Seed starting is maybe one of the most challenging parts of growing your own vegetables. I had to fail numerous times until I discovered that the things going wrong every time were almost always the same. Try to imagine seedlings as babies and you will soon understand that raising your own healthy baby plants doesn’t require skill, but the right environment and attention. Seedlings are the basis on which the plant organism starts to develop. Their first growth is vital to the success of our garden, giving the structure on which adult plants rely. It’s a fact that slow growth or low yield is sometimes inevitable if the plant started wrong in the first place.
So what exactly can go wrong when starting a garden from seed, and how does each mistake affect the plantation? Keep reading to learn the most common reasons why sowing might fail.
Growing your own vegetables from seed is a very exciting thing to do! As the cold winter days become milder, it’s easy to get carried away and begin sowing immediately. Low temperatures return quickly and might waste your effort. To protect themselves from severe temperatures, plants don’t let their seeds sprout until their environment is less hostile. Wet seeds starting can freeze to death if the temperatures are extremely low. Even if some of the plants survive, they will be exhausted, making it hard to track their normal progress. To avoid this mistake always follow the sowing calendars for your region, either for starting out or under protection.
Starting a garden from seed needs scheduling and sowing in time. It is always best to skip this season’s plants and prepare for the next if you didn’t get to start in time. Sowing your seeds too late means you will need to grow them in different conditions than those they were designed to grow. This causes damages, poor growth and low or no yield. So if you are late this season, skip it and get ready to rock in your garden the next one.
Related: When Should I Start My Garden?
Heavy compact soil is difficult for the plant embryo to lift and dig into. This results in suffocation before the seedlings emerge or root death due to lack of oxygen. Dirty soil carries pests, which can sicken your seedlings making them rot. Yet light clean soil is not enough. Seed starting requires soil rich in nutrients too, otherwise seedlings can develop and then stop growing. If the soil contains other seeds (ex. weeds) these will sprout along with yours and compete with seedlings causing trouble. Bad soil can destroy your seedlings in so many ways. When it comes to seed starting use the best quality you can find or make your own starting mix.
Seeds just like plants are alive. This means that the longer we keep them the more they age. Consuming more of their stored energy they can die before forming leaves to compose new food. Sick plants produce contaminated seeds, which pass on illnesses to the sprout, making it wilt. The material you use plays a significant role in the sowing success. Before starting a garden from seed, make sure to pick seeds from a trusted provider and don’t forget to check their expiration date.
Related: Starting a Garden from Scratch
When the seeds germinate, plants begin their effort to find nutrients and sun. The root goes down into the soil and the leaves go upwards as the stem grows longer. If the distance to the surface is too big, a seedling will die underground before it reaches the sun. Seed packets usually come with directions for sowing depth. Starting a garden from seed, if you are not sure how deep to place your seeds refer to a seed depth chart before planting.
Spreading your seeds on a tray or sprinkling them with hand is very easy and for some plants quite works, even if you will need to thin them afterwards. For most plants though, this results in tangled roots and competition for space, nutrients and light. Unless you thin them in time (which in most cases is a huge waste of seeds) what you end up with is thin, weak plants, unable to support their weight. To avoid that, try to stick to the recommended distances when sowing and if possible prefer individual pots from the beginning.
Related: Starting a Balcony Garden: A Guide
I know I said seedlings are babies and we all are very sensitive when it comes to babies. However too much attention can actually kill your seedlings, since plants cannot tell you when to stop giving them water. The ideal amount of water is this much that the soil is wet but not dripping wet. Too much watering makes the roots drown or develop fungi and rot. Using a mister to water seeds is very helpful for providing enough hydration and makes it difficult to overdo it.
Keeping your seedlings away from sight, it’s easy to forget watering. If the sprouted seed dies, the whole plant dies. And if the first leaves wither, no new leaves can develop. Water shortage stops the seedlings’ development, dries them up and the germination fails. A good way to water your seeds frequently is to set reminders on your phone or put a special sticker on your fridge.
Seed starting requires light fertile soil, however everything needs to be done in moderation. Elements are important for our plant’s growth at a certain dosage, but if exceeding some level they become toxic. Toxicity symptoms appear as burn spots/tips, yellowing or complete drying out. Good quality seed starting mix should already contain the nutrients that young plants need. If you need to fertilize additionally, opt for a natural fertilizer with lower nutrient consistency than chemical ones.
Light is the source of energy which plants use to compose their food. To make the most of this energy plants have the ability to seek and orientate their growth towards it. Starting your nursery indoors or in shade causes your seedlings to seek for light, stretching themselves to get exposed to the sun. This stretching creates tall and very thin plants that are soon unable to hold their own weight. For most vegetables, leggy seedlings can’t be fixed so if access to full natural light is not an option, consider adding some grow lamps.
Small seeds like carrot or basil are usually sown at the surface of the soil, covering with very lightly with a thin earth layer. Watering directly under the tap/running hose or using a can with heavy flow digs them up and destroys them before they get to establish themselves. A mister or a low pressure can (with a “rose” at the end of the spout) will help you give your seedlings the water they need without any damage.
Spring can seem to be so close yet it only takes one frost or even a cold air flow to destroy those delicate plants that have just started to develop. Moving your plants from their sheltered home to the world’s harsh conditions before they have hardened enough can be deadly. Save your plants from this shock by exposing them to the new environment gradually, for a few hours at first until their stay becomes permanent.
Sometimes everything goes according to plan. You have the right materials and your seedlings have just started to emerge. Until your lovely neighbor’s cat decides the best place to rest on is your broccoli seedlings. If your garden is accessible to pets, take your measures and animal-proof the nursery before seed starting.
There are few things more confusing than numerous seedlings ready to transplant, all looking the same. Trying to distinguish a salsa-making tomato from a cherry variety is impossible, though you still need to plant them separately to avoid cross pollination. If you don’t want to be in that place remember your labels!
Avoid these mistakes and it’s almost sure that this year you will have a successful garden, all grown from seed. Practice starting seeds this spring and you can get to perfection. When something goes wrong, don’t get intimidated. Keep track of your actions and you will see that it’s something of the above that got out of control. Remember that a good summer harvest comes after good care at spring. Starting a garden from seed is one of the best things you can do. Give those precious seedlings some time and they’ll literally take off!
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Evangelia is a crop production student at the Agricultural University of Athens. She has worked as a gardener and recently founded Self Sufficiency Class, a company for gardening workshops, natural living and homemaking. Since May 2017 she is also a Garden Advisor for Urban Gardeners Republic. Find more about her gardening life and projects at @selfsufficiencyclass on instagram.
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