting on a shelf in a store too long may fail.

Even with all your best efforts, you can get poor germination. Having started perennial flowers for over 30 years, I still persist.

The resulting plants often thrive better than the ones I purchase at a nursery. You can try new and different varieties and can grow many plants for create masses of color at a nominal cost. It is fun and worth the effort. Look for reliable horticulture information on the University of Minnesota Extension website at