seed germination problems

Ep. 7 – 6 Most Common Seed Germination Problems

Don’t let seed germination problems discourage you from starting your own garden! Learn about the most common problems and how to avoid or fix them, plus get tips for successful seed starting.

Hey ya’ll! This is part two of our Seed-Starting for Beginners series! If you are just joining us, last episode we talked about several methods of seed starting and got some guidance on when to start seeds! As we continue in this episode I want to talk about some of the problems you may encounter when seed starting! As well as how to avoid problems we see later in the process on with the right next steps!

Let’s Troubleshoot Seed Germination Problems

Alright ya’ll, let’s dive right into some of the common issues we can see with seed starting! In my first year gardening, I was winging it pretty hard! Without much research I bought a bunch of seeds and some red cups. I filled the cups with potting soil and waited for germination. Which happened about when I expected it to.

But then, my seedlings kept growing up and up and leaning, and then they started tipping over! At that point, I just assumed they were ready to go outside, so I started planting them.

In the heat.

In Mississippi.

Some of the more robust seedlings thrived (we’ll call that beginners luck). But many others, did not and I ended up having to buy transplants! I want you to avoid this common beginner gardener cycle! So, lets look at 6 of the most common problems beginner gardener’s run into while starting seeds.

No. 1 – Seedlings sprout then die

Here’s the set-up: You’ve been monitoring your seedlings, keeping the starting mix moist, and watching daily! You finally see seedlings emerge through the soil! They grow nice and healthy and maybe even get a second set of leaves. Then all of a sudden, the sort of tip over and die.

This happens with little notice to otherwise healthy-looking seedlings.

The Problem: Damping off

This seed germination problem is caused by a process called damping off, which is a soil-borne fungal disease. With Damping off the affected seeds and seedlings have been subjected to excessively moist environments. These seedlings generally do not survive and will need to be replaced.

Solution: Reduce moisture and Increase air circulation

Reducing the amount of moisture present is a sure way to minimize damping off. I also like to bottom water only, this allows the soil to retain the amount of moisture needed without overwatering!

Now, air circulation is important too because airflow will alleviate some of the excessive moisture and also helps strengthen seedlings, reducing chances of damping off! To improve airflow use a fan or open a window to promote.

No. 2 – Soil turning white or green

Another thing you may notice with your seedlings is a soil surface that turns white with mold or green with algae.

The Problem: Excessive moisture

Mold and fungus thrive in ultra moist environments when soil remains too wet it can develop mold and fungus on the surface. This could ultimately lead to damping off.

Solution: Air circulation and aeration of the soil

This is another problem that can be aided with the help of a small fan for air circulation. Aerating the soil can help break up the moisture or fungus spores. To do this gently roughen the soil surface. Another solution is to add cinnamon to the surface of your soil. Cinnamon is antibacterial and antifungal and many growers swear by its use!

No. 3 – Leggy seedlings

So, similar to my problem with my first garden you may notice that your seedlings grow up really long and thin and seem to lean one direction or the next.

The Problem: Inadequate light

Newly emerged seedlings will grow towards a light source. If they are too far away from the light source then they will begin to reach towards the light. This gives them the leggy appearance.

Solution: Adjust seedling placement

If this issue is corrected early, you can salvage your seedlings. But replanting isnt a bad idea as well! To fix this issue, keep the seedlings about 4 inches away from your grow light. I do not recommend starting seedlings in a window as the amount of light is generally not intense enough for seedlings to flourish.

And weak seedlings make for weak mature plants.

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No. 4 – Low germination rate

Perhaps you have done everything right. You seed out a row of peppers and wait and wait, but only get 4 of the 10 seeds planted to germinate. This equates to a 40% germination rate which isn’t the greatest. There are a few reasons for a low germination rate.

The Problem: Old Seeds

The first reason why you are seeing a low germination rate is you may have planted old seeds. While seeds don’t expire, the germination rates of seeds do decrease over time.

*Some seeds that are notorious for reduced germination rates with age are onions and lettuce.

Solution: Overseed or Purchase new seeds

If you have planted older seeds then you can increase the number of seeds that germinate by overseeding your seed starting trays! Additionally you can purchase newer seeds.

The Problem: Germination method

The second reason has to do with your germination method. Particularly the temperature of the starting mix. Seeds are triggered to germinate when the soil is a certain temperature. Outside of that temperature, they will continue to sit dormant.

Solution: Heat mat

Using a heat mat is an excellent way to increase the temperature of the soil and improve germination rates.

No. 5 – Yellowing leaves

One of the problems I found with my seedlings last year was they just started turning yellow and dropping leaves. By the time this happened, they had already been potted up and were growing quite large! Unfortunately, I had no idea I needed to fertilize my seedlings!

The Problem: Lack of Nutrients

Yellowing leaves is a sure sign of lack of nutrients. When plants use up all the nutrients present in their soil, they will start to show deficiencies.

Solution: Fertilize your seedlings

Once your seedlings have grown their first set of true leaves you can begin fertilizing once to twice a week at half dose. Make sure to follow recommended rates and schedules for fertilization according to the type of fertilizer you choose.

No. 6 – Pests

Okay, so the last problem is this. You notice small black bugs flying around your seedlings, or little white/translucent worms crawling in the soil surface. You may notice small spider webs or small thin rice shaped bugs. Pests can wreak havoc on your seedlings and should be addressed as soon as possible.

The Problem: Pests

The small black bugs: Fungus gnats

White translucent worms: Fungus gnat larvae

Spider webs: Spider mites

Small thin rice shaped bugs: Thrips

Solution: Varies

There are multiple ways to deal with pests issues, and depending on the size of your seedlings you may make different choices.

Fungus gnats and their larvae are the easiest to deal with. To get rid of the gnats, you want to deal with the fungus. And to deal with the fungus, you want to deal with excessive moisture! Like before, increasing airflow and sprinkling cinnamon on the surface of your soil can help!

For all other pests, it is probably best to restart your seedlings. You could also use insecticidal soap or neem oil on your seedlings. But remember, weak seedlings lead to weak mature plants.

Tips for successful seed starting

The goal of starting seeds is to get mature plants that produce a harvest for you, seed starting issues can hinder the growth of your seedlings and the productivity of mature plants. Here are a few tips that can help decrease germination problems and improve success in your garden.

  1. Start with quality seeds from a reputable source to ensure high germination rates.
  2. Invest in a good seed starting mix that is lightweight, sterile, and provides proper drainage.
  3. Label your seedlings to avoid confusion and mix-ups.
  4. Start seeds in a warm environment, between 65-75°F, to promote germination.
  5. Use a grow light to ensure seedlings have adequate light for germination and development
  6. Use a humidity dome or plastic wrap to keep the soil moist and create a greenhouse effect for faster seedling growth.
  7. Use a fan to improve air circulation and decrease the presence of mold and certain pests
  8. Pay attention to the specific needs of each type of plant you are starting, as different plants may require different levels of moisture and nutrition. Additionally evaluate root development and be prepared to transplant into a larger container to avoid root bound transplants.

Alright ya’ll that’s it for this episode of the Garden Things with friends podcast, I hope this gave you some insight into seed starting problems and hopefully helps you avoid some of the common ones!

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Happy Gardening and Remember It’s never the wrong time to Grow where you are!

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