Germinating Seeds In Paper Towels: A Quick and Easy Way to Start Seeds Without Soil There’s a faster, easier way to germinate seeds, and it doesn’t involve pots, trays, or even soil or seed No germination method is perfect (some seeds just won't germinate), but I've gotten 100% germination ever since I started using this method. Germinate Seeds Without Paper Towels Hey Dr. Grow, I hope you can help me. I tried germinating seeds on wet paper towels, but they didn’t grow. Flustered in Phoenix We have a solution
Germinating Seeds In Paper Towels: A Quick and Easy Way to Start Seeds Without Soil
There’s a faster, easier way to germinate seeds, and it doesn’t involve pots, trays, or even soil or seed starting mix. The trick? Using the baggie method to sprout your seeds more efficiently so you can save space at home, test their germination rate, and find out which seeds are still viable and worth planting. Here’s how to germinate seeds in paper towels (or coffee filters or newsprint—any of these common household items will work).
What if I told you there was a faster way to germinate all your seeds, without the need for seed starting mix, perlite, or vermiculite; without wrangling a bunch of seed starting trays, flats, and domes; and without any special equipment like heating mats, temperature sensors, and indoor seed starting systems?
The secret is as low-tech as you can get, and relies on only two things you likely already have in your kitchen: paper towels and Ziploc bags.
This seed starting trick is sometimes known as the baggie method, and it works with paper towels, coffee filters, or even just newsprint.
But first, you might be wondering… why start seeds with the baggie method instead of just starting them in soil? Keep reading; I’ve got all your answers below.
3 reasons you should use paper towels or coffee filters for seed germination
Now why would you want to germinate seeds in paper towels or coffee filters first, rather than germinating seeds indoors in seed starting mix?
1. It’s a good way to gauge if your seeds are viable to begin with, before you put them in pots.
Maybe you aren’t sure how old your seeds are (especially if the seeds were saved from your own plants).
Or, maybe you bought your seeds from a new seed catalog and want to check how healthy or accurate their germination rates are. (See the next section below on how to do a quick and simple germination test.)
2. You can start a lot more seeds this way and use only a minimum of space while they get going.
Germinating seeds in paper towels is very small-space friendly. You don’t need a bunch of trays or pots, a seed-starting shelving unit or even a wall of south-facing windows to make it happen. (Just a windowsill will do.)
Plus, the baggie method helps you pick out the fastest and most vigorous seeds to plant because you can actually see them germinate (a process that’s pretty mysterious to most of us since it happens underground).
3. Many seeds germinate much quicker in paper towels (versus seeds that are started in soil).
The heat, moisture, and controlled conditions inside a plastic baggie help them germinate in only a few days (or less, depending on the seed).
How to test germination with the baggie method
Every once in a while, especially if your seeds are about to reach their expiry date, it’s a good idea to do a germination test and find out if the seeds are still worth planting.
Try this quick germination test when you’re unsure about your seeds
- Count out 10 random seeds from the packet you want to test.
- Follow the instructions below to germinate the seeds in a paper towel or coffee filter, and label the baggie with the date you started them.
- Look on the seed packet or in any seed catalog for the expected number of days to germination for the seeds you’re testing. Wait that number of days, then count how many seeds have sprouted in that time.
If 8 out of 10 seeds germinated, that gives an 80 percent germination rate, which is pretty good for most vegetables. If only 4 out of 10 seeds germinated, then you have a 40 percent germination rate and the seed is, for all intents and purposes, useless.
When I find these, I throw the old seeds in the compost pile or feed them to my chickens. I might play around and put them in a random “salad blend” to sprout on my kitchen table, but I won’t bother planting them in the garden as a primary crop.
It is not wise to sow the seeds more thickly to make up for low germination. Weak seeds that struggle to even sprout will just result in weak plants that are likely to suffer from aphid infestations, fungal diseases, or other problems anyway.
But notice how I said primary crop: Older seeds that are borderline expired are actually useful in the garden as a secondary planting. I broadcast these seeds over my garden beds and let them grow in as a living mulch. I harvest (or cut them back) periodically to keep the plants low to the ground, but find they’re highly beneficial for suppressing weeds and improving soil tilth.
(In fact, this is one of the methods I teach in my online course, Lazy Gardening Academy, that mimics natural systems and helps your garden become more self-sustaining.)
What types of seeds can be germinated with paper towels?
All vegetable, herb, and flower seeds can be germinated in a paper towel or coffee filter, but personally, I find the baggie method to be most effective for seeds that take a long time to germinate.
Certain seeds that need a warm start (like chile peppers) are stubborn, taking up to three weeks to germinate. They need juuust the right conditions present before they sprout: the perfect balance of heat, moisture, and time.
In most seed starting scenarios, one or two of these requirements are usually lacking, which delays germination.
The baggie method speeds up the process by providing these conditions consistently with minimal effort on your part.
You can also germinate tomato seeds in paper towels or coffee filters, as well as cucumber, squash, muskmelon, and watermelon seeds.
Can you germinate kale, cabbage, broccoli, onion, or turnip seeds with the baggie method? Sure you can.
But cool-season seeds like these aren’t as finicky about heat, and seeds from the brassica family germinate quickly on their own anyway (usually within a couple days).
The baggie method isn’t necessary unless you want to test their germination rates; you can start them more easily just by sowing the seeds directly in the ground.
The same can be said for flower seeds. While you can sprout them in paper towels or coffee filters first, germination speed isn’t that important for flowers the way it is for vegetable seeds.
How to germinate seeds in paper towels or coffee filters
Step 1: Gather your supplies.
- Paper towels, coffee filters, or newsprint (use whatever you have around the house)
- Ziploc (resealable zip-top) bags
I personally like to use coffee filters because the paper has a denser weave, which keeps the roots from growing into the fibers and making them difficult to separate when you’re ready to plant.
Depending on how many seeds you want to germinate at a time, cut the coffee filters as needed. (I cut mine in half to fit inside standard sandwich baggies.)
Step 2: Moisten the coffee filters.
Wet the coffee filters and wring them out, so the paper is damp but not drowning in water.
Step 3: Place your seeds on the coffee filter.
Place your seeds on the bottom half of the paper, leaving an inch between seeds to give their roots room to grow. Fold the top half over the seeds to sandwich them.
Step 4: Place the coffee filter inside a baggie.
Slide the coffee filter (with seeds) inside the baggie.
I like to blow air into the bags using a straw and then seal them tight to speed up germination. You can also leave your bags flat, but the air creates more of a greenhouse effect (which is especially helpful for chile peppers and other heat-loving seeds).
Step 5: Wait for the magic of germination to happen.
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.
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 germinate.
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.
Step 6: Transplant the germinated seed.
Once the radicle reaches an inch or two in length, carefully transplant the germinated seed in potting 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 (as well as the life line of your soon-to-be seedling).
Don’t try to remove the seed coat before transplanting; it’ll fall off on its own when the first leaves (cotyledons) start to unfurl.
If any part of it is 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.
I try to transplant the seed as soon as it’s germinated so 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 ventilation at this stage.
After you’ve transplanted all your seedlings in small pots, keep the potting mix evenly moist with good airflow around the plants to prevent damping off disease.
You’ll need to harden them off for a few weeks before moving them outside, but once the seedlings develop their second set of leaves (the true leaves), they’re ready for their final place in the garden.
Troubleshooting: why are my seeds not germinating?
Sometimes the paper towel trick doesn’t work, or you run out of patience waiting for seeds to sprout. Here are a few reasons why your seeds aren’t germinating despite your best efforts:
- The paper towel is too wet: Seeds swimming in water may rot before they sprout, especially if they require a longer germination period.
- The paper towel is too dry: Seeds need consistent moisture to germinate, and you may need to mist the paper towel periodically to keep them moist.
- Seeds need more exposure to sun: Certain seeds require light to germinate, so if your baggies are tucked away in a room that sees little light, try moving them closer to a window.
- Seeds are too old: All seeds have an expected shelf life, and that shelf life diminishes under certain conditions. Use this seed life expectancy chart to find out how long your seeds should last.
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on February 1, 2013.
I’m a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is. Read more »
How to Germinate Seeds via Paper Towel Method
Cannabis seeds are natural things and you can’t expect 100% germination every time. Unfortunately, that’s just not how nature works. Many factors can affect germination including genetics (some strains germinate easier than others), the age of seeds, and how well they were stored. But I’ve been lucky and gotten 100% germination ever since I started using this method.
Paper Towel Method – Germinate seeds between wet paper towels, lock in the moisture with two plates, and place on a seedling heat mat for a few days
- High Germination Rate – Almost every seed with germinate if you follow the instructions
- Fast – Often takes only 1-3 days to see roots
- Keep Track – You can check on seeds without disturbing them
- Less Space – Use less space than planting seeds in pots (helpful if germinating lots of seeds at once)
- Fun – I personally love seeing the whole germination process and it makes me genuinely feel closer to the seedlings
- Multiple Steps – Not as simple as planting seeds directly in soil!
- Requires Supplies – You need cheap paper towels, seedling plugs, and a seedling heat mat
- “Bucket Head” Seedlings – I’ve found that shells are more likely to get stuck on the seedling leaves with this germination method because seedlings aren’t pushing themselves out of the soil. You may want to use tweezers to remove the shell gently, or just leave them be. However, this can happen with any method (instructions at the end of the article explain how to remove stubborn shells safely) and I personally find the increased germination rate makes this worth it.
Seeds typically germinate in 1-3 days!
Create happy little seedlings in less than a week!
How to Germinate via the Paper Towel Method
- Cheap paper towels – Why cheap paper towels? Seed roots grow into expensive cloth-like ones and have to be cut out (learned that one from experience)
- Two Plates – You need to lock the moisture in during the germination process
- Cannabis Seeds – If you need seeds, here’s a list of seed vendors that ship worldwide
- Rapid Rooters with Tray – The perfect environment for newly germinated seeds
- Seedling Heating Mat – Or any warm surface that stays about 70-85°F (20-30°C) to keep seeds warm
Cheap paper towels (don’t use the expensive cloth-like ones!)
Rapid Rooters (note: extra Rapid Rooters can be stored in a cool place for future grows)
Seedling Tray to hold Rapid Rooters
Seedling heat mat to keep seedlings warm (or any surface that’s about 70-85°F or 20-30°C)
1.) Put 3-4 Layers of Paper Towels on Plate
You don’t want to load your plate up with tons of paper towels, but it’s nice to have several sheets so they can hold plenty of water. If necessary, fold or cut the paper towels to size so everything fits completely inside the plate. If a paper towel is sticking outside the plates, everything will dry out quickly.
You may need to cut (or fold) paper towels so they fit completely inside plate
2.) Label the Strains
If growing more than one strain at a time, label the paper towels so you’ll know which seed is which.
3.) Add Water & Seeds
Add some water on top of the paper towels so they’re soaked through, then place seeds down. I add water first to avoid accidentally moving seeds. It’s also a good idea to keep the plate flat so seeds don’t roll around.
4.) Cover with 1 Sheet of Paper Towel
Put a single sheet of paper towel on top. With just one sheet you will be able to see whether the seeds have germinated without having to disturb them. You may need to add a little extra water so that the top sheet is moist all the way through.
With a single sheet on top, you can still mostly see the seeds
5.) Put 2nd Plate on Top
Lock in all the moisture by putting another plate on top.
6.) Place on Seedling Heat Mat
Plug in your seedling heat mat. It should warm up quickly. I’ve put the plates directly on the mat before, which worked well, but sometimes I worry my little weed seedlings may get too hot with the plate directly on the mat. Since I already have a Rapid Rooter tray for later, I place it between the mat and the plate. Feel free to use something else like a book or towel. The basic idea is to put some space between the heating mat and the plate so the plate still gets warm but the extra air space keeps the heat nice and even.
Why a seedling heat mat? Seeds germinate significantly faster when they’re kept 70-85°F (20-30°C). A seedling heat mat keeps seeds warm during the germination process. However, any warm spot works just as well (for example, on top of the refrigerator is the perfect temperature for some people). When you touch the wet paper towels, they should feel warm but not burning hot.
7.) Check on Seeds at Least Once a Day
Ensure paper towels don’t dry out. You may have to add more water occasionally to keep them wet. You can usually tell when the seeds have germinated without looking under the top sheet. This means you can check on your seeds regularly without disturbing them by picking up the top plate.
Seeds typically sprout in 1-3 days. Certain strains and older seeds may take a few extra days.
8.) Put Germinated Seeds in Rapid Rooters
Once seeds have germinated, gently pull off the top paper towel to reveal the seedlings underneath.
Carefully and slowly remove top paper towel sheet
Did you know the first two round seedling leaves were already fully formed inside the shell? The germination process only releases them. New leaves are yellow at first but turn green once they start getting light.
At this point, you may see some seedling leaves have already broken free of their shells. That’s awesome. These seedlings often grow the fastest.
If there’s a short root or seedling hasn’t germinated yet, put the paper towel back and gave the seedling one more day. Seedlings grow faster if they have a bit more root before being planted.
This Critical Purple Kush seed took an extra day to germinate compared to the other seeds. I gave it one more day after this so the root could get longer before I put in a Rapid Rooter.
I recommend cutting your Rapid Rooters in half to make it easier to place germinated seeds. Even a seed with a long wiggly root will usually easily fit into the “crack” of the Rapid Rooter. This prevents you from bending the roots.
Cut Rapid Rooters in half to make it easier to insert germinated seeds
Try to place the seed head close to the top so they don’t have far to go. I’ve found that some seedlings don’t make it to the top if you put them too far down.
If the seedling has already lost the shell, place the leaves close to the top. These seedlings often grow the fastest.
Otherwise, add the seedling, root down, with the shell close to the surface
Gently close around the seedling
Put into the Rapid Rooter tray (make sure they’re moist all the way through!) The bottom shell of the tray will hold extra water so plugs don’t dry out.
Add enough water that all the Rapid Rooters appear dark, but not shiny from too much water. Once you’re done, put the trays back on the seedling mat. Young seedlings love warmth!
9.) You Have Seedlings!
The leaves should appear above the Rapid Rooters within a day or two.
Just 12 hours later, several seedlings have already appeared above ground.
At this point, the seedlings are ready to be put under a gentle light. A sunny window works well, though your regular vegetative grow light should be fine as long as you keep it twice the normal distance away. Avoid touching the seedlings if possible. This is when they’re most vulnerable.
Within a day or two under a light (or in a sunny window), you’ll have a bunch of happy seedings!
The seedlings are ready to go in plant containers once they’ve spread out their first set of serrated leaves (to about the width of the Rapid Rooter)
At this point, you can plant the whole Rapid Rooter. Don’t forget to label the strains!
Move the grow light down to the standard distance once the plants have 3 sets of leaves. By now they should be growing fast!
Note: Move grow light down early if seedlings start getting tall with long stems. Tall, stretchy seedlings are telling you they want more light.
What If the Seedling Shell Gets Stuck? (“Bucket Head” Seedlings)
One downside to this method is sometimes a seed shell will get stuck on the seedling. Here’s how to deal with that.
Helpful Tool: Pointy tweezers (though most tweezers will work in a pinch)
Sometimes leaves get stuck in the shell. Here’s what to do.
First, give the seedling 24-48 hours to see if it pushes the shell off on its own. Many seedlings just need a little extra time and don’t need your help.
Ignore stuck shells if the leaves are already free. The shell will fall off on its own.
If you don’t see any progress and leaves still seem trapped after a day or two, you may need to remove the shell to release the leaves contained inside. If leaves can’t break free and see the light, the seedling may die.
Close tweezers so they are as narrow as possible and put inside the crack. Then slowly allow tweezers to open, which will gently pry the shell apart.
I used to use my fingers to remove shells but it can be hard not to disturb the seedling. Then I learned that a pair of pointy tweezers can be inserted into the crack and allowed to gently open to pry the seed apart. Don’t tug or use any force whatsoever. Just gently and slowly release the leaves. The leaves may be stuck to the shell at first and it can take several seconds of gentle tugging for the leaves to slowly loosen and pull away from the shell. If you’re having trouble, add some water to the stuck part and wait a few minutes to help soften it up.
If the seedling leaves aren’t opening up because they’re stuck inside the seed membrane, wet the membrane and give it a few minutes soften up. Then use tweezers to gently remove the membrane. In some cases, it’s easier to stick the tweezers inside and pry the leaves apart just like with a shell.
If leaves are stuck inside the shell membrane for more than a day or two, do this: Wet the membrane, wait a few minutes, then use tweezers to gently pry it away from leaves.
Once you can see the two individual leaves are separated, you’re good to go!
Germinate Seeds Without Paper Towels
Hey Dr. Grow,
I hope you can help me. I tried germinating seeds on wet paper towels, but they didn’t grow.
Flustered in Phoenix
We have a solution for you that should lead to successful germinating. (As long as your seeds are viable.)
This method is better than the wet paper towel method everyone suggests because with the paper towels, it’s possible for the little white root to attach itself to paper towels. If it does, you will likely break it when removing the seed from the paper towels, killing the seed. Because the little white root and the paper towel are both white, it can be hard to see, so you won’t realize you broke it.
Use this method to germinate seeds quickly, safely and easily.
Put seeds in a cup of luke warm (not cold or hot) water and set it in a dark place, like inside a cabinet, for 12 hours. After 3-4 hours, you can check to see if any seeds are floating. If they are, gently touch them to make them sink in the water.
After 12 hours, drain the water off into a strainer and plant the seeds.
It’s easy to do overnight. If you get up at 6:00 AM daily, you can put the seeds in a clean coffee cup, half-filled with water at 6:00 PM, check for floaters at 9 PM or 10 PM, before you go to bed. Then drain and plant the seeds within a couple of hours of getting up and you’re good to go.
WARNING: Don’t soak seeds in cup for more than 16 hours, or you’ll ruin them. 14 hours is okay. 12 hours is ideal.