Sometimes you can do everything right, follow all the correct steps, and still have seed starting problems with your vegetables and flowers. In this post, we're troubleshooting seed starting issues and giving solutions, including what to do if you haven't started seeds yet but still want to grow a garden.
I know a lot of people have had issues with their seed starts this year. Some people talked about it last year, but it seems to be more widespread this year.
Be sure to check out my other posts on if you're not sure about how to start seeds indoors, what the best seed starting containers are, using the cold-stratification method for seeds, and even potting up and separating seedlings.
What seems to be happening is that seeds are germinating indoors and sprouting just fine, but as soon as they pop up, they seem to get stunted, struggle, or even wither and die.
This info is coming from people who have started seeds indoors successfully for many years, then all of a sudden, are having issues without having changed their seed-starting methods.
I had this issue with my own seedlings this year and had to get to the bottom of it.
How Seeds Grow
Germination & Sprouting
The amazing thing about seeds is that they store enough energy within the seed itself to be able to germinate and sprout from seed to seedling with just the energy contained within the seed.
Once the seeds have germinated, they then need the energy from the sun (or grow lights), soil and water to continue their growth.
Knowing that I was giving my seedlings adequate light and water, left only the soil to blame.
When your seedlings first sprout, the first set of leaves have smooth sides and don't always resemble the plant you're growing (see photo above).
Tomatoes are a perfect example, the first set of leaves are smooth and lack that sawtooth edging that's classic of a tomato plant.
When that second set of leaves starts to grow, that's actually the plant's first set of true leaves. The smooth seedling leaves will eventually die back and fall off and those true leaves will be the “first” set of leaves on the plant.
Why Are My Seedlings Dying?
Hearing that I wasn't the only one having issues with their seedlings struggling or dying, I decided to try and get to the bottom of what was causing this issue.
Digging into my own experience this year, I was growing the same seeds from the same company (or those I seed saved myself), using the same grow lights and setup from years past, and using a seed starting mix for the germination/seedling phase.
The only thing that could potentially be the culprit was the soil. I had a suspicion that, due to the increase in gardening demands over the past two years, these companies might be having a hard time keeping up with their supply, but hadn't given it much thought beyond that.
If you want to actually test the pH levels of your potting soil or fix tainted soil through soil remediation, you can follow the instructions in the linked posts. You can also order soil testing kits from Redmond quite inexpensively. Alternatively, check with your local extension office, though not all of them offer soil testing, some still do for very little cost.
Yellowing of Leaves
As those true leaves begin to develop on your plant, I'm hearing from many people that their plants then just kind of stop developing, or are growing extremely slowly.
If you're noticing yellowing of the leaves on your plants, this is generally a sign of nitrogen deficiency.
However, there can also be other issues at play.
If you have too much potassium in the soil itself, it inhibits the plant from appropriately drawing up the nutrients from the soil.
So the nutrients might be in the soil, but if there's too much potassium, the plant can't access them.
Be sure to pay attention to how much you're watering. If the soil is too heavy and/or too wet, the roots can't draw up the nutrients.
Be sure to pay attention to moisture levels if you're using heat mats, because they can actually cause the soil to dry out much faster than you might expect.
If the pH levels are off by too much one way or the other, this will make it hard for the plant to draw up the nutrients as well.
So now that we know all of the possible reasons our seedlings might be struggling, how do we troubleshoot our potting soil to know what's at play?
For seedlings, it's important that the potting soil is very loamy and light, allowing for good moisture retention and drainage without getting too compact and heavy.
I happen to buy the same brand of potting soil each and every year. And this year I noticed that there was a lot more bark in the soil than in years past.
Having bark in the soil is a good thing, but the size of the bark and how much they've broken down are important.
Large pieces of bark can make it hard for plant roots to reach the soil to draw up nutrients. They can block the ability of the seedling to push through to the surface causing lower germination rates. And bark can also tie up available nitrogen as it continues to break down.
One way to avoid this is when you're planting your seedlings, to remove those larger pieces of bark before planting. This may not fix every issue, but can certainly be a good place to start.
Wet or Moldy Soil
If you're reusing potting soil year over year, or the potting soil you've purchased from a nursery is very wet, the nutrients in the soil are actually being used up as it continues to break down.
When you store your soil you want to make sure to seal it up and store it in a cool dry place where bugs and moisture can't get to it.
Too Much Compost
When starting seedlings it's important not to use 100% compost. Compost is great, but you need the right amount. Think of it like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount.
Now we generally expect that our store-bought seedling mix is going to come with the correct ratios of compost to soil, but this might not be the case.
Troubleshooting Seedling Growth
1. Re-plant in New Soil
The first step I would recommend taking if you're noticing your seedlings are struggling to grow or thrive is to get a new bag of potting soil from a different brand.
Make sure the soil doesn't have too much mulch, that it's not too wet or saturated, and that it's nice and loamy.
2. Transplant Outdoors
If your weather is at a place where your seedlings could survive if planted outdoors, go ahead and skip step one of re-planting, and get those seedlings hardened off.
To do this, slowly introduce them to the outdoor temperatures. Start with just two hours the first day, then add two hours each day for a week. They should then be able to be planted without going into shock.
It can take a couple of weeks, but in most cases, after those seedlings have been put out into good soil, they will start to grow again.
If all of your leaves look yellow and really sad, they may not come back, but even if there are a couple of good-looking healthy leaves, they might make a comeback.
What if I Didn't Start Seeds?
I have heard from some of you who never got around to starting seeds indoors and you're curious if it's too late to plant a garden this year.
No! It's not too late!
There are a couple of options when it comes to growing a garden.
1. Direct Sow
You can direct sow many seeds right into the garden if the weather is permitting. Be sure to read the backs of the seed packets to know what temperature they germinate at and compare that to the weather you're having at the time of planting.
It's also important to know if the threat of frost has passed and whether that matters to the seeds you're planting.
Learn more about reading seed packets and how to use that information for your own garden here.
2. Ask a Friend
If your seedlings just aren't doing well, ask around to those you know who also start seeds indoors and see if they have any extras.
I generally start more plants than I'm going to plant simply to allow for accidents. If I have extras when it comes time to plant, I'm more than happy to share them with friends.
3. Purchase Plants
Because of my pitiful tomato seedlings this year, I've already ordered some tomato plants from Azure Standard as a failsafe just in case my tomatoes don't make a comeback.
There are many nurseries and even some big box stores that might still have good inventory for you to buy plants and get them into the garden.
Yes, this is a more expensive route than starting the seeds yourself, but it will still save you money in the long run over buying produce from the grocery store.
Verse of the Week: Matthew 6:25-27
More Articles to Get Your Garden Off to a Good Start:
- Ultimate Seed Starting Guide
- Beginner Gardening Secrets You Need to Know
- 13 Basic Steps to Starting a Vegetable Garden
- Time-Saving Tips For New Gardens
- Where to Buy Heirloom Seeds – Heirloom, Hybrid & GMO Differences
- Best Way to Germinate Seeds – How to Germinate Seeds Faster
- Potting Up Seedlings & How to Separate Seedlings
- Cut Back on Garden Diseases & Maximize Your Infrastructure Expansion (Don’t Waste Time or Money)
- Heirloom Seed Saving & Gardening
- How to Grow Food YEAR ROUND Using Covers (Hot & Cold Weather)
Hey pioneers. Welcome to episode number 346. Today's episode, we are going to be diving into issues and problems that many of you, including myself, have been experiencing this year in starting your own starts from seed, especially when doing so indoors. What I think that the suspect problem actually is, how can you remedy it? Is it too late in certain aspects? Then what to do if you waited too long to seed start, but you still want to be growing a garden this year.
So we'll actually be covering quite a few things in today's episode. Welcome to the Pioneering Today podcast. It's been a little bit since I have done an introduction of myself, but I am your host, Melissa Kay Norris, fifth generation homesteader and bestselling author of multiple books. My latest book is the Family Garden Plan, and I am at work on a brand new book titled Everything Worth Preserving, and I'll be having information on how you can pre-order your copy of that soon and more details on the book, but it is all about preserving your own food at home.
It doesn't cover just one method, like canning and/or fermenting, but all of the different ways that you can safely preserve and how to, including recipes of fruits, vegetables, and meat. So I'm super excited and I'm in the throes of writing that right now. We'll have more information available for you soon, because one can't really talk about planning on growing a bunch of vegetables, at least I can't without also then moving into my mind into preserving mode so that I have all of those wonderful foods available for me and my family to consume throughout the winter months.
But back to the subject at hand. I know a lot of you because I have received questions on it. I have seen other stories on Instagram and talked to a lot of you actually in person about issues with seed starting this year. Some people even talked about it last year, but I feel like it's been more widespread this year. That is you are seed starting indoors and the seeds germinate just fine. They begin to grow, but as soon as they start to develop their first true leaves, they tend to get stuck. You're not seeing hardly any growth. They're very much saying the same size and you're even seeing yellowing of the leaves and/or the seed starts or dying where normally, for the age that the starts are, they would be very prolific. They would be very large. They would have a lot of green vegetation growth and would be doing really, really well and ready to be put out in the garden.
This happened last year to my best friend, that many of you know, who is Carolyn Thomas from Homesteading Family. Her and I remember her and I discussing it last year and I'm like, gosh, I don't know what ... We were going over everything and I'm like, I've not experienced that. I wasn't able to help her troubleshoot at all. But this year it happened to me. So if it didn't happen to you this year, I hope it doesn't happen to you in the future, but it may just take a little bit. So let me kind of walk you through this scenario.
So I started my peppers and tomatoes indoors like I always do. Same schedule, same grow lights, same environment. Everything is same. Same seeds from the same seed company, and actually some of them were the same seeds because I had extra that I had used last year. So it can't be the seeds, is what I'm getting at. I started them like I normally do as far as timeframe goes. By this time, at the time of this recording, which is mid-May, my tomato plants would be at least a foot tall. They would have multiple levels of leaves. They would be very bushy and ready to go outside and be of substantial size.
This year however, same tomato plants, everything has been the same except for the potting soil, which we're going to dive into in a minute. I am not kidding you, these plants are almost 10 weeks old. They only have one set of true leaves. Maybe some new leaf trying to emerge. They're literally like four inches tall. They are just pitiful. It's like they just stopped growing. Many, many and many of you have asked me about this. In fact, when I went to the Homesteaders of America's conference in Tennessee, in April, I was doing a garden consult and talking with Roy's family for their family garden. They were experiencing that with their tomato seeds, and it almost looked like the leaves were burnt, but their leaves were adequate distance from grow lights.
They hadn't experienced anything that would indicate that, but I couldn't figure out. I'm like, what is wrong with these tomato plants? Well, after some digging and speaking with a lot of people, the only thing that I can conclude is it has to be the potting soil. I talked with Carolyn from home sitting family about this. Her and I dug further into it. I saw a story on Instagram from Jill, the Prairie Homestead. So I know that within our gardening circles, this is very widespread. So digging into the research, we have to look at the potting soil itself because that's the only different denominator or the only thing that has been different for my own personal experience.
After talking with many of you guys, I'm positive that the culprit is the potting soil. So when you have plants that germinate just fine and they start to grow, there is enough nutrients stored inside a seed for it to be able to germinate and to begin to grow. That's what the point of the seed. It feeds that part of it. Once that little plant has germinated and sprouted and it starts to ... so once the plant begins to develop it first set of true leaves, which is usually the second set of leaves, and they actually look like the leaf of what the plant should look like.
So for example, with tomato plants, when it first sprouts, it's smooth sided leaves, but that first set of true leaves, which is actually the second set of leaves that develops, they have that saw tooth appearance that actually looks like a tomato leaf. As those begin to develop, what people are seeing is one, the plant is just kind of almost like failure to thrive. It's just not growing, and then a lot of the leaves are turning yellow. So without doing a soil test to know specifically what is at work here, generally, if you have yellowing of the older leaves first, then that is a sign of nitrogen deficiency.
If you have a plant that seems to be failing to thrive or failing to really grow, a lot of the times it is an issue of low nitrogen. However, there also can be other issues at play. If you have too high of a potassium level, then that can actually inhibit the plant from appropriately drawing up the nutrients. So the nutrient levels may actually be present in the soil, but if you've got too high of a potassium level, the plants simply can't absorb the nutrients that are there. Then you also get into, if the soil is too heavy and/or too wet, the roots can't draw up the nutrients, especially in little tiny baby seedlings. Then we also have pH levels. If the pH levels are too far off one way or the other, that also can affect the plant's ability to draw up the nutrients, even if they are available in the soil, which makes it sound like, well, how on earth do I know which one of these issues is at play within the soil?
That can be very hard to discern with potting soil, specifically bagged potting soil, because most of us aren't taking this bagged potting soil and doing soil tests on it. That's something that we'll do within our own garden beds outside, but you expect that potting soil would have the necessary nutrients in it when you're purchasing it. However, a lot of us are finding that something is off here and that's not the case within the past two years, even brands that we have known, used, and/or trusted in the past.
So one of the things first off is, when you are looking at potting soil, and this is something that I have noticed very recently in the past few years on my potting soil, especially the bag that I used this year and I'm having the growth issues with. That is, it has a lot larger particles in it. It's not fine and [inaudible] like it normally is. It has big chunks of bark, wood and debris. Now we do want to have organic matter in our soil. However, in bagged potting soil, when you have things like bark, sometimes bark is added because that can help with the porosity of the soil so that it's not too fine and it's not too compacted.
However, if you have a lot of larger bark within the soil, that can actually tie up the available nitrogen, especially if it's been sitting in the bag for a while and is beginning to break down, then that can tie up your nitrogen. So, that's one possibility. The potting soil that I had did have a lot of larger debris bark in it, even though it said it was a indoor potting seed starting mix. So kind of possibility number one. So if you can look at the potting soil within the bag, a sample of it, et cetera, that can be one of the things you may want to stay away from.
Another thing is, if you are buying your potting soil and/or you over wintered it, is making sure it's being stored in an area where it's dry. If you're going to purchase potting soil and it's really, really wet and heavy, the moisture within the bag of the potting soil can begin to break down nutrients. The soil begins to break down. Think of compost pile. Compost piles have to be wet in order for them to break down. Well, if you've got bag potting soil, and it's really wet and saturated and really heavy, it can begin to break down upon itself, which means that the nutrient levels may have been what they should have been when it was bagged, but because it's really wet, it's actually begun going through those nutrients and that's changing inside the bag, and therefore it's not available for the plants when we use that potting soil to plant with.
Other things is identifying the potting soil. If it's moldy or has a lot of insects in it, then that is probably meaning that it's had too much moisture. If you have insects in there, you can get fungal nets and other things like that, and that's a sign. If there is insects crawling around in there in your bagged potting soil it probably has had too much moisture introduced to it at one point or another. If you see mold in there or it's really, really saturated with water, not only can it change the nutrients, but you can have root rot issues. If it's too wet, meaning that the balance was not done correctly when it was being formulated, usually you're going to have things like perlite or vermiculite because, if it's too heavily saturated, which is why one of the reasons we don't usually use our own in-ground soil for seeds starting indoors is because it's too compact and it's too heavy.
That can affect the seed germinating, its root growth and the ability for those roots to absorb the nutrients and the moisture, if they're too heavy in water logged. So those can be all things that we want to look at, it should be [inaudible] and light weight. You don't want to use pure compost, at least in my experience though. Compost is wonderful, but it needs to be worked in with other soils. So you could also have bags that could perhaps have too much compost in there. Sounds kind of like Goldilocks and the three bears and it os in a way. You don't want it to be too hot. You don't want to be too cold. You want it to be right in the middle.
So what do you do if you are experiencing this just like I had? Well, the first thing is to, number one, get a different brand of potting soil. Make sure it's not wet, that it's not saturated, that it doesn't have too much bark material in it, and that it is nice and [crosstalk] with small particles. That's your option one is to use brand new potting soil, get a different brand and re pot them up into a larger pot with new soil. If they're at a point where they can go outdoors. If it's warm enough overnight that your warm weather crops can go out, then you can skip the potting up part, harden them off for a week. Never take seedlings that have been raised indoors and directly put them outside. They'll go into shock. Make sure that you're exposing them to the outdoor temperatures and environment. Start with two hours a day, the first day. And then each day, increase that by two hours over a week until they have gotten acclimated to the outdoor settings. Then plant them outside.
So if temperatures allow for that, depending upon the crop, skip the potting up part and get them in their growing place as soon as possible. It can take a couple of weeks, but in most cases, if you get them into good soil, they will begin to grow and get the nutrients that they need and will perform for you well, it can take a couple of weeks for them to get out of that stunted spot. However, if all of the leaves are yellow and the leaves are dying and the plant is dying, it may or may not come out of that. So you may not be able to save them.
If there's still some green, I would go ahead and try to save those starts because to buy all new brand new starts can be quite expensive. So if they do still have any life left in them, I would get them a new soil, new pots, or in the ground as soon as you possibly can and see what happens. Now, if you're like, nope, it's not working, and/or you may be in a position. I've had quite a few people ask me, I didn't get seeds started yet this year. Is it too late to plant a garden? The answer is no. It's not too late to plant a garden.
However, it may be too late to plant directly in the ground. Some of those warm weather plants, if you have a short growing season like I do, but you can definitely get starts and seedlings from another source. So as a backup, just in case my tomato plants are so stunted that they are not able to come out of it, I ordered some tomato starts from Azure Standard, but we have local people, local nurseries. Check with them, see what their start to look like. You also may have friends. There's been plenty of years in the past, last year was one of them, where I had an extra. I had over planted and seed started my tomatoes, and I did have good pounding soil last year. I had a plethora of tomato starts more than we needed. So I gave them a way to neighbors and to my parents.
So check with your gardening friends in your area and see if anybody has extra starts that are healthy and if you can get them from them. If not, like I said, nurseries or Azure Standard, you can check with them. Azure Standard, I will put a link in the show notes that accompany this episode, which you can go to Melissakaynorris.com/346 because this is episode number 346. I will have a link in there to Azure Standard if you're not familiar with them, but they have their starts really for throughout the next few weeks, and then they face them out. They only have the live plant starts usually in the spring and early summer months.
So you could definitely check that out as well as other homesteaders, other gardeners and local nurseries. Now, as for the dilemma with the poor quality potting soil, that seems to be very prevalent. It doesn't seem to be brand specific. I had issues with Kellogg's organic potting soil, but I've seen where other people have had issues with other brands. So it doesn't seem to be just one brand. I don't know, honestly. I haven't really been able to find sources. Is it that the potting soil companies, that they made too much and it sat for too long, and that can change and break down? Was it just storage and shipping issues where the soil was not stored in optimal conditions, so it was getting too wet? As I've explained, that can have problems. Were they not able to get the quality ingredients that they usually did, so they were using larger bark than normal?
I don't know what the answer or why is. I haven't been able to discern that, but I will be looking at next year doing my own potting soil. In the past, I haven't done my own potting soil just because I have to order and buy individual parts. For me, it wasn't worth it. I'd rather just buy the potting soil that was already formulated and bagged, but now we're having quality control issues. So I will be looking for next year if I will be trying to make my own padding soil, which I need to investigate a little bit more, check out different sources and see if I can actually get the supplies to do that. So I will be sharing more of that as the year progresses and we get closer to that.
But for this year, see if you can find another source of potting soil with the above, the things that we went over earlier, and/or get them outdoors in their regular beds as soon as possible. Now onto our verse of the week, which is Matthew chapter six, verse 25 through 27. "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air. Do they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying, add a single hour to your life?"
I wanted to share that section because I know, like this with maybe not having a tomato crop for my own tomatoes this year, and having to rely on other sources because of potting soil issues, so many different things are in play. It can be very hard not to worry. There is plenty to worry about in this life, but all of that worry, all it does is add more stress. And all of that worry, no matter how much we worry, and then that robs us of joy in those moments, all of that worrying solves absolutely nothing. It doesn't add a single hour, a single minute or a single second to our lives, and said it just steals the joy and our peace from the moments and the hours that we do have.
I know that when I am worrying, that is when I forget, truly forget how big God is. That is really, my faith is not where it should be, quite honestly. So when we are worrying, we are looking at ourselves and our ability to handle a situation, instead of believing that the father has us, that he is the God that sees and owns everything and is truly in control. We, myself, either believe that he has that, or we don't. When I'm worrying, I can confess with my mouth that I believe that he has it. But when I allow worry to overtake me, I really am saying, I don't believe you have this, God, and that's why I'm worrying, which I know is much easier to say than it is sometimes to put in practice depending upon our situations. But this has been something that we have really been remembering. And when we catch ourselves worrying, making sure that we're handing that back over to God.
So if you are worrying, I would highly recommend that you take a moment and remember that God does have you. He does have this situation, and he promises that he will take care of us and to seek him and his righteousness first. I would actually recommend just going through that whole rest of that chapter six. There's some great verses all the way throughout that whole section that can help, but I thought I would leave you with that. Thank you so much for joining me today. I will be back here with you next week. Blessings and mason jars for now, my friends.
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