Nicking Plant Seeds: Why Should You Nick Seed Coats Before Planting

(Image credit: Kaylee Hamar)

You may have heard that nicking plant seeds before attempting to germinate them is a good idea. In fact, some seeds do need to be nicked in order to germinate. Other seeds don’t absolutely require it, but nicking will encourage the seeds to germinate more reliably. It’s important to know how to nick flower seeds as well as other plant seeds before starting your garden.

Nicking Seeds Before Planting

So, why should you nick seed coats? Nicking seeds before planting helps the seeds absorb water, which signals the plant embryo inside to begin the germination process. Nicking plant seeds and then soaking them in water will jump-start germination and get your garden growing faster. This technique is also known as scarification.

Which seeds need to be nicked? Seeds with an impermeable (waterproof) seed coat can benefit the most from nicking. Large or hard seeds like those of beans, okra, and nasturtium often require scarification for optimal germination. Most plants in the tomato and morning glory families also have impermeable seed coats and will germinate better after scarification.

Seeds that have a low germination rate or that are scarce should also be carefully nicked to increase the chances that you’ll get them to sprout.

Seed Scarification Techniques

You can nick seeds with the edge of a nail clipper, a nail file, or a knife, or you can sand through the seed coat with a bit of sandpaper.

Make as shallow a cut as possible on the seed, just deep enough to allow water to penetrate the seed coat. Be careful to avoid damaging the plant embryo inside the seed – you want to cut just through the seed coat while leaving the plant embryo and other structures within the seed unharmed.

Many seeds have a hilum, a scar left where the seed was attached to the ovary inside the fruit. The hilum is easy to find on beans and peas. For example, the “eye” of a black-eyed pea is the hilum. Since the bean embryo is attached just under the hilum, it is best to nick the seed opposite this point to avoid causing damage.

After nicking, it is a good idea to soak the seeds for a few hours or overnight. Then, get them planted right away. Scarified seeds shouldn’t be stored because they can quickly lose the ability to germinate.


Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez is a scientific and agricultural writer with a B.S. in Plant Sciences from Cornell University and a PhD in Chemical Biology and Infectious Disease from Harvard University.