Seeds: How They Grow and Why Many Don’t Survive our Efforts

There is plenty of information on how likely it is that your seeds will grow when planted. Between a gardener’s best friend, the Internet, and a gardener’s worst enemy, the Internet, there is so much conflicting information available that we’re likely to throw up our hands and give up in overloaded dismay.

Don’t. Just bite off a little bit and chew on this thought:

Seeds grow best where they’re from

Let me repeat that just for good measure: Seeds grow best where they’re from.

To explain How a Seed Grows (thanks, Discovery Channel!), let’s look at the basics in this video from HowStuffWorks:

If this worked every single time, the view of Earth from Space would probably be a lot greener. Luckily it doesn’t, or we’d all be camped out in giant fern beds beneath giant trees.

Seeds Love a Familiar Hardiness Zone

Seeds want warmth, nutrients, light (sometimes), moisture (sometimes), and room to wiggle.

Seeds are happiest in their home zone. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

(Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.5 License)

Just how much of each they want depends on where they’re from. A seed from, say, Great Falls, Montana,  is not going to be happy in the Sonora Desert.

Likewise, a seed from Phoenix is not going to be thrilled at being planted in Portland.

These area differences are mapped out as hardiness zones or grow zones. Check out this map from the Arbor Day Foundation. Assuming you live in the continental US, can you find your hardiness zone?

As the map shows, the differences can be pretty dramatic. Not surprising at all that some seeds fail!

But, not surprisingly, that doesn’t stop us from trying (and being surprised at the failure).

Note: Just because a seed sprouts in a paper towel on top of your Frigidaire, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to grow out there in a 105F patch of sand near the swamp cooler.

Lots of seed sources will tell you what hardiness zone a seed would like to live in —or a plant that’s already got a foothold. For instance, if you were to want to buy an arborvitae (very nice evergreen for windscreen hedges!) from, you’ll see the Hardiness right under the listing picture.

How to Tell if a Seed Will Grow

Parsley in a paper towel? Not yet.

Germination doesn’t happen for every single seed, yet we still want to grow parsley on our windowsills. So it’s handy to know just how many seeds we plant will actually germinate (launch and grow). This is also a handy way to tell if we should have thrown out that parsley seed packet from 1997.

  • Fold a paper towel square in fourths and get it wet (use water…).
  • Open it back up and put a few seeds inside, then fold it up again.
  • Put the square in a baggie, zip it shut, and set it someplace warm where it won’t get stepped on or eaten by the cat.
  • Ignore it until tomorrow.
  • Check to see if seeds have sprouted.
  • No? Close it back up and set it back on top of the fridge. Wait until tomorrow.
  • Check to see if anything has sprouted.
  • No? Wait another day.

If nothing happened, ditch the packet. Even if something happened, if not enough of it happened, go with your instincts (and those of the seeds that apparently didn’t want to sprout).

To your garden success!
Casey – the Garden Lass