Starting seeds in coffee filters (or paper towels)
Garden of Eatin', How-To, Seeds & Seedlings

Starting Seeds in Coffee Filters (or Paper Towels)

So tomorrow is Groundhog Day, and for the last 126 years, it’s been up to Punxsutawney Phil — wide-eyed and bushy-tailed from his slumber — to predict the fate of our gardening season. Will he see his shadow and cast another six weeks of winter upon us? Or will we be blessed with an early spring if he doesn’t?

Regardless of Phil’s forecast, you can still bring a little spring into your home by starting your seeds now and counting down the days, however many there may be. By the time the weather warms up, you’ll be first out of the gates with a slew of seedlings ready for transplanting!

This seed starting trick is sometimes known as the baggie method, and it works with coffee filters, paper towels, or even just newsprint.

Now why would you want to pre-sprout seeds in paper first, rather than simply starting them in soil? For one, it’s a good way to gauge if your seeds are viable to begin with, before you put them up in pots. Two, you can start a lot more seeds this way, and use only a minimum of space while they get going. And three, many seeds sprout much quicker this way (versus sprouting in soil), usually only taking a few days for germination.

To start, gather your supplies: coffee filters (or paper towels or newsprint), zip-top bags, and seeds. I like to use coffee filters because the paper is denser, which keeps the roots from growing into the fibers. Depending on how many seeds you want to pre-sprout at a time, cut the coffee filters as needed (I cut mine in half to fit standard sandwich baggies).

Gather coffee filters, baggies, and seeds

Wet the coffee filters and wring them out, so the paper is damp but not drowning.

Place your seeds on the bottom half of the paper, leaving an inch between seeds to give their roots room to grow.

Pre-sprout seeds inside moistened coffee filters

Fold the top half over the seeds and slide them inside the baggies.

Place seeds between sheets of moist paper

I like to blow air into the bags using a straw and then seal them up to speed up germination. You can also leave your bags flat, but keep them unsealed to provide air flow.

Blow air into the baggie with a straw, then seal shut

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.

Starting seeds using the baggie method

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 sprout.

Greenhouse effect inside baggies help speed up germination

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.

Radicle emerging from the seed coat

Once the radicle reaches an inch or two in length, carefully transplant the pre-sprouted seed in soilless 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. If any part of it has been 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.

Transplant pre-sprouted seeds into soilless mix once the radicle reaches an inch or two in length

I tend to transplant the seed as soon as it’s sprouted so that 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 air circulation.

After you have transplanted all your seedlings to seedling pots, keep the soilless mix moist and avoid watering directly on top of the new seedlings. You’ll want to harden them off for a few weeks before moving them outside, but once they develop their second set of leaves (the true leaves), they’re ready for their final place in the garden.

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  • Alithea

    My kalamansi seeds had molds on them by the second day. My mom told me I should have dried them out first before trying this method. Is this true? Btw,I used recycled take out containers.

  • BaconSocks

    i put mine in a shallow tupperware with a red lid and left it in the laundry room, but left a gap for just a little bit of air. There’s no light there either as its in a dark corner but very warm, tropical-like. it’s been there for a few days but nothing growing. i have to moisten the coffee filter every day. should i just seal it?

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  • Peter8Piper

    Can I use this method on seeds that I want to eat as sprouts? Seems a lot easier than the jar method where I have to wash them off every day. ???

    • I don’t recommend it, as the warm and humid conditions needed for the seeds to germinate using this baggie method can also breed bad bacteria.

  • Peter8Piper

    Can I use this method on seeds that I want to eat as sprouts? Seems a lot easier than the jar method where I have to wash them off every day. ???????????

  • Lynda Holliday

    I see you use Baker Creek seed. Have you ever gone to one of their festivals?

    • Yes, I’ve been a presenter at both their Missouri and California festivals! (And will hopefully speak again in Santa Rosa this year, if my schedule allows.)

  • vinienco

    sprouts provide better nutrition , if being grown in the dark, are healthier and cleaner with sterilized paper or sprout material. sprouts need clean water twice daily. fail, lazy article.

    • Fail, lazy reader. This article is about germinating seeds for gardening, not sprouting microgreens for food.

      • vinienco

        fu ho

      • Couldn’t have said it any better myself. Great article and thank you!!

    • Quintin

      Go away lazy reader…no one likes you here, LOL…just kidding….write whatever makes you happy lazy reader loser. 🙂

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  • mohan

    does this work for flower seeds as well??

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  • PIET


    • Yes, but it works best on seeds that are slow to germinate, slow to grow in the seedling stage, or need to be kept moist at all times.

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  • TomyJ

    Can I take the seeds from a Jalapeno right into the paper towel? or do I need to dry the seeds for days?

    • Assuming you picked a jalapeno pepper while it was ripe and has mature seeds, yes you can plant them right away. The only reason seeds need to be dried is to prepare them for storage (to prevent rotting).

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  • Jim

    Thanks! Really most useful site on this method of starting seeds!

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  • Saw this video on Mother Earth News and immediately thought of your post.

  • The Blessed Seed

    Very nice idea.


    Oh, this is great! Definitely going to do this, thank you for the idea!

  • Janet

    I love my pet TickleMe Plant

  • julie

    Do you use lights/grow lights at all when starting indoors?? I have had no luck starting seeds in windows – so am thinking of trying lights for the first time but I am NERVOUS. 🙂

    • I don’t, but I put all of my seed trays in front of a south-facing window so they get plenty of sun every day. If your seedlings are in a space with little to no sun, I do recommend grow lights to keep them from getting leggy.

      • Jeremy Gardner

        My apartment has no south facing windows, or any that get much sun–so in my place specifically, grow lights are a must to get my mint seeds to germinate and keep my existing mint plants healthy. Loved the article!

  • Julie

    What is soilless mix? I start my seeds in starter soil.

  • michelle

    I’m in Canada so this won’t be happening anytime soon but I’ll definitely be trying this in May. Love the tips.

    • In May?? That sounds… very cold up there. 😉

  • Xochi Navarro

    This is fantastic. I will be using this technique this weekend to sprout my garden. I’m always leery of the little homegrown seeds I buy from farms because I feel like most of them never germinate. This is the perfect way to test their viability and be sure that my egg crate seedlings are all growing and no space is wasted. Thank you again! I live by your posts and tips now. 🙂

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