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Seed Starting Problems

Updated on January 29, 2016
Jeanne Grunert profile image

Jeanne Grunert is a Virginia Master Gardener, gardening magazine columnist, and book author. She is a full-time freelance writer.

Starting Vegetables from Seeds

Many gardeners start their vegetable plants from seeds indoors, eight to twelve weeks before the last frost of the spring for their region. It's a smart and economical way of growing the exact vegetables, varieties and choices you want for your garden. Local garden centers may not carry that special heirloom tomato or spicy pepper you want, for example, but the seeds are easily obtained online. It's a small step from there to starting your vegetable seeds.

As any gardener will tell you, however, that even the simplest task like starting seeds can be fraught with trial and error, mistakes and successes. Seed starting is no different. If you've known the thrill of success as well as the agony of defeat - and no vegetables - then understanding common seed starting problems is the first step to ensuring a successful starting process and harvest later on.

Seeds Don't Germinate

You've planted the seeds and - nothing. No sign of life. Nothing sprouts.

What's the problem?

Seeds that fail to germinate may be due to a variety of causes.

  1. How old are the seeds? Some seeds can be stored for many years. Other seeds lose their viability after just one season, with poor germination rates if stored too long. It's always a good idea to start with a new package of seeds each season.
  2. What is the temperature in your seed starting area? Some seeds are more forgiving than others and will germinate at just about any temperature. Other seeds need a specific temperature range in order to activate the biological processes needed to germinate. Peppers, for instance, like it warm, around 80 degrees F, in order to germinate, while tomatoes prefer around 70-75 but can germinate in the 60s. Check the seed package for the recommended temperature for germination. Heating mats, special mats purchased from a garden center, can be used with seed starting trays to raise the temperature. (Don't try to make your own - it can be a fire risk!)
  3. Seeds planted too deeply - or not deeply enough. Nature created a variety of ways that seeds germinate. Some like light, some don't. Not every type of seed is patted into the soil. Check the seed package or a good gardening book for information on how to plant the particular types of seeds you are trying to grow.
  4. You're not waiting long enough. Seeds can be like people; they grow at different rates. Don't give up after a week. Give you seeds plenty of time to germinate.

Seedling Problems

Some people have no problem starting their seeds. The seedlings emerge right on schedule. Their problems start, however, once the young plants begin to grow. Do your plants suffer from any of the following common seedling problems?

  1. A huge clump of seedlings are growing in one corner of the pot or container. When a knot of seedlings emerge in one corner of the pot or container, you've simply planted the seeds with too-heavy a hand. Using a seed starting tape or pre-planted peat moss pots can help. Otherwise, just let the seedlings grow normally. When it's time to transplant them, remove the entire nest of seedlings with a spoon and let them fall apart naturally on a plate. As they separate, pick each one up and plant them separately.
  2. Seedlings grow normally for a week or two, then suddenly dip at the stem, fall over and die. Ah, the old dampening off disease! This is a condition called by various pathogens, most likely fungal diseases. The seedlings die a ground level or shrivel and fall over. Wet, cold, moist conditions encourage the particular microorganisms that lead to dampening off. Watch your watering and make sure to sterilize your seed starting equipment each year before planting seedlings.
  3. Seedlings grow, but they're pale, weak or slow to grow. You may need to give them stronger light. Try moving them to a brighter window, or keeping fluorescent lights on longer.

Tomato seedlings growing under lights in my basement.
Tomato seedlings growing under lights in my basement. | Source
Basil seedlings. I missed the back left corner when placing the seeds.
Basil seedlings. I missed the back left corner when placing the seeds. | Source

Hardening Seedlings

An important last step in the seed starting process that many beginning gardeners miss is hardening seedlings before transplanting. When seedlings are grown indoors, they grow up in almost perfect conditions - the light is just so, the temperatures are consistent, and they receive adequate moisture. Transplanting them directly into the garden after this idyllic start in life almost always shocks their systems, resulting in death or significantly slowed growth.

Instead of moving baby vegetable plants directly from your seed starting area and into the garden beds, give them two weeks to harden off. This is a process of slowly acclimating them to the outdoors.

  1. Move seedlings into a shady spot after the last danger of frost is past. Just move the trays or pots; don't plant them yet.
  2. At night, move the trays or pots indoors. Keep moving them outside during the day and inside at night. Make sure they are well-watered.
  3. After a day or two, move them into a partially sunny spot. Keep moving them outside to this new spot during the day and inside at night for a week.
  4. Move them for the second week into full sun, but keep bringing them in at night.
  5. After two weeks, if there is no frost predicted for your region, you can transplant them into the garden.

As an alternative, you can also use a small fan, turned on low, to mimic breezes inside, and move the plants to a cooler location. I've worked in a small greenhouse and we used to remove the heat mats (to make the temperatures cooler) and turn a small oscillating fan on the seedlings for an hour a day, then two hours a day and so on until they were hardened off. The last step, moving them out during the day and in at night, we never skipped. It seemed to be the most important step to build up strength and stamina in the tiny plants.

Growing vegetables from seeds is rewarding, fun and less expensive than purchasing plants each year. Remember that the secret to great gardens and successful gardening is giving plants what they would naturally get from their environment - the right amount of sunlight, moisture and nutrients from the soil. If you can do this, you should have a lovely garden.

Organic cherry tomatoes I started from seed last year.
Organic cherry tomatoes I started from seed last year. | Source

© 2014 Jeanne Grunert


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    • mgeorge1050 profile image

      Alan 3 years ago from West Georgia

      Thanks for the great tips on starting seeds. I enjoy starting my own seeds, and I will be using your techniques to hopefully improve my transplant rate of survival. Keep up the good work on the hubs.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Interesting and useful hub for those who wish to start their plants from seeds. Perfect timing also for this time of year. Happy gardening to you!

    • Purpose Embraced profile image

      Yvette Stupart PhD 3 years ago from Jamaica

      This is an informative hub. I can surely get insights for planting my seeds next time. I especially like where you explain why seeds don't germinate and other seed problems. Thanks for posting.

    • gardener den profile image

      Dennis Hoyman 3 years ago from Southwestern, Pennsylvania

      Jeanne this is a great hub well written and very informative. Keep up the great work!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Oh, this is so helpful! Thanks so,so much. Just the right timing too, so sharing!

    • susi10 profile image

      Susan W 3 years ago from The British Isles, Europe

      This is a very useful hub, Jeanne for all gardeners. I found this very useful because the pea seeds I have planted don't seem to be germinating after about 6 days, I think it is still too cold but thought that maybe the cold and frosty weather is over now. I will try out your tips and check out the age of the seeds, what temperature they are at etc.

      I like your photos too, it is nice to see the small tomato seedlings (cute!). Thanks for sharing your tips here, shared, voted up +++ and voted interesting and awesome.