Seed may be of the right sort; it may be true to its sort; and, yet, if it be unsound, it will not grow, and, of course, is a great deal worse than useless, because the sowing of it occasions loss of time, loss of cost of seed, loss of use of land, and loss of labor, to say nothing about the disappointment and mortification. Here, again, if you purchase, you must rely on the seeds man; and, therefore, all the aforementioned precautions are necessary as to this point also. In this case (especially if the sowing be extensive) the injury may be very great; and, there is no redress.
If a man sell you one sort of seed for another; or, if he sell you untrue seed; the law will give you redress to the full extent of the injury proved; and the proof can be produced. But, if the seed does not come up, what proof have you? You may prove the sowing; but, who is to prove that the seed was not chilled, or scorched in the ground? That it was not eaten by insects there? That it was not destroyed in coming up, or in germinating?
There are, however, means of ascertaining, whether seed be sound, or not, before you sow it in the ground. I know of no seed, which, if sound and really good, will not sink in water. The unsoundness of seed arises from several causes. Unripeness, blight, mouldiness, and age, are the most frequent of these causes. The two first, if excessive, prevent the seed from ever having the germinating quality in them.
Mouldiness arises from the seed being kept in a damp place, or from its having heated. When dried again it becomes light. Age will cause the germinating quality to evaporate; though, where there is a great proportion of oil in the seed, this quality will remain in it many years.
The way to try seed is this. Put a small quantity of it in luke warm water, and let the water be four or five inches deep. A mug, or basin, will do, but a large tumbler glass is best; for then you can see the bottom as well as top.
Some seeds, such as those of cabbage, radish, and turnip, will, if good, go to the bottom at once. Cucumber, Melon, Lettuce, Endive, and many others, require a few minutes. Parsnip and Carrot, and all the winged seeds, require to be worked by your fingers in a little water, and well wetted, before you put them into the glass; and the carrot should be rubbed, so as to get off part of the hairs, which would otherwise act as the feathers do as to a duck. The seed of Beet and Mangel Wurzel are in a case, or shell.
The rough things that we sow are not the seeds, but the cases in which the seeds are contained, each case containing from one to five seeds. Therefore the trial by water is not, as to these two seeds, conclusive, though, if the seed be very good; if there be four or five in a case, shell and all will sink in water, after being in the glass an hour.
And, as it is a matter of such great importance, that every seed should grow in a case where the plants stand so far apart; as gaps in rows of Beet and Mangel Wurzel are so very injurious, the best way is to reject all seed that will not sink case and all, after being put into warm water and remaining there an hour.
But, seeds of all sorts, are, sometimes, if not always, part sound and part unsound; and, as the former is not to be rejected on account of the latter, the proportion of each should be ascertained, if a separation be not made. Count then a hundred seeds, taken promiscuously, and put them into water as before
directed. If fifty sink and fifty swim, half your seed is bad and half good; and so, in proportion, as to other numbers of sinkers and swimmers.
There may be plants, the sound seeds of which will not sink; but I know of none. If to be found in any instance, they would, I think, be found in those of the Tulip tree, the Ash, the Birch, and the Parsnip, all of which are furnished with so large a portion of wing. Yet all these, if sound, will sink, if put into warm water, with the wet worked a little into the wings first.
There is, however, another way of ascertaining this important fact, the soundness, or un soundness of seed; and that is, by sowing them. If you have a hot-bed; or, if not, how easy to make one for a hand glass, put a hundred seeds, taken as before directed, sow them in a flower pot, and plunge the pot in the earth, under the glass, in the hot-bed, or hand glass.
The climate, under the glass, is warm; and a very few days will tell you what proportion of your seed is sound. But, there is this to be said; that, with strong heat under, and with such complete protection above, seeds may come up that would not come up in the open ground.
There may be enough of the germinating principle to cause vegetation in a hot-bed, and not enough to cause it in the open air and cold ground. Therefore I incline to the opinion that we should try seeds as our ancestors tried Witches; not by fire, but by water; and that, following up their practice, we should reprobate and destroy all that do not readily sink.