Sometimes you do all the right things to start your own seeds indoors; from using the best seed starting supplies, to providing the finest care for your seedlings, and somehow things still go awry and you find yourself facing seed starting problems.
Today I’m going to wrap up this series of posts on seed starting techniques by providing some trouble shooting ideas for what to do when good seeds go bad… really bad!
Poor Seed Germination
You’ve planted, watered, watched, and waited but there’s still no sign of anything growing out of your pampered seedling flats. Sometimes it happens, and you experience poor or no seed germination. This is even more likely if you use older seeds that were left over from previous growing seasons.
You can reduce the risk of your vegetable seeds losing their vigor by storing them properly. Keep them dry, cool, and in a dark air-tight container, or better yet stick the sealed container in a corner of the freezer, just don’t forget where you placed them for safekeeping.
Another trick that you can use to check seed viability is to test sprout a few of the seeds before you plant them under soil where you’ll have no idea whether they are growing or not. Label and lay the seeds out on a paper towel or coffee filter, fold or roll them up, moisten and place in a plastic bag.
Keep them moist and in a warm location, if they germinate you will know that the seeds are still viable and safe to plant. If the germination is spotty you can still use the seeds but sow extra seeds in each cell to compensate for the low germination rates.
I would only take this extra effort with seeds that were suspect because they were old or hadn’t been stored properly. The test seeds that were germinated can be carefully transplanted from the paper towels to soil if you desire.
Seedling Damping Off
Achieving successful seed germination doesn’t mean that the coast is all clear. Sometimes seeds will germinate and produce seedlings that grow perfectly for a couple of weeks then mysteriously keel over and die for no apparent reason. You’ve seedlings have just been stricken by the deadly damping off disease.
Once your vegetable seedlings are afflicted with a case of damping off there’s not much you can do besides pay your condolences. You’ve just sacrificed a few weeks out of your seed starting schedule and will have to begin over from scratch.
Preventing Damping Off Disease
Considering how sudden, unpredictable, and incurable damping off is, the fortunate aspect is that it’s not very common and is usually associated with growing seedlings in soil that is not pasteurized, or using growing containers that are not sterile.
I have to admit that I’m not very particular about sterilizing my seedling trays or containers, but it’s a good idea to do so, especially if you’ve experienced past problems with damping off. I do use commercial potting soils that have been pasteurized to destroy soil pathogens.
Other steps that you can take to reduce the likelihood of a bout with damping off fungus include: ensuring good air circulation around seedlings, avoiding over watering, and adding water from the bottom to avoid drenching the foliage of young seedlings.
Lanky and Weak Seedling Growth
Lean and mean is one thing but you definitely don’t want to grow weak, spindly, and tall seedlings that can barely hold their heads upright.
This is another seed starting problem that needs to be nipped in the bud because there’s no way to reverse the damage. Your goal is to produce transplants that are short, thick, and stocky throughout their growth.
If your seedlings are lanky and quickly growing taller, that’s a sign that they are not getting enough light and are stretching skyward in search of the sun. The solution is to lower your plant grow lights so that the fluorescent tubes are closer to the tops of the vegetable seedlings. It’s okay to have your lights within an inch or two of the fluorescent tubes.
Encouraging Stocky Seedling Growth
Another technique that you can employ to encourage stockier plants with sturdier stems is to brush the tops of the plants a couple of times a day. Use your fingertips or a stick to gently tickle the upper leaves of the seedlings.
You can view this as weight training for your transplants as it will promote the growth of thicker stems in response to the stimulus that you are providing. This seedling exercise will also prepare the plants to handle the breezes and winds that they will encounter after they are set out into the garden.
Hopefully all of your seedlings survive and grow into transplants that are even healthier then those sold at your local greenhouse. But before you rush them off into the harsh conditions of your backyard be sure to harden off the seedlings to complete their conditioning and ease the transition into the garden.
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