Trans. Horticultural Society of London 197-210
IX.—On Seed-Steeping.
F. R. S., F. L. S., Hon. Memb. Roy. Agr. Soc. Eng. Experimental Chemist to the Horticultural Society.

Bedford Row, 15th January, 1845.
(Communicated by the CHEMICAL COMMITTEE.)

FROM very early times it has been a favourite idea with the followers of husbandry, that the produce of the ground might be greatly increased by causing the seed to undergo some process of preparation previous to its being sown. On looking over the various writings of those who have made agriculture their study, one cannot but observe how very frequently, great importance is attributed to the preparation of the seed; and considering the multitude of books which have been written, and the number of experiments made by succeeding generations, it is not a little remarkable that even at the present day it should still be open to inquiry whether the steeping or preparation of the seed, does or does not, to any extent supply the necessity of manure. We are told by Virgil;

Semina vidi equidem multos medicare serentes,
Et nitro prius, et nigrâ perfundere amurcâ,
Grandior ut fœtus siliquis fallacibus esset.

and we are told at the present time that by steeping the seeds of corn, &c., in certain solutions, of nitre and other salts, a small quantity will be absorbed, which will greatly increase the vigour and luxuriance of young plants, and ensure without further manure a much larger and more plentiful harvest, than could possibly be obtained without the previous steeping.

I will not attempt to give any sketch of what has been written on the subject of seed-steeping, which would necessarily lead to long and tedious details, but I shall content myself with a few brief quotations from the writings of some of the most ingenious men of their times, as an introduction to my own experiments.

The writings of many of the agriculturists of the seventeenth century display a remarkable spirit of inquiry, associated with a correctness of reasoning, hardly to be expected in such early days, and almost free from the narrow-minded fear of innovation which characterises many of the writers of the last century. In the writings of Plattes for example, there are suggestions which may be studied with advantage even at the present day. The following remarks on the steeping of seeds are from his "Discovery of hidden Treasure," published in 1639, and follow some good observations on liquid manure. " When the sun hath exhaled the greater part of the dung-water, and that it groweth thickish and fat, then reserve a good pit full thereof well bottomed with clay, that will hold water, and at seed-time steep your seed-corn in it, but put the fat water to it by little and little as it drinketh it up; that at the last it may be almost dry of itself: but before it be full dry, sift a small quantity of lime amongst it, that so it may grow dry with the lime, and grow like comfits, then with this seed sow or set your most remote ground from your dunghills, and by this means you will save ten times as much labour in carriage of your dung, so far as this labour cometh too, and as for your crop, though you shall not have so much increase as some, have mountebanklike reported of it, yet you shall have a good material increase, for one crop only.

"And I have sometimes spritted the corn a little, as they use to do for malt, and then have sown it, and it came up speedily and got the predomination of the weeds at first, and so kept the same, whereby I had far greater increase than ordinary. Also I found sometimes when a dry season came upon the sowing, that my corn thus ordered took root far better than other mens' corn who would not take this small pains to steep it and sprit it."

About this period attention was drawn to seed-steeping by Lord Bacon, who made a number of experiments on the subject, which possess considerable interest. The following account of them is from the fifth century of his Sylva Sylvarum, or Natural History, published in 1664, after his death.

"There were sown in a bed turnip seed, raddish seed, wheat, cucumber seed, and peas. The bed we call a hot bed, and the manner of it is this. There was taken horse-dung, old and well rotted; this was laid upon a bank half a foot high, and supported round about with planks, and upon the top was cast sifted earth some two fingers deep, and then the seed sprinkled upon it, having been steeped all night in water mixed with cow-dung.

"The turnip seed and the wheat came up half an inch above ground within ten days after, without any watering: the rest the third day. The experiment was made in October; and it may be, in the Spring the acceleration would have been the speedier. This is a noble experiment, for without this help they would have been four times as long in coming up. But there doth not occur to me at this present, any use thereof for profit, except it should be for sowing of peas which have their price very much increased by the early coming. It may be tried also with cherries, strawberries, and other fruit which are dearest when they corne early.

"There was wheat steeped in water mixed with cow-dung; others in water mixed with horse-dung; in water mixed with pigeon's dung; in human urine; in water mixed with chalk powdered; in water mixed with soot; in water mixed with ashes; in water mixed with bay salt; in claret wine; in malmsey wine; and others in spirit of wine. The proportion of the mixture was a fourth part of the ingredients to the water, save that there was not of the salt, above one-eighth. The urine, wines, and spirit were simple, without mixture of water. The time of steeping was twelve hours, the time of the year October. There was also other wheat sown unsteeped but watered twice a day with warm water. There was also other wheat sown simple to compare with the rest. The event was that those which were in the mixture of dung, urine, soot, chalk, ashes, and salt came up within six days, and those that afterwards proved the highest, thickest, and most lusty, were first the urine, then the dungs, next the chalk, next the soot, next the ashes, next the salt, next the wheat simple, next that watered twice a day with warm water, next the claret wine. So that those three last were slower than ordinary wheat itself, and this culture did rather retard than advance. As for those that were steeped in malmsey and spirit of wine, they came not up at all. This is a rich experiment for profit; for the most of the steepings are cheap things and the goodness of the crop is a great matter of gain; if the goodness of the crop answer the earliness of the coming up, as it is like it will; both being from the vigour of the seed, which also partly appeared in the former experiment, as hath been said."

The experiments of Bacon and the good opinion which he seems to have had of the value of seed-steeping caused many to take up the subject; various solutions were recommended; and as various was the success which attended their use. The following cautious observations of Blith (1649), are interesting in connexion with the preceding account of Bacon's experiments.

"Sir Francis Bacon is of opinion that salt mingled with corn hath a very good operation, being sowed with the corn, which possibly may, because brackishness is fruitful to the land, also that chalk and lime sowed with the corn is very helpful and that steeping of your corn in fat water, lime-water, or dunghill-water, hath a wonderful effect to work strange things, of all which myself having not made full experience, can find no more advantage therein than just so much as is added to the corn either of the chalk or lime in substance, or so much as is added of the soil or fatness of either of the waters and no more. For having made a thorough trial thereof found no otherwise, nor nothing of that great advantage promised; but let me not prejudice any ingenious trials of the same, others may find more, possibly I might miss in the manner of my application.”

On reading over the opinions of those who stated that they had tried the process of seed-steeping, it will be observed that they are for the most part unfavourable, though generally qualified by a modest doubt of the accuracy of their conclusions, and the decisiveness of their experiments. This is illustrated in the observations of Blith, and also in the following remarks of Sir Hugh Plat (1653). "Now a word or two of those conceited practices, which I promised before. I have heard some studient practisers very confidently affirm, that if you steep your corn in water, the space of certain hours (but I could never yet find them all agree in one time; for some limit, twelve hours, some eighteen, and some thirty-six hours, you may prove them all and keep the best) in water, wherein good store of cow-dung hath lain in imbibition for certain days, (which times you must also search, if you mean to be an exact master) every day stirring the same once or twice together before you lay in your corn, and after this preparation you sow the same (though in barren ground) that so you shall purchase a most rich and plentiful crop with an easy charge. But this kind of practice, I have heard both maintained and impugned as well by reason as by experience, and that by men of good judgment on both sides, although if I would set down my own experience herein, I must needs confess I could never yet attain to any truth in this secret, or to make any apparent difference between the corn that was husbanded in this manner and that which grew of itself without any such help (yet will I not for the credit of the reporters) altogether discredit the invention, for that peradventure I might fail in the nature of the grain or in the time of imbibition."

He then proceeds to relate a successful experiment in which corn was mixed with dung and water, the whole being well stirred together for one hour; after standing some hours it was again stirred for half an hour, and then left at rest all night. On the following morning the water was permitted to drain away, and the corn and dung together then sown on very poor barren soil; the crop obtained was most plentiful, as if the ground itself had been well manured. This experiment however can hardly be fairly classed amongst those on seed-steeping, though at the same time it is probable that the effects produced were in great part similarly caused to those which from time to time have been produced by mere steeping.

Within the last three or four years public attention has been again drawn to the subject of seed-steeping by reports of the wonderful crops obtained from steeped seeds. In Germany M. Bickes and M. Victor, and Mr. Campbell in our own country, have described the surprising effects on vegetation produced by various steeps; indeed, the accounts published by the German authors are so marvellous, and the deductions made by them from the results of their experiments so startling, that they could not fail to excite curiosity and induce experiment, though on consideration we feel assured that the authors must have either been greatly deceived themselves, or willing to exaggerate their results a little in order to excite the attention of their readers. The experiments of these authors are so well known that it is unnecessary here to recapitulate them further, than to observe that the principle put forth was the same as that advanced so long since by Bacon and others, that by manuring the seed previous to sowing it, a far better harvest would be obtained; the plants would grow with greater vigour and luxuriance, and in consequence would be less liable to blights and the ravages of insects. Some of the recent advocates of seed-steeping have gone much further than this, and have asserted that by properly preparing the seed, it may be made to absorb such a quantity of those substances which growing plants require, that, when placed in the ground it will contain within itself such a store of inorganic food, as to be quite independent of the soil, and therefore in growing not exhaust the latter at all.

The object, contemplated in the following series of experiments made at the Garden of the Horticultural Society in the Spring of 1844, was to ascertain whether any and what effect would be produced by steeping various seeds in certain simple solutions previous to sowing, and to submit the plants subsequently to chemical examination should any differences be observed which might render such a proceeding desirable.

The ground selected for the experiments was uniform and had not been previously used for chemical experiments, its composition was very nearly the same as that of the ground employed in the experiments of last year (see p. 36 of this volume). The seeds were all good, being selected on purpose, and the whole of each kind of seed was sown at the same time. Saturated solutions of pure nitrate of soda, chloride of calcium, sulphate of magnesia, muriate of ammonia, phosphate of ammonia, and common salt were made, and these diluted by the addition of nine times as much pure water; enough of each steep was taken to cover entirely the portion of seeds to be steeped, the quantity of solution being invariably two fluid ounces; the seeds were left in the solution until they had swelled considerably, and it became evident that in a little time more they would sprout, when they were withdrawn from the solutions, drained on paper, and then sown. During the whole time of steeping they were kept in the dark. Besides the six portions of seeds steeped in the above mentioned solutions, two others were sown, one of which had been soaked a corresponding time in water alone, and one which had not been steeped at all; thus the effect would be observed, of steeping in water alone as distinguished from the additional effect produced by each salt employed. The beds intended for each particular sort of seed were divided into forty rows, and each of the eight parcels of seed was subdivided into five portions, so as to allow one to each row. Thus the first eight rows received each of them a portion of the same sort of seed differently prepared, the series of eight being repeated five times over, the first, ninth, seventeenth, twenty-fifth, and thirty-third row containing seeds similarly prepared; each row having in fact four more rows like itself, but separated from each other as widely as possible, so as to ensure fair average results by diminishing the chance of any local circumstances interfering with the experiments. Each row contained thirty seeds, so that there were 150 seeds of each sort, for each steep; the seeds were sown early in April. The experiment was under the care of Mr. Thompson.

1. WHEAT. At first these seeds exhibited considerable differences in the time required for germination, after a little time, however, they came up pretty generally but grew irregularly, and did not form good ears, the following table shows the number of young plants up:

  Eleven Days after Sowing. Total.
Nitrate of Soda 0 3 2 1 1 7
Chloride of Calcium 0 4 1 1 4 10
Sulphate of Magnesia 11 4 3 4 8 30
Muriate of Ammonia 0 4 1 1 3 9
Nothing 3 1 3 1 4 12
Phosphate of Ammonia 7 1 2 11 9 30
Water 0 1 2 2 3 8
Common Salt 2 2 1 3 0 8

2. BARLEY. The experiments with barley succeeded better than those with wheat, two of the solutions appeared to have done some good, for the seeds steeped in them at first had rather the advantage over the others; this difference, however, very soon disappeared, and in a short time when the plants had attained a height of six inches no difference could be perceived. The plants spread and formed abundance of ears, the grain in which ripened well, but no marked differences could be perceived amongst them:

  Ten Days
after Sowing.
Total. Twelve Days
after Sowing.
Total. Whole
Grain. Straw.
                          lb. oz. lb. oz. lb. oz.
Nitrate of Soda 0 0 1 1 0 2 0 3 8 1 3 9 8 7 3 1 4 11
Chloride of Calcium 0 0 0 0 3 3 0 5 3 3 5 16 7 12 3 0 4 1
Sulphate of Magnesia 12 4 3 1 3 23 17 4 4 6 9 40 7 13 3 4 4 5
Muriate of Ammonia 0 3   0 0 4 2 4 1 1 4 12 7 8 3 I 3 l2
Nothing 3 0 2 0 1 6 5 3 7 1 6 20 8 9 3 6 4 5
Phosphate of Ammonia 5 1 2 10 8 26 8 1 8 12 9 33 7 12 3 3 3 14
Water 0 1 и 1 2 4 4 4 3 2 4 17 8 3 3 3 4 3
Common Salt 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 2 2 4 0 11 8 7 3 3 4 7

3. OATS. Oats germinated and came up with very great regularity; the following table shows the whole number up in seventeen days after sowing, and also the weight of the crop produced by each steeping:

  Total Young Plants
after 17 Days.
lbs. oz.
lb. oz.
Nitrate of Soda 125 1 7 3 4
Chloride of Calcium 120 2 3 5 0
Sulphate of Magnesia 126 1 13 3 15
Muriate of Ammonia 126 2 2 4 3
Nothing 133 1 14 4 1
Phosphate of Ammonia 119 2 1 3 12
Water 128 2 2 4 1
Common Salt 123 1 4 4 5

In this experiment no appreciable difference was perceptible in the time when the different rows of seed came up; they germinated at nearly the same time, and at no period of their growth did the plants exhibit any differences in appearance.

4. RYE. These seeds came up with far more irregularity than the oats, all the steeps more or less retarding the germination of the seeds. As the plants did not shoot into ear regularly, no account of the weight of the produce could be kept. The following table shows the number of plants above ground in the tenth and twelfth day after sowing:

  Ten Days after Sowing. Total. Twelve Days after Sowing. Total.
Nitrate of Soda 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 7 1 14
Chloride of Calcium 0 4 0 4 1 9 0 7 5 5 3 20
Sulphate of Magnesia 3 4 0 3 8 18 7 5 0 3 14 29
Muriate of Ammonia 0 0 0 0 5 5 2 0 0 0 9 11
Nothing 8 0 8 5 18 39 13 3 13 11 22 62
Phosphate of Ammonia 0 0 2 0 5 7 3 1 4 1 7 16
Water 2 0 0 11 0 13 3 0 4 9 2 18
Common Salt 3 0 0 1 0 4 3 1 0 2 0 6

5. PEAS. Out of the eight series of peas sown only three germinated, the remaining five were evidently destroyed by the steeps. The three which came up were those not prepared at all, those merely soaked in water, and those steeped in sulphate of magnesia. The following was the result of this experiment:

  Seventeen Days
after Sowing.
Green Crops. Seed. Straw.
    lbs. lbs. oz. lbs. oz.
Nitrate of Soda 0 0 0 0 0 0
Chloride of Calcium 0 0 0 0 0 0
Sulphate of Magnesia 65 19 4 3 3 6
Muriate of Ammonia 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nothing 94 18 5 2 3 12
Phosphate of Ammonia 0 0 0 0 0 0
Water 106 19 5 7 4 2
Common Salt 1 0 0 0 0 0

6. Turnips. The seeds steeped in water were the first to come up. Unfortunately the fly took the greater number of the young plants and destroyed the experiment eight days after sowing. The following were the number of plants up:

Nitrate of Soda 1 Nothing 28
Chloride of Calcium 34 Phosphate of Ammonia 4
Sulphate of Magnesia 34 Water 35
Muriate of Ammonia 11 Common Salt 40

7. Mustard and 8. Cress.

  Mustard. Cress.
Eight Days after
Twelve Days
after Sowing.
Eight Days
after Sowing.
Twelve Days
after Sowing.
Nitrate of Soda 0 3 1 2
Chloride of Calcium . 6 12 2 8
Sulphate of Magnesia 6 9 7 7
Muriate of Ammonia 1 1 1 2
Nothing 20 20 10 14
Phosphate of Ammonia 0 0 1 2
Water 22 22 5 5
Common Salt 8 12 1 4

9. Lettuces and 10. Beans.

  Lettuces. Beans.
  Twelve Days
after Sowing.
Fourteen Days
after Sowing.
Nitrate of Soda 25 0
Chloride of Calcium 35 0
Sulphate of Magnesia 30 13
Muriate of Ammonia 27 0
Nothing 21 2
Phosphate of Ammonia 20 1
Water 25 56
Common Salt 39 0

The whole series of experiments was made in rather unfavourable weather, being a period of unusual drought; this greatly checked the germination of the seeds, and in some instances retarded it for some weeks. The beans, No. 10, mostly came up in the course of the following fortnight, but those which had first come up, which had been steeped in water, retained their superiority to the last. The general results of these experiments, as far as they may be trusted, are rather against seed-steeping. As regards the wheat, barley and lettuces, it certainly seems as if the salts employed did accelerate germination, because in two cases, namely sulphate of magnesia and phosphate of ammonia, more than twice as many plants had come up than where no steeping or only water had been employed; we may therefore conclude that in these cases, the salts and not the water, produced the effect which was observed. In all the other experiments, however, the salts appear to have done more or less harm; at least the seeds which were steeped germinated less rapidly than those not steeped in saline solutions. In the case of the oats, peas, and mustard, the unsteeped seeds and those steeped in water alone, germinated most rapidly, the latter rather having the start of the former. In the rye and cress the unsteeped seeds germinated most rapidly, whilst those steeped in water were beaten by some of the saline solutions, and in the turnips and beans, those steeped in water came up first, whilst some of those prepared with saline solutions germinated sooner than the unprepared seeds.

The different salts acted differently on the various seeds employed: thus in the case of wheat and barley, sulphate of magnesia, and phosphate of ammonia, produced the best effect of all the salts employed; with turnips, lettuces and mustard, common salt and chloride of calcium acted best; with peas and beans, sulphate of magnesia had the greatest effect; with rye and cress, chloride of calcium and sulphate of magnesia were most advantageous; whilst with oats, all the salts employed, produced very little effect. It is remarkable that throughout, nitrate of soda and muriate of ammonia decidedly retarded germination.

In these experiments the seeds were all left in steep the longest time which it was considered could be safely done; as it was however very desirable, also to make trial of the effects of steeping for different periods, the following experiment was made under the superintendence of Mr. Donald. One hundred and twenty-five seeds of Lupinus Hartwegii were divided into twenty-five parcels of five each, and each parcel differently prepared previous to sowing. One parcel was kept unsteeped; twelve were steeped for longer or shorter periods in a solution of phosphate of ammonia, formed by mixing one part of the saturated solution of the salt with four parts of water; and the remaining twelve in a solution of just half the strength, consisting of one part of the saturated solution diluted with nine parts of water. The following table shows the result of this experiment, the seeds being all sown on the same day.

Strength of Solution. Hours in Steep. Number Raised. Days after Sowing. Remarks.
  0 5 2 Very healthy
1 in 5 water 6 2 2 Very weak
1 in 5 do. 12 2 2 Do. do.
1 in 5 do. 18 1 3 Do. do.
1 in 5 do. 24 2 3 Do. do.
1 in 5 do. 30 1 3 Do. do.
1 in 5 do . 36 1 2 Do. do.
died 2 days after
1 in 5 do. 42 2 4 weak
1 in 5 do. 48 2 3 do.
1 in 5 do. 52 0    
1 in 5 do. 58 0    
1 in 5 do. 64 0    
1 in 5 do. 168 0    
1 in 10 do. 6 3 2 healthy
1 in 10 do. 12 1 5 weak
1 in 10 do. 18 1 4 do.
1 in 10 do. 24 1 3 do.
1 in 10 do. 30 0    
1 in 10 do. 36 2 4 weak
1 in 10 do. 42 1 5 do.
1 in 10 do. 48 0    
1 in 10 do. 63 0    
1 in 10 do. 58 0    
1 in 10 do. 64 0    
1 in 10 do. 168 0    

This experiment, unlike those previously described, is certainly however worthy of remark, that of the first series of Lupine seed steeped in the strong solution, 13 came up out of 60, whilst in the second series of those steeped in the weaker solution, only 9 came up out of 60. It is remarkable that the smaller quantity of the salt, seemed to do more harm than the larger.

Two distinct operations are very frequently spoken of under the general name of seed-steeping; the one consists in sinking the seeds in a considerable quantity of some liquid, the excess of which is poured off when it is judged the seeds have absorbed as much as is desirable; the second, when the seeds are soaked in a very small quantity of the solution, not more being used than they are able to absorb, so that there subsequently does not remain any liquid to be drained off, a quantity of dry lime or other powder being sifted upon the seeds and stirred up with them so as to dry the surface partially. It is evident that these two are very different operations and calculated to produce very different effects. By an operation of the first sort, light, blighted, and worthless grains which rise to the surface may be readily separated from the sound seeds, and the eggs of insects may be destroyed, which if sown with the seed might soon hatch and destroy the young plants. In the second process these effects are not attained; the seeds as in the first-mentioned plan absorb a certain quantity of a solution, and in addition are externally coated with a small quantity of lime, or some other dry substance, which in a soil deficient in the substance employed may constitute a useful and valuable manure; whilst at the same time when lime is employed, it will probably defend the seeds from any insects in the soil.

It is evident that the value of any steep or process of preparing seed, will in great part depend on the nature of the soil where the seed is sown, and the weather or peculiar conditions of the season when it is used. It must always be remembered that no process of steeping can possibly replace the use of manure; if by steeping the seed we are enabled to obtain from the soil a larger crop than we should otherwise have had, it is certain that the crop of the next year will suffer in proportion. The only chemical effect of seed- steeping must be to cause germination to proceed more rapidly and give increased vigour to the young plant, and consequently to require a larger supply of earthy matters from the soil. The experiments made this year at the Gardens of the Society, must be received with some allowance, as having been carried on in a peculiarly unfavourable season; they possess however considerable interest, and as far as they go may be relied on as accurate.