Seed Starting Woes

April 22, 2007

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.

Pre-Sprouting Seeds 

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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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

E Clayton May 21, 2007 at 11:51 am

Please tell people not to use any soil from garden centre’s without reading the ingredients. I bought soil which I thought to be safe, but found it to contain polyacrylamide, which apparantly this is a nasty neurotoxin when used in soil in the garden. Now I cannot use my vegetable garden for years. This according to the paper by a horticulture university professor from Washington State. They sell these products for flowers. It should be banned, and I am contacting my member of parliament PLEASE CAN YOU HELP ME Thanks Eeva

Debbie Gisle May 15, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I realize this is a rather old post, but I am just beginning in my garden and I don’t have a lot of patience. :) Is it really necessary to start seeds before the season? Do I have to start them in my home? Or can I just plant my seeds directly in my garden? I usually wait until after Mother’s Day to begin any gardening since here in SLC, UT we typically have snow through the end of April and some frosting the first week in May.

Kenny Point May 22, 2011 at 7:17 am

Hi Debbie, most things can be started with seeds planted directly into the garden. Some plants like tomatoes are best started indoors in order to get more production by taking advantage of a longer season once transplanted out into the garden. Other crops like beans, squash, and root crops will have plenty of time to mature from seed sown directly into the garden.

Laura brown April 28, 2013 at 7:08 am

Help, my husband planted cauli seeds in the greenhouse they started off well but have bolted, we have planted more seeds but, how can we keep them from bolting would be grate full for any tips.

Kenny Point April 30, 2013 at 7:22 am

Hi Laura, plants usually bolt early if they are stressed by conditions such as drought, high temperatures, over crowding, transplant shock, or other factors that threaten to prevent the plant from reaching normal maturity. I’m not sure where you are located but cauliflower prefers to grow and mature under cooler weather conditions. How long were the seedlings held in the greenhouse, what size are your seeding containers, did they become root bound, and where they transplanted out?

sue May 3, 2013 at 4:34 am

hi I am growing bunching onions I have split them up they are now putting up seed heads do I leave them or do I take them off I don’t need the seed

Kenny Point May 3, 2013 at 5:50 am

Hi Sue, yes you should remove the seed heads from the onion plants if you do not want to save the seed.

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