Tricks For Handling Small Seeds

David Trammel's picture

In a couple of months it will be time to seed start my early Spring crops. What are your tricks for handling very small seeds?

I often use 1" wide strips of paper towel, kept moist in tupperware in a dark cabinet over the stove (for the warmth) to germinate them. Especially for older seeds that might have lower germination rates. Then carefully use a folded bit of paper as a funnel to put them on the towel. Once they germinate, then cut the towel into 1" squares and plant.

Recently I saw someone suggest mixing small seeds with sand, then putting the mix into a salt shaker. You could just sprinkle the mix over the towel, or over seed starter pots.

kma's picture

I don't have a solution to this but will try your method in the spring. I've always had more seeds than I could use so go for the sprinkle as best as I can method and then thin and give away extras. Your way is much better for saving resources.

Interesting idea. I've never tried the salt shaker thing, or cutting up the paper towel. Given that I do chit carrot seeds, I should try this.

Thrifty1's picture

I've been trying to grow parsnips for several years, because I love them. But have never managed to get them to germinate, until this spring I tried sprouting the seeds on damp kitchen towel in a plastic take-away food container on top of my floor-mounted boiler. Once I saw the little white roots appear, I transferred them to into the soil, dropping them into prepared holes about 6" apart. Sadly only about 3 of them survived - I suspect they didn't like being detached from the kitchen towel, never mind the temperature shock - I should have let them acclimatise for a few hours first. It never occurred to me to tear the kitchen towel up & leave them on it - I just threw it away! So you've given me the missing piece of the puzzle there - I'll report back next year, but all other things being more or less equal, I bet I get rather more than 3 parsnips!

Commercial parsnip seed is very hard to start and to further complicate the matter, the seed doesn't last very long, a couple of years at most. Depending on where you get your seed, it could already be that old and perhaps older. As a way to get fresh seed, I would suggest that if you get some to grow in your garden, leave one of the parsnips in the ground and let it flower and produce seed the following year. Parsnip is very productive of seed and you will find that if you plant this fresh seed the year after that, they will sprout wonderfully and quickly. At least that has been my experience. I have also thought, but haven't tried this, that it might be possible to make a perennial bed of parsnips as the seed you miss that falls to the ground will germinate and sprout on it's own very readily.

Naturally to get fresh seed, you will need to do this exercise every other year or so and not only will you get loads of fresh seed, but you will be developing your own land race of parsnip seeds.

I saved seeds from some (5-10) parsnips I left too long in the ground last year. They were from someone else who'd saved seeds. I got a lot of seed off them, and will be giving some of it away locally next year.

Parsnips are outcrossing insect pollinated plants. If you want viable seed you a) need more than 1 plant for decent pollination and seed set, and b) if you want to do this without inbreeding depression setting in a few generations, you'll want a minimum number of plants. I'm not sure what that number is. If I save seeds again from this lot, I should probably start paying more attention to that.

Thrifty1's picture

I'll leave one of my three to flower next year & hopefully harvest the resulting seeds to grow on. There are a few others growing them on our allotment site (British gardens tend to be quite small, so in some places we can rent a plot or patch of land nearby, i.e. an "allotment", to grow flowers, soft fruit & vegetables, which is usually on a "site" with other plots) so they should get pollinated. Allotment sites are marvellous for cross-fertilisation of plants - and ideas! - and tend to be quite sociable places.

David Trammel's picture

Thrifty, I was having very poor luck with starting them in soil/seed pots. I was doing some microgreen experiments at the same time, so I tried using the paper towel for a medium on them. Had about 1 out of 20 germinate. When I first tried to separate them from the towel, I broke roots so then I just cut out the area the seed that started was, then planted that towel and all in a seed pot. That seemed to do better.

Ken's picture

I concur with Kay Robison regarding parsnip seed; it doesn't stay viable for very long. In my experience a year or two max. Pygmycory has a good point about maintaining diversity in your seed - When you save seed from just a few plants, especially when those plants are grown from seed produced by a similarly small set, you have just created a genetic bottleneck. Do that a few times and you have painted yourself into a corner.

The best comment I ever heard about seed saving is, "If you are a seed saver, you are, by definition, a plant breeder. Behave accordingly."

I suggest that everyone have a copy of the classic, 'Seed to Seed' by Suzanne Ashworth on their shelf; it's an excellent source of basic information. If you get serious about raising top quality seed for trading or your own use, you cannot beat Navazio's 'The ORGANIC SEED GROWER.' It goes into much more detail and specifics on common vegetable varieties.

(I have not raised parsnip for seed but they are quite similar to carrots in many ways.) I participated in a carrot seed grow-out for John Navazio when he was working with The Organic Seed Alliance in Pt. Townsend a number of years ago, and I learned a lot in the process. Raising quality seed takes a deliberate and rigorous approach. However, if you learn the specific skills for raising a difficult-to-grow seed crop, you may just have a valuable and renewable trade item for your trips to the farmer's market!

Carrots will outcross with Queen Anne's Lace (wild carrot - white roots and terribly bitter) so you need to know your area 'weeds'. Similarly with parsnips; they will outcross with (weedy) wild parsnip. With the carrots, the best solution to good seed is insect screen enclosures. Some people have gotten good pollination by adding a commercially available (for now) variety of fly to the enclosures. I think you could potentially cover the plants after they have started to bloom and 'capture' some of the little flies that seem to love the blooms.

Commercial seed growers are urged to plant at least 100 plants, and 200 is better, to maintain most out-crossing vegetable species. Obviously that's a whole lot of garden space and work and WAY more seed than most of us can use or trade. In Carol Deppe's 'The Resilient Gardener' (another of my favorite gardening books!) she recommends buying seed (of any given species) from a variety of sources, mixing them together, and in subsequent years, saving seed from a few excellent plants. This only works for a few years because of genetic drift and reduction of vitality, which typically shows up in falling germination rates and lower seedling vigor. Then she says to just start over with new, professionally raised seed. IF you have a reliable deep freezer, you can freeze seeds IF they are dry enough, and they will last much, much longer than normal. Deppe suggests putting your commercial mixture of seeds in the freezer as a source of fresh genetics (after holding out what you need to plant that year, of course).

For me, I swap for parsnip seed rather than trying to save my own. We don't eat that much of it and it's not worth raising seed every couple years to me. Same with carrots; too much work. Ideally, the whole island would coordinate who is raising what kind of seed (seed mapping) when and where. But barring that ever happening, I try to connect with a couple of other competent seed growers and swap the species that we each specialize in; I am developing a landrace popcorn for example and trade for lettuce seed with a friend who is into lettuce varieties.

If I feel ambitious in the next few years, I may take on an onion breeding project. Anyone raising onion seed? Any tips?

lathechuck's picture

I've read that some root crops, typically carrots, will grow a new plant from just the top of a root, which might otherwise be thrown in the composter. Rather than trying to start parsnips from seed, maybe I can grow plants from the tops. I don't expect these plants to grow new roots, because they've already gone through that part of their biennial cycle, but if they bloom, I'll have fresh seed for the following year. And after that, maybe I can maintain them through self-seeding. What do you think?

I don't have any experience with this kind of regrowth and what I have seen so far of other people's experiments with this method suggests that it doesn't work. However, my sample size is very small, so you should just try it and let us know how it goes.