Thursday, February 19, 2015

Faster Pepper and Eggplant Seed Germination

One issue that many gardeners face is that pepper and eggplant seeds can take forever to germinate. I’ve had some eggplants that took about 2 years to germinate—at least it felt like it! Luckily, there is an easy way to speed up the process without buying anything extra. It's known in the gardening world as the "paper towel method" (or some variant of that) and I can say that it works quite well for peppers and eggplants.

These poblano peppers were in the seed packet 9 days ago!
I will preface this by saying that I would always suggest starting your seeds much earlier in the traditional fashion if possible. For example, my goal for next year is to get the peppers and eggplants started on January 1st. But that’s next year. This year I was trying to decide on which peppers to grow, and by the time I had everything ready it was mid-February. Given that it typically takes weeks for peppers to emerge on my grow table—and even longer for the eggplant—I needed to play catch-up if we wanted to be eating peppers in late June/early July (and we do!).

Supply list: labelled ziploc bag, mister, paper towel, seeds
Here’s what you will need: a Ziploc bag, a paper towel, a mister, and seeds. Begin by wetting the paper towel. No need to soak it, just get it damp. Next, sprinkle the seeds onto the wet paper towel. You'll be folding it over, so just use one side.

Sprinkle seeds on one side of the paper towel
Then, fold the paper towel over. To make it easier, fold it unevenly so that when it is wet you can more easily peel it apart. Otherwise, it will seal and be extremely difficult to separate without tearing.

An uneven fold makes it easier to unfold later
Finally, carefully place the paper towel in the bag and seal ¾ of the way. I know some people seal it all the way, but this is how I do it, and it has worked for me. Last but not least, find a warm spot to place your bag. I put mine on top of our DVR box, which is the perfect temperature. Anywhere that stays warm to the touch will work. If you have a cable/DVR box, that is the perfect temperature, so even if you don’t want to use that space you’ll have an idea of the temperature to shoot for. 

Ready to go!
So, how about some results? I used this method with 6 types of peppers this year: Oda, Fort Knox, Jimmy Nardello, Poblano, Anaheim, and Cayenne. The seeds were put into their bags on 2/10/15. This is what they looked like on 2/15/15.

A poblano sprout... 5 days in the bag
Here are some photos from tonight, a mere 9 days into the process. The Poblano seeds are by far the most advanced, although the Fort Knox are right behind and most of the other peppers are at least popping above the soil.
We have poblanos!
Speaking of eggplants, I used this technique on some eggplant seeds Sunday night. Below is a picture of them taken just 3 days later! Rather than wait, I decided to get them in the soil tonight. This leads me to another tip: don’t wait too long to plant the seeds. You might get longer roots, but the downside is that the longer the root the more fragile the sprout becomes, and therefore the more difficult to transplant without damaging it. To plant, simply unfold the paper towel to reveal the sprouts.Then, gently remove the seeds from the paper towel and place on the surface of your seed starting mix.

Emperor's Best eggplant seeds after only 3 days in the bag!
Finally, just barely cover the root sprouts with soil. If a tiny bit of the top of the seed is visible that is perfect. Don’t bury them too deep! Also, don’t worry too much about getting them perfectly oriented. It’s best to place them sprout (root) down, but get it as close as you can and the seed will orient itself quickly.

Do your best to place the seed sprout (root) side down, but these were placed sideways and they found the light just fine in only a few days!
Keep in mind that temperature will influence the speed at which your seedlings emerge and grow. The warmer it is the faster the seeds will germinate and the faster your seedlings will develop into plants. Our grow table is in a room that does not have its own heat run. During the day we set our heat at 67. At night, we drop it to 60, so the grow room can get a few degrees cooler than that. During the day the heat put off by the grow lights is easily captured and held by the plastic greenhouse tops (worth every penny in my book) but at night the temperatures drop, and short of putting a space heater in the room there isn’t much I can do. This means that when it is frigid outside (as it has been here in Western New York) the plants get a bit of a chill in the evening, which can slow them down some. On the plus side, they are more cold hardy when they go outside in early May.

Cheap and worth every penny!
On the subject of those plastic seeding domes, this is the first time I’ve tried them and so far I couldn’t be happier. In the past I used peat pots for all my seedlings, but I found them to be difficult to deal with because if they dried out they would suck all of the moisture out of the seedlings and it was difficult to re-moisten them without soaking them in water. As a result, they were seemingly always too wet or too dry. This year I switched to the black plastic nursery trays you see in every nursery or garden department. I also decided to try the greenhouse lids to keep the seedlings warmer, and they work wonders! By simply placing one of my grow lamps (which is a 2 bulb 54W T5HO aquarium grow light fixture) about 5 inches from the top of the lid I was able to raise the temperature inside from 67 degrees (the air temperature in that room) to 76 degrees, which makes the peppers very happy. Of course at night it does drop, but much more slowly than if it were open to the air, so that by the time it drops down to 60-62 degrees it is almost time for the lights to come back on for the day.
A Fort Knox pepper!

So if you are running behind on starting your peppers and your seeding space is on the cooler side, this is a great method to get your seeds to germinate more quickly. Another plus is that you only plant seeds that have sprouted, so you know every planted seed is viable and you don’t end up with wasted cells. This method will work for just about any seed, but it isn’t really necessary or beneficial for tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables or flowers, as they all seem to germinate quickly even at slightly lower than optimal temperatures.

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Until next time, happy gardening!

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