The Ultimate Guide to the ‘Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method’

Are you looking for a new way to germinate stubborn seeds or perhaps you are looking for a method for determining the germination rate of some seeds you already have. Using the ‘germinating seeds in paper towel method’ to start or test seeds is a great space saving way to get your seeds off to a good start. We’ve been started our own seeds for over 15 years and have compiled this guide to help you start seeds in a paper towel.

In this article you will find a quick guide to the paper towel germination method for beginners and then a step-by-step process for a deeper dive where we’ll share our expert tips including what seeds are best candidate for germinating in paper towels.

Want to start your seeds in a more traditional method? See our guide on Seed Starting.

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Why should you Try Paper Towel Germination?

While most of the time it is perfectly easy to start seeds directly in seed trays, there are a few times when it can be beneficial to start your seeds in a paper towel. Below are a few reasons why you might want to try the germinating seeds in paper towel method.

  1. Improved Germination Rates: by using paper towels that are small, easy to control and move, you can provide the ideal environment for seed germination. Paper towels absorb and retain water and you can make the perfect amount of air circulation to help your seeds sprout.
  2. Easy Monitoring: When you plant seeds in seed starting mix, it can be difficult to tell what is happening. When you are germinating seeds in paper towels, it is easier to monitor the progress of each seed. If you notice a problem, it is easier to make early changes like adding moisture or adjusting airflow.
  3. Space Efficiency: When you start seeds in seed starting trays you need space in a warm part of your house. Depending on how many seeds you decide to germinate, this could be a lot of space. The paper towel germination method allows you to start seeds in a fraction of the space. Once the seeds have sprouted, you can transplant them into separate containers or directly into the garden.
  4. Testing Germination Rates: Another helpful time to start seeds in a paper towel is when you are trying to determine the germination rate of some seeds. This can happen if you have a very old batch of seeds and don’t want to commit to planting them without knowing if the seeds are still viable.
Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel

Overview of the Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method

In this section we will give you a snapshot of the germinating seeds in paper towel method. Scroll down for a more detailed step by step description as well as for expert tips and troubleshooting.

Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel
Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel

Germinating seeds in paper towels is very straightforward. Select seeds to germinate. You can germinate most vegetables, herbs and flower seeds.

  1. Moisten you paper towels and place your seeds on the paper towel. Spread them out on one 1/4 of the paper towel.
  2. Spray again with the water.
  3. Fold your paper towel in half and half again to cover the seeds. Label your paper towel if needed and place the paper towel in a plastic bag.
  4. Seal the bag after blowing a little air into the bag.
  5. Place the bag in a warm place to germinate.
  6. Check your seeds every few days and when they begin to germinate, place them in seedling trays.
  7. Allow your seedlings to grow normally and plant them in the garden at the appropriate time after hardening them off.

Supplies for the Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method

One of the best things about germinating seeds in paper towels is how few supplies you need. To get started you just need:

  • Seeds
  • Paper Towels
  • Water
  • Plastic Bag

Optional: sharpie to mark seed type

Once they germinate you will want to transfer the small seedlings to a seed tray filled with quality seed starting soil. You will also want grow lights to keep the seedlings growing.

Collect your supplies for the Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method

Best Seeds for Germinating in Paper Towels

You can germinate most vegetable, flower, and herb seeds using the paper towel germination method. The best seeds to start using this method are seeds that take a long time to germinate (like peppers) or seeds that need special growing conditions. Other seeds that germinate well in paper towels include small seeds, flower seeds, large tree seeds, legumes, and perennials that can be hard to germinate.

How do Seeds Germinate?

Before getting into the exact steps for the germinating seeds in paper towel method, it’s helpful to know exactly how seeds germinate. Knowing how the process works will help you eliminate problems and create the best environment for your seeds. It’s also a truly fascinating and amazing process.

The process of germination starts when the seed comes into contact with water. The water is absorbed through the coating of the seed and the enzymes within the seed are activated. These enzymes break down the nutrients within the seed. It is these nutrients that become the food from the growing embryo.

The embryo starts to swell with the addition of the nutrients and water and the root system (or radicle) emerges. At this point the root takes hold with the soil looking for additional moisture and nutrients. At the same time, the shoot begins to develop sending out the first leaves quickly to begin the process of photosynthesis. While the seedling can survive for an initial time without soil or light, once the roots and shoots are out, it’s important for the plant to begin getting sunlight, water and nutrients.

See a video on how seeds germinate.

Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel: Watermelon Seeds

Step By Step Guide to Germinating Seeds in Paper Towels

In the next section you can find a step by step guide for exactly how to start seeds in a paper towel.

Step 1: Gather your supplies and seeds

The first step is to collect your supplies. For the first step of germinating seeds in paper towels, all you need is paper towels, water, seeds and a plastic bag that can seal. You can easily do this first step in just a few minutes.

Step 2: Pre-soak your seeds (optional)

Some seeds benefit from presoaking although I’ve found that this is less important than when germinating seeds in seed starting mix. If you are planting seeds that are hard with a tough outer shell, you can presoak the seeds for 6-24 hours. I like to pre-soak morning glories, peas, beets, cucumber, corn, squash, pumpkin and beans. Simply place your seeds in a small bowl with water.

Step 3: Moisten Your Paper Towels

Moisten your paper towels before adding your seeds to ensure that the paper towels are damp but not soaking. Lay the paper towel out on the table or counter. You can spray the towel with a spray bottle or drip some water from your hands onto the towel.

Step 4: Place seeds on 1/4 of the paper towel

Place seeds on the paper towel. I like to place them on 1/4 of the towel and spread them out. You can put them neatly in rows or simply scatter them. If you are trying to determine a germination rate – lay out an exact number (like 10) otherwise place between 10-20 seeds on the paper towel.

Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel: 3 paper towels in one bag

Step 5: Fold the paper towel in half twice and place in plastic bag

Fold the paper towel in half 2 times so all the seed are covered. If the paper towels don’t seem fully wet, you can add a bit more water to the towel. Next place the folded paper towel inside the plastic bag. I usually put 3 folded towels in each bag. You may want to label the towels or bag with a sharpie so you remember what seeds you are germinating.

Step 6: Blow some air into the plastic bag and seal

Blow some air into the plastic bag so there is some air circulation within the bag and seal the bag. A little air in the bag will also help in making sure that the growing seed have space, especially if you are stacking your plastic bags.

Step 7: Place your bag in a warm place to germinate

Place the bag in a warm place in your house. It doesn’t matter if there is light at this point so a spot near a heater is perfect. We have one floor in our house that has radiant floor heat so we typically place our seed trays or paper towels on this floor as it stays warm.

Step 8: Check on Seeds

Check on the seed every dew days. Check that the paper towels remain moist and you don’t see any mold or mildew forming. Watch for the seeds to germinate. Open the paper towels carefully to check so you don’t tear the roots or the sprouts.

Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel

Step 9: When seeds germinate, transplant carefully to seed trays

Once you see a root and a sprout germinate, it is time to plant your seedling into a seed tray with seed starting mix. It’s important not to damage either the root or the sprout at this point. Some people prefer to use tweezers to carefully plant seedlings, but I prefer doing it carefully with my hands as I feel that I have more control.

Poke a small hole in the seed starting mix and gently place the root into the mix. Cover the roots keeping the seed just below the surface of the soil. Water the seedling and place undergrow lights. If you don’t have grow lights, put your seedlings in the brightest window in your house.

Step 10: Water and care for seedlings

Continue to monitor the seedlings and keep them moist. Once the seedlings how a few leaves you can re-pot in a larger seed tray or harden them off before putting them in the garden.

Step 11: Harden off

It’s very important to harden off your seedlings before planting them in the garden. Start by placing your seedlings outside for short period of time in a protected area out of the wind and direct sunlight. Over a few days slowly give them more time in different environments outside. After 5 days your seedlings are ready to plant in the garden.

Step 12: Plant seedlings in garden

Plant your seedlings directly into the garden. Choose a time when the wind is calm and try to plant at the end of the day. Water the seedling immediately and continue to care for the plant by weeding and keeping moist.

See more information on setting up your garden for ideas of different garden methods.

Troubleshooting and Common Mistakes

Below are some of the most common problems that occur when planting seeds in paper towels.

Mold and Fungal Growth: One issue when germinating seeds in paper towels is the development of mold or fungal growth. This can be caused by excessive moisture and lack of proper air circulation. To prevent this, ensure that the paper towels are damp but not completely soaking wet. You may also get mold if the container your putting the paper towels in is not fully clean. If mold appears, carefully remove the affected seeds and replace the paper towel with a fresh, clean one.

Insufficient Moisture or Excess Water: Finding the right balance of moisture is crucial for successful seed germination. If the paper towels dry out, the seeds may fail to germinate. On the other hand, if the towels are too wet, the seeds can rot or develop mold. Regularly check the paper towels to ensure they remain consistently damp. Mist them with water if needed, but avoid soaking them excessively.

Seed Failure: Despite your best efforts, not all seeds will germinate successfully. Some seeds may be old, damaged, or simply have low viability. If you notice that certain seeds are not sprouting within a reasonable time frame, remove them from the paper towels and discard them. Focus on the seeds that show signs of germination and continue nurturing them.

Expert Tips for the Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method

Select High-Quality Seeds: Start with fresh, high-quality seeds from reputable sources. Good seed quality increases the chances of successful germination.  If you are starting your own seeds, this is a great method for determining viability.

Maintain Optimal Moisture Levels: Keep the paper towel consistently damp but not overly wet. Mist the paper towel with water as needed to prevent it from drying out. Proper moisture balance is crucial for seed germination.  If your paper towels are in a bag or container you will likely only need to add water once or twice.

Provide Adequate Warmth: Most seeds germinate best at warm temperatures. Place the paper towel in a warm location, such as on top of a heat mat or near a heat source, to provide the optimal temperature range for germination.

Ensure Proper Air Circulation: Proper airflow helps prevent mold and fungal growth. Use a breathable cover or loosely wrap the paper towel with a plastic bag or plastic wrap to maintain humidity while allowing some air exchange.  You can also put the paper towels in a plastic container - this will increase airflow.

Monitor and Transition to Planting: Regularly monitor the seeds for signs of germination, such as root emergence or sprouting. Once the seeds have sprouted, carefully transfer them to a growing medium, such as soil or seed-starting mix, ensuring minimal disturbance to the delicate seedlings.
Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method: New Seedlings

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for seeds to germinate?

The time it takes for seeds to germinate using the paper towel method varies depending on the specific seed type but generally ranges from a few days to a couple of weeks. Seeds like peppers take longer to germinate.

Can I reuse the paper towels?

While it is possible to reuse paper towels for germinating seeds, it is recommended to use fresh, clean paper towels for each batch of seeds to maintain cleanliness and reduce the risk of mold or contamination.

What if my seeds don’t sprout?

If your seeds don’t sprout within a reasonable time frame, it could indicate low viability or improper conditions. It’s best to remove non-germinated seeds and focus on those that show signs of germination. Give your seeds at least a few weeks before you give up and you can try moving to a warmer location.

Can I use this method for all types of seeds?

The paper towel method is suitable for a wide range of seeds, including small seeds, flower seeds, tree seeds, legumes, and herbaceous perennials. However, some seeds may have specific germination requirements or may not respond well to this method, so it’s important to research and understand the specific needs of each seed type before proceeding.

Summary of the Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method

By following this guide for the ‘germinating seeds in paper towel method’, you’ll soon be germinating your own seeds. This is a great method for saving space, checking germination rates and getting a jump start on the growing season.

Germinating Seeds in Paper Towel Method

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