Germinating Seeds In Paper Towels: A Quick and Easy Way to Start Seeds Without Soil
There’s a faster, easier way to germinate seeds, and it doesn’t involve pots, trays, or even soil or seed starting mix. The trick? Using the baggie method to sprout your seeds more efficiently so you can save space at home, test their germination rate, and find out which seeds are still viable and worth planting. Here’s how to germinate seeds in paper towels (or coffee filters or newsprint—any of these common household items will work).
What if I told you there was a faster way to germinate all your seeds, without the need for seed starting mix, perlite, or vermiculite; without wrangling a bunch of seed starting trays, flats, and domes; and without any special equipment like heating mats, temperature sensors, and indoor seed starting systems?
The secret is as low-tech as you can get, and relies on only two things you likely already have in your kitchen: paper towels and Ziploc bags.
This seed starting trick is sometimes known as the baggie method, and it works with paper towels, coffee filters, or even just newsprint.
But first, you might be wondering… why start seeds with the baggie method instead of just starting them in soil? Keep reading; I’ve got all your answers below.
3 reasons you should use paper towels or coffee filters for seed germination
Now why would you want to germinate seeds in paper towels or coffee filters first, rather than germinating seeds indoors in seed starting mix?
1. It’s a good way to gauge if your seeds are viable to begin with, before you put them in pots.
Maybe you aren’t sure how old your seeds are (especially if the seeds were saved from your own plants).
Or, maybe you bought your seeds from a new seed catalog and want to check how healthy or accurate their germination rates are. (See the next section below on how to do a quick and simple germination test.)
2. You can start a lot more seeds this way and use only a minimum of space while they get going.
Germinating seeds in paper towels is very small-space friendly. You don’t need a bunch of trays or pots, a seed-starting shelving unit or even a wall of south-facing windows to make it happen. (Just a windowsill will do.)
Plus, the baggie method helps you pick out the fastest and most vigorous seeds to plant because you can actually see them germinate (a process that’s pretty mysterious to most of us since it happens underground).
3. Many seeds germinate much quicker in paper towels (versus seeds that are started in soil).
The heat, moisture, and controlled conditions inside a plastic baggie help them germinate in only a few days (or less, depending on the seed).
How to test germination with the baggie method
Every once in a while, especially if your seeds are about to reach their expiry date, it’s a good idea to do a germination test and find out if the seeds are still worth planting.
Try this quick germination test when you’re unsure about your seeds
- Count out 10 random seeds from the packet you want to test.
- Follow the instructions below to germinate the seeds in a paper towel or coffee filter, and label the baggie with the date you started them.
- Look on the seed packet or in any seed catalog for the expected number of days to germination for the seeds you’re testing. Wait that number of days, then count how many seeds have sprouted in that time.
If 8 out of 10 seeds germinated, that gives an 80 percent germination rate, which is pretty good for most vegetables. If only 4 out of 10 seeds germinated, then you have a 40 percent germination rate and the seed is, for all intents and purposes, useless.
When I find old seeds like this, I’ll throw them in the compost pile or feed them to my chickens. I might play around and put them in a random “salad blend” to sprout on my kitchen table, but I won’t bother planting them in the garden as a primary crop.
It is not wise to sow the seeds more thickly to make up for low germination. Weak seeds that struggle to even sprout will just result in weak plants that are likely to suffer from aphid infestations, fungal diseases, or other problems anyway.
But notice how I said primary crop: Older seeds that are borderline expired are actually useful in the garden as a secondary planting. I broadcast these seeds over my garden beds and let them grow in as a living mulch. I harvest (or cut them back) periodically to keep the plants low to the ground, but find they’re highly beneficial for suppressing weeds and improving soil tilth.
(In fact, this is one of the methods I teach in my online course, Lazy Gardening Academy, that mimics natural systems and helps your garden become more self-sustaining.)
What types of seeds can be germinated with paper towels?
All vegetable, herb, and flower seeds can be germinated in a paper towel or coffee filter, but personally, I find the baggie method to be most effective for seeds that take a long time to germinate.
Certain seeds that need a warm start (like chile peppers) are stubborn, taking up to three weeks to germinate. They need juuust the right conditions present before they sprout: the perfect balance of heat, moisture, and time.
In most seed starting scenarios, one or two of these requirements are usually lacking, which delays germination.
The baggie method speeds up the process by providing these conditions consistently with minimal effort on your part.
You can also germinate tomato seeds in paper towels or coffee filters, as well as cucumber, squash, muskmelon, and watermelon seeds.
Can you germinate kale, cabbage, broccoli, onion, or turnip seeds with the baggie method? Sure you can.
But cool-season seeds like these aren’t as finicky about heat, and seeds from the brassica family germinate quickly on their own anyway (usually within a couple days).
The baggie method isn’t necessary unless you want to test their germination rates; you can start them more easily just by sowing the seeds directly in the ground.
The same can be said for flower seeds. While you can sprout them in paper towels or coffee filters first, germination speed isn’t that important for flowers the way it is for vegetable seeds.
How to germinate seeds in paper towels or coffee filters
Step 1: Gather your supplies.
- Paper towels, coffee filters, or newsprint (use whatever you have around the house)
- Ziploc (resealable zip-top) bags
I personally like to use coffee filters because the paper has a denser weave, which keeps the roots from growing into the fibers and making them difficult to separate when you’re ready to plant.
Depending on how many seeds you want to germinate at a time, cut the coffee filters as needed. (I cut mine in half to fit inside standard sandwich baggies.)
Step 2: Moisten the coffee filters.
Wet the coffee filters and wring them out, so the paper is damp but not drowning in water.
Step 3: Place your seeds on the coffee filter.
Place your seeds on the bottom half of the paper, leaving an inch between seeds to give their roots room to grow. Fold the top half over the seeds to sandwich them.
Step 4: Place the coffee filter inside a baggie.
Slide the coffee filter (with seeds) inside the baggie.
I like to blow air into the bags using a straw and then seal them tight to speed up germination. You can also leave your bags flat, but the air creates more of a greenhouse effect (which is especially helpful for chile peppers and other heat-loving seeds).
Step 5: Wait for the magic of germination to happen.
Place your baggies in a warm area of the house. For me, that’s a south-facing window, but you can leave them anywhere with a decent amount of heat and humidity, such as a bathroom or laundry room.
Just don’t keep them too hot (like on top of a heating pad), as you risk cooking the seeds before they ever sprout.
You can see the greenhouse effect created by the baggies here, which aids in germination. Because of this, you shouldn’t have to re-moisten the coffee filters while waiting for the seeds to germinate.
Within a few short days, you should see your first sign of life—a radicle emerging from the seed coat. This is the primary root and develops from the embryo of the plant.
Step 6: Transplant the germinated seed.
Once the radicle reaches an inch or two in length, carefully transplant the germinated seed in potting mix, burying only the radicle (the white part) and keeping the stem and seed coat above the soil line.
Handle the seed by its seed coat, as the radicle is very delicate (as well as the life line of your soon-to-be seedling).
Don’t try to remove the seed coat before transplanting; it’ll fall off on its own when the first leaves (cotyledons) start to unfurl.
If any part of it is enmeshed in the paper, cut around the root and plant the whole thing in a pot, paper and all. The roots will grow around the paper and the paper will eventually disintegrate.
I try to transplant the seed as soon as it’s germinated so it doesn’t rot inside the baggie.
Sometimes you can wait until the first leaves appear if you need a guide as to how deep to bury the stem, but definitely keep an eye on the moisture level inside the baggie and provide plenty of ventilation at this stage.
After you’ve transplanted all your seedlings in small pots, keep the potting mix evenly moist with good airflow around the plants to prevent damping off disease.
You’ll need to harden them off for a few weeks before moving them outside, but once the seedlings develop their second set of leaves (the true leaves), they’re ready for their final place in the garden.
Troubleshooting: why are my seeds not germinating?
Sometimes the paper towel trick doesn’t work, or you run out of patience waiting for seeds to sprout. Here are a few reasons why your seeds aren’t germinating despite your best efforts:
- The paper towel is too wet: Seeds swimming in water may rot before they sprout, especially if they require a longer germination period.
- The paper towel is too dry: Seeds need consistent moisture to germinate, and you may need to mist the paper towel periodically to keep them moist.
- Seeds need more exposure to sun: Certain seeds require light to germinate, so if your baggies are tucked away in a room that sees little light, try moving them closer to a window.
- Seeds are too old: All seeds have an expected shelf life, and that shelf life diminishes under certain conditions. Use this seed life expectancy chart to find out how long your seeds should last.
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on February 1, 2013.
I’m a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is. Read more »
How to germinate cannabis seeds using paper towel method.
Now, let’s get those seeds popping with the paper towel method.
1. Fold the paper towels and place neatly on to the plate.
2. Add water to moisten the towel.
3. Place the seeds neatly onto the towel, leaving an inch or so space between each one.
4. Now, place the other paper towel over the seeds, adding enough water to keep everything moist.
5. Make sure there’s no free standing water by lifting up the paper towel.
6. Put the plate into a warm, dark place — a cupboard or a drawer will suffice.
7. Leave the seeds for 24 to 48 hours until they have popped the taproots.
8. Once the seeds have a healthy taproot, they are ready for planting.
How to Pre-Sprout Seeds for Faster Germination
Wondering whether your garden seeds will sprout? You can eliminate some of the wait time by germinating seeds before they are planted. Learn how to germinate seeds in a paper towel with this tutorial.
One of the most frustrating things about starting vegetables from seeds is waiting for them to emerge from the soil. Germinating seeds in a paper towel is a great method for the impatient gardener, because it lets you see your seeds sprout before they are covered with soil.
I had pepper seeds that were several years old. I hated to throw the package away without checking to see if they were still good. I checked the viability of the seeds by doing a seed germination test using a damp paper towel in baggies.
About half the old seeds sprouted, a 50% germination rate, and the rest were duds. I planted the sprouted seeds and watched the seedlings carefully to see if they would grow. I didn’t expect much from them, but they did grow into healthy transplants that were eventually planted into the garden.
After experiencing how easy it was to see which seeds germinated using paper towels, I decided to pre-sprout more of my indoor vegetable seeds. Now, I routinely germinate tomato seeds, peppers, eggplants, Swiss chard, cabbage, melons, cucumber, broccoli, squash, cilantro, spinach, and kale on damp paper towels before planting.
How to Germinate a Seed
The seeds of all plants are dormant or inactive until the conditions are right for their germination. A seed begins germinating once it is exposed to warmth and moisture.
First, the seed absorbs moisture and oxygen, which triggers the embryo to wake up. Next, it begins to swell as it breaks down the seed coat, absorbs larger amounts of water and oxygen, and sprouts roots or radicle, followed by the shoot that forms into the stem and foliage.
Benefits of Pre-Sprouting Seeds
Normally, you sow a seed into a growing medium, such as damp seed starting mix or peat pots. You plant the seed, cover with soil, water, place in a warm spot, and wait for the seed to sprout and break through the soil surface.
The paper towel method of starting seeds lets you germinate the seeds first, and then you can place the sprouted seed with the root into a seedling container to grow. You can see the seed and don’t have to wonder if it is doing anything under the soil. Other advantages of pre-sprouting your seeds include:
- Saves money: Instead of throwing away older seed packages, you can germinate seeds in paper towels to see if some of the old seeds are still viable.
- Conserves space: You don’t have to sow a whole tray of seeds hoping that at least half will germinate. Instead, you sprout the seeds in a small container, and only plant the ones that germinate. You don’t even need a seedling heat mat.
- Saves time waiting for seeds to sprout: Pre-sprouting accelerates germination because the seeds can be given ideal moisture, air, and temperature conditions indoors.
- Excludes the bad seeds: You only plant the seeds that geminate. Simply throw away the duds.
- Eliminates the need to thin out seedlings: With pre-sprouting, there is no need to toss three or four seeds into a pot and hope at least one will germinate only to have all four seeds sprout forcing you to thin out the extras.
How to Germinate Seeds in a Paper Towel
Pre-sprouting seeds is a method used to germinate seeds on a damp paper towel before they are planted. It is a great gardening hack that speeds up germination by providing the seeds with perfect moisture, air, and temperature conditions indoors.
It may be helpful to review this article on 10 Steps to Starting Seedling Indoors to get your seed starting area setup, and then follow the steps to pre germinate your seeds:
- Containers or plastic bags: Any container or zipper bag will work. My favorites to use for pre-sprouting are the plastic see through mini muffin bakery containers or egg cartons. These are divided into small cells that are ideal for organizing and labeling individual seeds. The cover can be snapped closed to keep in moisture. Since the containers are clear, you can check on the seeds without opening the cover.
- Paper towels: A damp paper towel will help deliver consistent moisture to your seeds without drowning them. Too much moisture will cause your seeds to mold or rot. Coffee filters can also be used, but they are not as absorbent as paper towels, so you’ll need to check the moisture level more frequently.
- Water resistant labeling material: I cut strips of white duct tape.
- Permanent marker: Sharpies work well and will not wash away if splashed with water.
- Spray bottle: A spray bottle filled with water is the easiest way to moisten the paper towels without soaking them.
- Seeds of choice: Larger seeds seem to work best. Try pre-germinating tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, Swiss chard, melons, cucumber, squash, cilantro, spinach, and cole crops.
Directions for Germinating Seeds
Before you begin, get your growing containers prepared for planting. Make up several seedling trays or small pots of moist seed starting mix ahead of time so you will be ready to transfer seeds when they sprout.
Step 1: Line your container with a paper towel
I like several layers of paper towels to keep the seeds damp, so I fold them in thirds and cut to fit. If you are using plastic bags, fold and cut your paper towels to fit.
Step 2: Label your containers
Use a water-resistant marker to label your containers or bags.
Step 3: Dampen your paper towels
Spray the paper towels with your spray bottle. You are aiming for the paper towels to be damp, not dripping. If you notice the water pooled in your container, the moisture level will be too high. Dump out the extra.
Step 4: Add your seeds
Spread your seeds on top of the damp paper towel. If you are using containers, simply close the cover. If you are using plastic bags, fold the paper towel over the seeds and place in the bag.
Step 5: Place the seeds in a warm area
Locate your seed containers in a warm area out of direct sunlight and away from drafts, such as near a heater, or on top of the refrigerator. Moderate heat will help your seeds germinate quicker. Room temperature or up to 75 degrees F is average for most seeds. Choose an area where the containers will not be knocked over or forgotten.
Step 6: Check the seeds daily
Examine your seeds each day for germination and to make sure the towel stays damp. Spray the towel if needed.
Step 7: Planting germinated seeds
Some seeds will sprout quicker than others. As soon as a seed shows tiny roots it is ready to plant. Carefully transfer seeds to your prepared seedling containers using a toothpick or tweezers.
Place the sprouted seed on top of your growing medium, cover with dry seedling mix, mist with the spray bottle, and place under the growing lights.
Be very careful not to damage the root. If you do, the sprout will die. If the root has grown into the paper towel, snip around it and plant paper towel and all. Also, don’t remove the seed coat before transplanting, it will come off on its own when the first leaves, also called cotyledons start to unfurl.
Step 8: Keep your seedlings warm and moist
Use your spray bottle to keep the soil surface moist, allow for good airflow, and continue caring for your seedlings as described from step 5 on in this article: 10 Steps to Starting Seedlings Indoors.
Germinating seeds with damp paper towels is a great gardening hack that speeds up sprouting by providing the seeds with ideal environment. Plus you can see the seeds germinate and not have to wonder what is happening under the soil.
This article was originally published on March 5, 2014. It has been updated with additional information, photos, and video.
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