Starting Seeds: To Soak or not to Soak

This time of year, almost everyone I meet wants to know if we’re starting seeds in the greenhouse yet. The answer is yes.

This week we’re planting two different species of sphaeralcea, a western native in the hollyhock family. They have flowers that look like miniature hollyhocks and can grow in the foothills and high desert without irrigation.  All the plants in that family germinate better with an overnight soak in hot water to soften the seed coat. Some other genera in that family that you might know are Callirhoe involucrata (Winecups), and Malva ‘Zebrina’ (French Hollyhock).

If you can read the names in the picture above, you’ll notice that the one on the far right is lupine. Lupine is in the pea family, and that’s another plant family with seeds that benefits from soaking, including sweet peas, garden peas, lupine, redbud trees, and loco weed. The first time I read about soaking seeds I wondered if I had to keep the water hot the entire time. No, just start with hot water, not boiling but somewhere between 170 F. and 200 F., cover the seeds, and let the water cool naturally. I usually use tap water at its hottest, and that seems to be adequate.

We have some seeds already planted in flats in the greenhouse, seeds that don’t need a pretreatment. including Potentilla lineata from Far Reaches Farm. We saw it growing there this summer and it is a silvery beauty, with yellow flowers off and on through the summer.  I’ve never tried to germinate this plant before, so I planted half of the seeds without any pretreatment. Most potentilla germinate readily in greenhouse conditions, and that seemed like the first way to try. If they don’t germinate I’ll give the remaining seed a month of cold stratification.

Potentilla lineata

If you are growing anything in the hollyhock family or the pea family, you might want to try soaking the seed first, to see if it improves germination.  Growing plants from seeds is still one of my favorite parts of the nursery business and I always encourage everyone to try it.



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