Seed Pre-Treatment Before Sowing

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Robert Pavlis

In a previous post, Seed Dormancy – Explained, I discussed different types of seed dormancy and briefly discussed various seed pre-treatments. In this post I’ll provide you with a series of steps that you can follow to germinate just about any seed.

Seed pre-treatment, by Robert Pavlis
Seed pre-treatment, by Robert Pavlis

What is Seed Pre-treatment?

Seed pre-treatment is anything that you do to the seed before you plant them. This includes soaking, changing temperatures to mimic winter, or even keeping them in the dark.

Each type of seed has a specific pre-sowing process that will over come dormancy, and allow germination to take place.

YouTube video

Determining The Right Pre-treatment

Here are some simple guidelines to determine the right pre-germination treatment for your seeds.

  1. Read the seed packet. If a pre-treatment is required, it will be described on the package.
  2. Vegetable seeds usually do not need a pre-treatment.
  3. Annual flower seed usually do not need a pre-treatment.
  4. If you collected seed from a fruit or vegetable, like an apple or tomato, wash the seed well to remove all pulp which can contain germination inhibitors.
  5. All seed needs to absorb water. This is a pre-treatment, but for most seeds this will happen after planting, so you can ignore this step unless instructions specifically say that you should soak the seed.

If you don’t have a packet for the seed you can probably find pre-sowing information from one of the following sources.

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

The best, and easiest to use source is the Ontario Rock Garden & Hardy Plant Society website which lists the pre-treatment requirements for thousands of different seed. You can access it here:

Go to the Germination Guide menu, and find your plant name by genus and species. It will then give you pre-germination instructions.

Another good source, that is a bit harder to use since it consists of 3 books, are the seed starting books by Dr. Norman Deno. You will need to look at all three books to find complete information. You can get free copies of these books by clicking on the Free Garden Books menu of this website.

And my third recommendation is Tom Clothier’s Germination databases.

If you can’t find the plant in one of these sources, try searching the internet. If all else fails, use the pre-treatment for  a similar species – that usually works.

If you still have no idea how to germinate the seed, try a cold stratification for 3 months followed by a warm period. This treatment works for many seeds. You can also scarify half the seed to see if that helps.

Note added March 17, 2016: Here is another good source for info on woody seeds; Woody Plant Seed Manual

Seed Pre-treatments

The following are some of the more common pre-treatments.


Scarification is any process that weakens or damages a hard seed coat so that it is easier for water to enter the seed. This can be done with sand paper, a nail file, a triangular file, nail clippers, hot water or even acids. For home use I would not recommend using the acids – they are dangerous and rarely required.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

For larger seed I like using a triangular file. I hold the file still and moved the seed along one edge. For small seed I use 2 sheets of sand paper rubbed together on a table as shown in the video below. I also use a utility knife (similar to an Xacto knife) for mid sized seed.

Here is a video showing you how I scarify seed.

YouTube video

If you can’t see the above video, try this link:


Stratification is a common requirement which means the seed needs to go through one or more temperature changes to initiate germination.

Generally, a warm period is house temperature or 20 – 25 deg C (70 deg F) and a cold temperature is 5 – 10 deg C (40 deg F). Some seed likes to undergo freezing temperatures and then the best pre-treatment is to put them outside in winter so they experience freeze – thaw cycles.

Stratification can be done with dry seed, or moist seed, but the term almost always refers to moist seed. Unless the instructions specifically say ‘dry stratification’, assume it is to be done moist. That means storing dry seed in the fridge does NOT normally qualify as stratification.

Many sites on the internet and even gardening books will tell you to keep dry seed in the fridge to ‘stratify them’ – they are wrong. Keeping dry seed in a fridge is not stratification, unless the requirement is for dry stratification.


Soaking is fairly easy to do. Place seed in water and leave them for the specified period of time. If no time is given, use an overnight soak. Then proceed with the germination process. For longer soaks it is a good idea to replace the water every 24 hours with fresh water so that any chemicals that are extracted from the seed can be discarded.

This short video will show you how to soak small seed.

YouTube video

If you can’t see the above video, try this link:

Tail Removal

Seed such as pulsatilla and clematis have tails on their seed. Some people feel that the presence of a tail inhibits germination. My studies on clematis germination do not support this idea, and I suspect it also does not apply to the genus Pulsatilla. However, there is certainly no down side to removing the tails and you might find it easier to handle seeds with the tails removed.

GA3 Hormone Treatment

As seeds come out of dormancy the relative amounts of certain hormones inside the seed change. It is quite common to see the level of GA3 (gibberellic acid) increase just before germination.

In some cases adding GA3 to the seed will speed up germination. In other cases adding GA3 can speed up the development of the shoot.

When required, I treat seeds with GA3 following the method described in Dr. Deno’s main book found in the Free Garden Books section of this website.

GA3 is not normally required for germination, but may speed up the process.

Combining Multiple Pre-treatments

The above sections describe a number of pre-treatments, but the reality is that a seed may need more than one of these. In that case the  order in which you do them can be important. Unless instructions are different, I would carry out the pre-treatments in this order:

  1. Remove tails
  2. Wash pulp off
  3. Scarify
  4. Soak
  5. GA3
  6. Stratify


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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

5 thoughts on “Seed Pre-Treatment Before Sowing”

  1. @Kevin Franck. hydrogen peroxide was banned in u.k in recent years because someone used it to make a bomb, although I see it as an ingredient in hair products… containing other chemicals,so not buying that stuff.

  2. Nail pliers for banana seeds – bigger ‘gape’ than nail clippers. I got a pair for £ 8.00. Sure Health and Beauty brand is only one I could find in my local town centre from an independent chemist. City branches would have bigger range.
    I went too deep first couple times into white matter. Make two, half- 1 millimetre cuts like vertical lines in a capital H. then make snips in horizontal cuts between vertical cuts. keep repeating till you see there’s no shell but a space with maybe a shine behind it; reckon that’s inner seed coat. I’m soaking them for 24 hours in a flask, draining,then repeating another two times before sowing.
    Tried a junior hacksaw but wasn’t comfortable with it as couldn’t see what I was doing,thought I’d go into the seed germ but pliers did the job… just snip away by increments. it takes about 7 H’s
    Got two grams of GA3 .Will try on Eryngium and Meconopsis betonicifolia (baileyi ? ) later in year.

  3. Again, good points. When it comes to vegetable gardening, I’ve always pre-soaked seeds like corn or beans, but never anything else. They swell in no time and for me it provides a head start. Smaller vegetable seeds like melons, squashes, etc No!

    I only stratify and scarify native seeds here from the Southwest, as I’ve stated previously, this is where I am from. With most seeds in this dry hot climate they have very hard coatings which protect them from dessication. In the Nature down in Chaparral and desert country.

    Not long ago I wrote about Tecate Cypress seed germination after the San Diego Wild Animal Park was involved in a restoration project of Tecate Cypress in Southern California regions where wildfire had destroyed whole forests of these Cypress, they wrote about methods they had used which I recogniized as still being stuck in the 1070s. They wrote about germination success rates of 25% to if very lucky 50%. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Since 1980 I have always and to the present gotten almost 100% germination of Tecate Cypress. I became fascinated decades ago with biomimetics, although I’m not sure the term was invented back then. Simply replicating what nature does.

    My first reasoning and ponderings about why success is better out in nature was to realize what hapens high up in those mountain elevations. Winters in Southern California mountains are very cold and continually wet, even if not so much at lower elevations. So like the propagation house at San Diego Zoo, I also soaked the seeds in hot water after opening the cones wrapped in tin foil with fire on my Bar-B-Q. Placing the seeds in a small jar and pouring hot water on them and allowing them to soak a couple of hours, I poured off the water with just wet seeds inside the jar. I then placed that jar on the bottom shelf in my fridge and waited 3 months. At that time after three months, every single seed had that little seed germ swollen white about to break. That’s when I plant them in flats in a sterile potting media I had prepared ahead of time. After a few inches high, I tranplant them into gallong containers. I have produced so many this way that I have to give them away. I have in many cases found the same system works with other SoCal native plant seeds.

    In my potting soil media, I use a neutral mix purchased at any home improvement store when nutrients and other fertilizers have not been added. I use 50% of this and 50% Vermiculite for aeration. I then [you may not agree] use a Hydrogen Peroxide solution from powder [food grade without the preservative] and gently water the flats with potting soil which fizzes in the beginning and further sterilizing the mix. I never use this as a fertilizer ever, only a potting soil preparation the day before. When I never did this, even with that mix bleand I had some damping off od both pine and cypress seedlings. Then next dat I plant as many seeds in the flat at about an inch apart. Anyway, that is my experience with native germination and biomimicry.

    Thanks again Robert for your post on this.

    • Most seed germination information seems to come from amateurs and not research studies. Given the number of different seed types that is not surprising. Once a method works to produce germination, even at low levels, it is copied by others and becomes the norm. Then someone like you comes along and improves the standard.

      I had not heard of dry hydrogen peroxide – which is a gas. It seems to be sodium percarbonate which releases hydrogen peroxide went put in water.

      I will write about ‘sterile soil’ shortly on Garden Myths Sterile soil does not exist for home gardeners unless they go through a heat sterilization process, and there really is no point. I am not sure how well hydrogen peroxide sterilizes in soil. It will react with protein and fizz. So how much of the fizz is due to reaction with dead organic matter in the soil? I don’t know.

      • Why I have used a food grade powder years ago and I say sterile only in the sense that in changing to this method I have never had the damping off problems as I once did. Mind you, it’s been a long time since I’ve propagated anything since I left the USA, with the exception of germinating desert plant seeds in the old glass jar and paper towl trick with water after scarifying. But other than that I do not use Hydrogen Perozixde. The spooky thing is there are some people who claim to use it for a sort of health benefit from drinking it for oxygen therapy. I have heard horro stories from some who became terribly ill.


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