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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