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Germinating seeds can be fun for all

Master Gardener

Young children often think of seeds as “baby plants,” but how does one explain to a child how the seed becomes an actual plant?

Teaching children about the composition of a seed, then planting a seed, helps them to understand the process of germination and plant growth. This activity brings seeds to life for children and may encourage them to try gardening this summer.

When a plant forms seeds, those seeds will probably spend the winter on top of, or barely under, the soil surface. So that they don’t germinate too soon, specific requirements of light, moisture and temperature must be available.

To protect them from winter until the right conditions for germination are present, seeds have a cover called a seed coat. Inside the seed is an embryo that is made up of a small root and a small leaf shoot. The inside of the seed also provides a stash of food for the seedling until the root system and leaves are developed enough for the plant to make its own food.

When all conditions are right and the dry seed coat comes in contact with moist soil, it begins to absorb water and the seed begins to expand and soften. The swelling and softening of the seed coat cause it to crack open. Inside the seed, the food stores are being used to allow the root and the leaf shoot to begin growing.

The root emerges first in a process called germination. As the root emerges, it anchors the seed to the ground and begins to take in more water. The food stored in the seed continues to be used for more growth by the root and the leaf shoot. As the root continues to lengthen and absorb water, the leaf shoot will finally lengthen enough to emerge from the seed and push up through the soil.

To observe this germination process in real time, here is a fun activity for families to work on together.

For this activity, obtain the following supplies: paper towels, plastic bags, tape, water and a cup or bowl (optional). Purchase large-sized seeds, such as green bean, kidney bean, pumpkin and sunflower, so the germination process is seen clearly.

Begin this activity by soaking the seeds overnight in a cup or bowl of water (just enough water to cover the seed). This hydration will help “wake up” the seed; this step is optional but will facilitate the germination process. Because seeds need oxygen to germinate, hydrate them only overnight.

Dampen the paper towel with water and lay it flat on a counter or table. Remove the seeds from the bowl and place them on the paper towel. Place three to four seeds along the paper towel, in case some of them do not sprout.

Fold the paper towel over the seeds and gently slide the paper towel into the bag. Seal the bag and tape it to a sunny window. Make sure to seal the bag tightly so that no water can escape. Repeat the process with as many seeds as desired. Label and date each bag to identify their contents.

Wait and watch what happens!

Green and kidney beans require about six to seven days to germinate. Pumpkin seeds tend to germinate a little faster, about four days. Sunflower seeds can take 10 to 14 days for the root to emerge.

Inspect the seeds daily, checking on germination and growth. Take a daily photo of the seeds’ progress. Have children keep a written or photographic journal of what is happening with their seeds. They can date each page, draw a picture, and maybe even write down some of their observations.

With this experiment your child will be able to see the root emerge from the seed first, and then the shoot follow. As the shoot begins to emerge, you can transfer your seeds to a soil medium, such as potting soil, and continue to watch your plant grow.

Penn State Extension offers education on the biology of seed germination online at extension.psu.edu/seed-and-seedling-biology. Penn State Extension’s Growing Gardeners series explores seed germination through videos and activities at extension.psu.edu/growing-gardeners-mighty-seeds-and-powerful-germination.

If you have questions about germinating seeds, call the Master Gardeners of Butler County Garden Hotline at 724-287-4761, ext. 7, or email the Master Gardeners at butlermg@psu.edu.

Helen Erdner is a Penn State Extension Butler County Master Gardner.

Helen Erdner

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