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How to Maximize Your Harvest From Your Vegetable Garden

Copyright March 4, 2014 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.


Introduction

The three basic ways to start a vegetable garden from seed are as follows:
  1. Plant your vegetable seeds outdoors in your garden where you wish for them to grow.
  2. Start your vegetable seeds indoors in some good soil in some small pots or trays, allow them to grow into small plants, and then transplant the small plants into your garden where you wish for them to grow.
  3. Start your vegetable seeds indoors inside a damp paper towel and after they germinate then plant the sprouted seeds using either option 1 or option 2 above.
Even though you may have used option 1 or option 2 in the past, you may wish to consider option 3 if you should find yourself in a serious hard times situation. During serious hard times you may need to maximize the output from whatever garden space you have available while investing the least amount of effort and water in achieving those results.

If you use option 3 above then you would achieve all of the following significant benefits during hard times:
Germinated Seeds
  1. More Food Faster:
    • Begin by germinating your seeds inside a damp paper towel, and then carefully plant the seeds that sprout into some good soil in some small seed pots or in a planting tray, and later transplant the young healthy vegetable plants outdoors when the weather becomes warm enough for planting. This would result in the earliest possible harvest. If you have a limited amount of food in storage then this would be a significant advantage during hard times.
    • Food may be very scarce and any seeds that will not germinate (corn, beans, wheat berries, etc.) could be eaten immediately and not wasted by planting them in seed pots or in your garden.

  2. Maximum Output From Your Vegetable Garden:
    • Your garden space may be limited and you may need to maximize the output from the space you do have available.
    • After your seeds germinate and grow into small plants, then you could plant those small vegetable plants the proper distance from one another and not worry about having bare spaces or crowded spaces in your garden when the vegetable plants begin to grow into their normal healthy size.
    • You could strategically select your healthiest strongest vegetable plants for planting in your vegetable garden. Any vegetable plants that were weak and puny looking could be discarded.

  3. Less Manual Work:
    • If you have to manually break the ground with a shovel and a hoe then you could reduce the amount of that work if you were only planting seedlings that had already germinated and had begun to grow into small vegetable plants.
    • You would not have to thin out plants that were growing too close to one another and then transplant those plants into a bare spot somewhere else.
    • Each time you had to pull the weeds out of your garden you would have the smallest possible area to weed because all your plants would be growing the minimum possible distance from one another.

  4. Less Water Required:
    • Water may be very limited and you will need to use the water that you do have available as strategically as you possibly can.
    • If you germinate your seeds inside paper towels then you will only need a very small amount of water to germinate those seeds. However, if you plant your seeds in seed pots indoors or in the ground outdoors, and then water the soil to germinate those seeds, then a lot of water will be wasted because you will have to saturate all the soil every day, including the soil that contains seeds that will not sprout. Please pause for a moment and think about this. It only requires a trivial amount of water to keep one paper towel moist that contains 100 seeds when compared to the amount of water required to keep the soil inside 100 seed pots moist.
    • As your seeds gradually germinate inside the moist paper towel then you can carefully plant those seeds in some good soil in some small seed pots or trays, and all the water you use from that time forward will be invested in growing a small vegetable plant.
    • Later when you transplant your small vegetable plants into your garden and they start growing then they will all be the optimum distance apart, without any crowding or bare areas in your garden, and you will have the minimum possible area to water when it doesn't rain.

  5. Other Advantages:
    • No electricity is required. You do not need a heated seed bed or a sunlamp above the growing area to germinate the seeds.
    • Less space is required. You can germinate 1,000 or more seeds on a tray or a cookie sheet that measures 11 inches by 18 inches.

My Seed Germination Experiment

During February of 2014 I tested some vegetable seeds that I had in storage for many years.

I conducted my experiment on 130 different samples of vegetable seeds in order to determine the following information:
  1. Age of Seeds: What actually happens to the germination rate of seeds as they gradually get older year by year?
    Seeds were tested that had been in storage for the following number of years:
    • Fresh or Just Purchased.
    • 2 years old.
    • 3 years old.
    • 6, 7, or 8 years old depending on what I had available for each of the different types of seeds that were being tested.
    • 11 years old.
    • 13 or 15 years old depending on what I had available for each of the different types of seeds that were being tested.

  2. Size of Seeds: Does the size of the seed impact its germination rate?
    The following seed sizes were included in this experiment:
    • Large Size Seeds: Beans and Corn.
    • Medium Size Seeds: Beets and Okra.
    • Small Size Seeds: Carrots.

  3. Presoak: Does a one-hour presoak impact the germination rate of seeds?
    To test the impact of presoaking, different seed experiments were conducted as follows:
    • No presoak: The seeds were removed from their seed envelopes and immediately placed inside a dry paper towel and then the paper towel was moistened with lukewarm water.
    • One-hour presoak: The seeds were removed from their seed envelopes and immediately soaked for one-hour in one of the solutions described below. Then the seeds were transferred from the soaking solution onto a dry paper towel and the paper towel was moistened with lukewarm water.

  4. Hydrogen Peroxide: Does the use of hydrogen peroxide impact the germination rate of seeds?
    The hydrogen peroxide used in this experiment was purchased at a pharmacy in February 2014 and it was the standard 3% solution, or 3% hydrogen peroxide and 97% purified water.
    To test the impact of hydrogen peroxide some of the seeds were presoaked for one-hour in one of the following solutions (all the solutions were lukewarm when the seeds were added):
    • 100% well water and 0% hydrogen peroxide.
    • 90% well water and 10% hydrogen peroxide.
    • 50% well water and 50% hydrogen peroxide.
    • 0% well water and 100% hydrogen peroxide.
Well water was used in this experiment. My well water does not contain any chlorine or fluoride.
Note: If you do not have well water then you could use rainwater to germinate your seeds.

Percent Germination Rates of Different Types of Seeds Purchased at Different Times

Seed TypeFresh, Just Purchased2 Years Old3 Years Old6, 7, or 8 Years Old11 Years Old13 or 15 Years Old
Beans100%93%97%46%* (7 years)-0%* (15 Years)
Beets97%91%92%80% (6 years)34%*-
Carrots72%73%73%63% (8 years)1%*-
Corn89%99%98%98% (8 years)36%*80% (13 Years)
Okra96%64%93%-94%*95% (13 Years)

Information About the Data in the Above Table:

Before they were used in this experiment, the above seeds were stored in a refrigerator at a temperature of 40F to 45F (4.4C to 7.2C), except for the fresh seeds and the seeds marked with an *.
* The seeds marked by an * were not kept in the refrigerator. Before they were used in this experiment, the * seeds were stored at temperatures that varied from 60F to 75F (15.6C to 23.9C).
The above table is a summary of 130 different samples that contained a total of more than 2,600 vegetable seeds.

Conclusions Based on the Above Experiment:
  1. Age of Seeds: As seeds gradually get older the germination rate of those seeds will gradually decrease, with a few exceptions due to the random variables that are discussed below.
    The germination rate of seeds can be extended by storing the seeds in the lower tray of a refrigerator.

  2. Size of Seeds: Small seeds appear to have the lowest germination rate.
    There does not appear to be any significant consistent difference between the germination rates of medium size seeds and large size seeds.

  3. Presoak: Although not shown in the above table, the impact of presoaking the seeds for one-hour in any type of solution had no impact on the final germination percentage of those seeds.
    However, presoaking for one-hour did result in a slightly higher germination rate during the first two days of germination inside a moist paper towel.
    But by the third or fourth day the seeds that had not been presoaked reached a germination level that was equivalent to the seeds that had been presoaked for one-hour.

  4. Hydrogen Peroxide: Although not shown in the above table, the use of hydrogen peroxide had no impact on the final germination percentages of the seeds.
    • The seeds that were not presoaked and the seeds that were presoaked in a 100% water solution had a final average germination rate of 78%.
    • The seeds that were presoaked in one the three solutions that contained some percentage of hydrogen peroxide had a final average germination rate of 78%.
      Based on this experiment the use of hydrogen peroxide does not change the germination rate of seeds if the seeds are kept inside a moist paper towel during their normal germination period.

  5. Random Variables: As the seeds aged their germination rates did not consistently decrease due to the following factors:
    • Some years were good harvest years and the seeds produced that year were extremely healthy. However, during some years the weather conditions were poor and this resulted in decreased harvests of lower quality vegetables and the seeds produced during those years were not as healthy as the seeds produced during a good harvest year.
    • All the seeds tested were heirloom or open pollinated varieties. However, except for the pinto beans, there were some differences in the heirloom varieties of the seeds depending on what was available for the year that was being evaluated.
    • Except for the "Great Value" brand pinto beans, all the other seeds were processed and sold by several different seed companies and this introduced another variable into the results of the experiment. However, all the seeds tested in any one year were of the same heirloom variety sold by the same seed company.
Recommendations:

Beans, beets, carrots, corn, and okra have germination rates of approximately 46% or higher after seven years in storage. Therefore every family should have some of these vegetable seeds stored in the lower tray of their refrigerator. However, even if the seeds are stored at normal room temperatures then they should still have good germination rates after seven years in storage.

Based on this simple experiment I suggest that you do not discard any vegetable seeds that you purchased several years ago because there is a very good chance that some percentage of those seeds are still alive and they will germinate and grow into a healthy vegetable plant.


Suggestions for Germinating Seeds and for Transplanting Seedlings

You may use a variety of different types of material to wrap around your seeds while they are germinating. I used a white paper towel that measured 6 inches by 11 inches. But it is also possible to use cloth instead of a paper towel.

Cloth for Germinating Your Seeds:
  1. Type of Cloth: You can cut off some material from some old worn-out denim blue jeans, or from an old set of bed sheets or a pillowcase, or from an old dress or shirt. The material should be close woven and it should feel relatively smooth on the inside surface of the material where you will be placing your seeds. The material should not be a coarse weave or a loose weave fabric because the seeds will send out their tiny sprouts in every direction and the sprouts could easily become entangled in a loose weave fabric and you may damage the seed and its sprout when you try to separate it from the fabric. However, if you use a smooth close weave fabric then the sprout will not be able to "grow" into the fabric and you can more easily remove the sprouted seed from the fabric without damaging it.

  2. Color of Cloth: If possible, select a cloth color that does not match the color of your seeds. You need to be able to see your seeds, and their tiny sprouts, and this is easier to do if the cloth is a color that contrasts well with the seeds and the seeds are easily visible against the inside smooth surface of the cloth.

  3. Recycle: Unlike a paper towel, you can reuse your cloth over and over again. However, you will need to thoroughly rinse the seed stains and the smell from the cloth before you put the cloth in storage, or before you use it immediately for your next batch of seeds. If you use soap to wash the cloth then make sure you rinse all the soap out of the cloth before you use it again.

All vegetable seeds can be germinated before they are planted.

However, some vegetable seedlings transplant extremely well, but some do not do well when they are transplanted. If a vegetable does not do well when transplanted then you should plant the germinated seeds outdoors in your garden where you want the vegetable plants to grow. However, if a vegetable seed will grow a seedling that does do well when it is transplanted, then you can plant those germinated seeds indoors in some good soil in a small pot or tray and allow the seeds to grow into healthy seedlings before you transplant them outdoors in your garden.

Transplanting Success or Failure:
  1. Very Good Transplanting Success Rates: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, collards, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, leeks, mustard, okra, onions, peppers, tomatoes.

  2. Marginal Transplanting Success Rates: Cantaloupes, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, watermelon.

  3. Very Poor Transplanting Success Rates: Beans, beets, carrots, corn, okra, peas, radishes, rutabaga, turnips, zucchini.
How to Transplant Your Vegetable Plants (Seedlings):
Potted Plants
  1. Approximately five days before transplanting, place the potted vegetable plants outdoors each day to give them a chance to become accustomed to the weather conditions in your area. But bring the plants indoors at night.

  2. Give each vegetable plant some water and then wait at least three hours for the plant to absorb the water through its roots. The plant will then be as healthy as it can be and it will be ready for transplanting.

  3. While you are waiting for your plants to absorb the water that you just gave them, you should dig the appropriate size holes in your garden in the exact locations where you intend to put each plant.

  4. Transplant your seedlings during the early morning hours before 10:00 am in order to give the plants a chance to adjust to their new environment before they are exposed to the full force of the sun at midday.

  5. Be gentle with your plants as you remove them from their potting trays using your hands. If you will use your hands then you will be able to feel the dirt and the roots of the plant and you will be able to press the dirt gently against the roots if necessary. To the extent possible, allow as much of the original dirt from the potting tray to remain packed around the roots of each plant. Put each plant in a hole so it is at the correct depth to the ground around it. Immediately cover the roots of the plants with good soil so the roots are not exposed to the air any longer than absolutely necessary.

  6. Cover the ground around the new plant with some type of mulch to protect the dirt and the roots of the plant from the heat of the sun. This will help the dirt and the roots of the plant to retain moisture. The mulch will also help to maintain a more consistent stable soil temperature because the mulch will protect the soil from the direct rays of the sun during the day and the mulch will help to keep the soil warm at night so the cool night air doesn't pull the warmth out of the soil. Finally, the mulch will help to protect the soil around the plant from random weed seeds that are blown about by the wind.
Seed Germination Schedule:

Do not germinate all your vegetable seeds at the same time. Instead you should create a schedule of when you will germinate each type of vegetable seed based on when the weather in your area will be suitable for growing each type of vegetable outdoors.
  1. The vegetable seeds that must be planted outdoors immediately after they germinate should not be germinated until a few days before you wish to plant them in your garden.

  2. The vegetable seeds that can be grown indoors into healthy seedlings should be germinated two, three, or four weeks prior to the time you wish to plant them outdoors based on how long it takes the vegetable seed to grow into a healthy seedling.
Your seed germination schedule should allow you to plant each type of vegetable seed over a period of several weeks so you will have a longer harvest season for each type of vegetable, instead of having to harvest all of one type of vegetable at the same time because they all matured at exactly the same time.


Summary and Conclusions

If you have some old vegetable seeds then you should not discard those seeds. Some percentage of the seeds may still be alive and they will germinate and grow into healthy vegetable plants.

Do not soak seeds or germinate seeds in water that contains chlorine or fluoride. If you do not have access to well water then you can collect rainwater and use it on your seeds.

Hydrogen peroxide does not have any impact on the germination rate of seeds when those seeds are germinated inside a moist paper towel.

If you will be germinating your seeds indoors then there is no advantage to presoaking the seeds before you place them inside a damp paper towel or cloth. On the other hand, if you do not germinate your seeds and you plant your seeds directly into the ground then a one-hour to three-hour presoak is very beneficial for some seeds. Some information about which seeds benefit from presoaking is on my website here.

All vegetable seeds can be germinated inside a damp paper towel or inside a piece of damp cloth.

After they germinate, some vegetable seeds will need to be immediately planted in your garden where you want them to grow. However, if the vegetable is one that can grow a healthy seedling that will do well when it is transplanted, then you can plant the germinated seeds in some good soil inside a small pot or tray inside your home and allow them to grow into healthy seedlings before you transplant them outdoors in your garden.

If you have a long growing season then do not germinate all your seeds or plant your entire vegetable garden at one time. It is usually better to plant a few seeds each week over a six to eight week period for two reasons:
  1. If there is a late frost or a late snow then your seeds or seedlings will die unless you protect them by keeping them covered. Sometimes the frost or snow happens without warning and this can destroy almost everything that you had planted.
  2. If you will plant a few seeds each week then you will have a longer harvest period. Some of your vegetables will become ripe and ready to harvest each week. This will give you the option to gradually eat or preserve those vegetables as they become mature.
On the other hand, if you have a short growing season then you will need to strategically utilize the time you have available for growing vegetables.

If you have a long growing season then you may wish to consider growing two crops each year. The first crop can be planted in the early spring and harvested in the early summer. The second crop can be planted in the late summer and harvested in the fall when the vegetables mature. If you decide to experiment with this strategy then you will need to strategically select vegetable varieties that grow well in the spring, and other vegetable varieties that grow well in the late summer and fall.


Footnote: The Vegetable Seeds Used in this Experiment

Seed TypeFresh, Just Purchased2 Years Old3 Years Old6, 7, or 8 Years Old11 Years Old13 or 15 Years Old
BeansPinto "GV"Pinto "GV"Pinto "GV"Pinto "GV" (7 years old)NonePinto "GV" (15 years old)
BeetsDetroit Dark Red "AS"Detroit Dark Red "NK"Detroit Dark Red "AS"Sugar Beets "SM" (6 years old)Detroit Dark Red "AS"None
CarrotsDanvers Half Long "AS"Danvers "FM"Danvers Half Long "AS"Danvers Half Long "AS" (8 years old)Danvers Half Long "AS"None
CornEarly Golden Bantam "AS"Early Golden Bantam "NK"Stowell's Evergreen "SS"Early Golden Bantam "AS" (8 years old)Early Golden Bantam "AS"Early Golden Bantam "AS"
OkraClemson Spineless "AS"Emerald "FM"Emerald "FM"NoneDwarf Green Pod "AS"Dwarf Green Pod "AS"

American Seed Packets Abbreviations:
GV = Great Value
AS = American Seed
FM = Ferry~Morse
NK = NK Lawn & Garden
SM = Sand Mountain Herbs
SS = Seed Savers Exchange

Walmart's "American Seed" Brand Vegetable Seeds: Occasionally I read criticisms on the internet about the very affordable "American Seed" vegetable seeds that are sold at Walmart for approximately 20 cents per seed package. In the past I have not experienced any problems with the germination rates of "American Seed" brand vegetable seeds. In fact, a significant percentage of the "American Seed" brand vegetable seeds that were part of this experiment were still alive after 13 years in storage in the lower tray of my refrigerator.

If you have a limited amount of money to invest in vegetable seeds then you may wish to consider the "American Seed" brand at Walmart.

However, it should be mentioned that some of the seed packets contain fewer seeds than the more expensive brands of seeds. Therefore you should compare the gram weight of the different brands of seed packets and calculate the price per gram for each type of vegetable seed before you make your final purchase decision.

Recommendations for some good heirloom vegetable seed varieties that you may wish to consider are on my website here.



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Grandpappy's e-mail address is: RobertWayneAtkins@hotmail.com