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Seed Starting – Two Main Reasons Seedlings Fail

I received some questions from a reader who is having trouble with his onion and celery seedlings.

I don’t have detailed information on his situation, but from the information I do have, I can tell that he (like many others who are new to starting seed) does not have a basic understanding of what seedlings need to grow.

If you’ve been reading any length of time, you know that I am not set up to grow seedlings indoors. You also know that I’ve found a way around that.

In order to be successful with your strategy for growing, you have to know the basic needs of plants.

Probably THE Most Important Requirement is Light

After seeds germinate they need light.

If you’re going to grow them indoors you don’t need fancy lights, but you do need at least fluorescent lights (preferably 2) that you can position over the seedlings as close as 1 inch. (And certainly no more than 2 inches away.)

I start onion seed inside. I also start warm weather crops inside.

Strategy for the Onions

Since there is not enough light inside, my only option is to find a way to put them outside after they germinate and give them some protection from the cold.

Two to three days after they germinate, I’ll tape the top of the jug to the bottom to seal it (leave the top cap off for ventilation) and put them out. Usually they stay out 24/7 until it’s time to transplant.

This year after I got the onions up and going, I put them outside in the daytime in their jugs under a makeshift cold frame on all days above freezing. When it was severe at night, I brought them in.

For the past week, they’ve been out 24/7. I left the coldframe over them for extra warmth. I brought them in tonight because temperatures will be in the lower 20s. (They’d still live if I left them out, but I feel like babying them some.)

I’ll transplant to the garden the first week in March. Even though the onions are thick, it will be easy to gently tease the roots apart and plant.

Although it gets below freezing at night in March, but the onions will do just fine.

Strategy for Warm Weather Crops

I’ll start warm weather crops such as tomatoes and peppers and eggplant between mid-March and the end of March.

It might be a wise move for me to wait until the end of March since I have a feeling it will stay a bit too cold for warm weather plants longer than usual this year.

Once they germinate, I’ll tape the jugs and put them outside. If it’s colder than I think it should be, I’ll give them extra warmth with my makeshift cold frame.

If they get too big before the weather warms enough to put them out, I’ll put them in larger pots to hold them until it warms. Usually, I don’t have to do that.

Seedlings Leggy and Weak?

If you have seedlings that are leggy and won’t stand by themselves they’re probably not getting enough light.

Another Main Reason Plants Fail – Soil Too Wet

With seedlings, let the soil dry before you water. If soil (in this case, your grow mix) is saturated continually, it prevents air from getting to the roots.

One of the principles of nature is that plants need oxygen above ground and below. If soil is too wet it prevents the roots from getting the oxygen they need.

Finding a Way to Give Seedlings What they Need Equals Success

Growing seed is easy. If you’re just starting and your seedlings are not doing well, keep these two requirements for growth in mind and then find a way to see that your seedlings get them.

Want to Learn More? – Complete the Experiment

If you feel your seedlings are dying, don’t be too quick to throw them out. Play out the experiment and learn from it. You never know for sure how it will turn out until you play it through.

As with anything you learn, once you get the hang of it, it’s a piece of cake.
Suggested Reading:

Warm Weather Crops and the Winter Sown Method

Seed Starting Another Variation of Wintersown

Seed Starting – It’s Easy Even with Less Than Perfect Conditions

Seed Starting the Easy Winter Sown Way


Organic gardening is easy, efficient, and effective. And it’s a lot healthier.
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  • Thank you Theresa! Great refresher course on our seed starting. I love your no-fuss way to gardening. I’m getting so excited to start my seeds.

  • What about the seed starter kits with the constant wet mats the permit wicking from the bottom up? Is this not a “CONSTANT” wet environment? Or, should seedlings be removed from this environment and at what point?

  • I like no-fuss too Mary Alice! Good to hear from you.

    Excellent question tee jay.
    It’s probably a question many folks will have.

    First let me give you a little background as to why I would never have thought to address that in the post:
    When I started gardening I could hardly buy seed, much less any “equipment”. Because of that I found a way to do most everything I needed to do without having to buy the latest gadget. Not that there’s anything wrong with buying a gadget that you think will help, but in most case they are not something absolutely imperative to your success.

    I’ve never used any seed starter kit. I do know that the basic set up you are talking about has been used for many years to water house plants when folks will be away from home and want to make sure their plants are watered.

    Basically a tray is lined with an absorbent synthetic material that you can probably get at a place that sells greenhouse or hydroponic supplies. A terra-cotta pot that will hold the amount of water you want is placed in the middle of the tray on top of the synthetic material. (It’s my understanding that the hole in pot is usually sealed with a silicone sealant.)

    Plants are placed around the pot. The gardener then fills the pot and waters the plants allowing some to spill over onto the mat (this starts the wicking process). The plants are watered by wicking or absorbing the water until all of it is gone.

    When water is wicked into the soil this way, the soil is moist but not so saturated that it would prevent the roots from getting the needed oxygen.

    I’m sure many people use this plan with great success. If your plants were to show symptoms like yellowing, drooping, and dying off then that would be an obvious indication that the soil was too wet. Otherwise – not a problem.

    I do, however, think there are some principles you may want to keep in mind whether you use this set or whether you don’t:
    Yes, plants need moisture. Grown plants in the garden need moisture to allow soil microbes to better perform their job of tending the plants. But there is a point (this has been my experience) that plants benefit from a period of dryness (not necessarily drought, just dry). It enables them to be stronger and put down roots more deeply into the soil to look for what they need to survive.

    Seedlings, although young and delicate, can benefit as well from having their soil almost totally dry before being watered.

    As you know I’ve never had a watering system. My seedlings are not watered UNTIL the soil (grow mix) is almost totally dry.

    I have found this to benefit them once they are transplanted into the garden. I don’t have to be out there every minute watching to make sure they’re ok. Because, by that time, they can pretty much fend for themselves. And they start putting down roots almost immediately to find what they need.

    Bottom line tee jay: it all depends on what the gardener/grower wants to do. If you get good results with this type of set up and see no symptoms that the roots are being deprived of oxygen — then go for it. However, keep in mind what I’ve mentioned above about the benefits of allowing the soil to almost dry before watering.

    Thank you again for the question. It was definitely what I term a 5 star question and it gave me an opportunity to mention some important aspects of growing from seed that I had not addressed.

    If you have more questions, please feel free to ask.

  • We have 25 below zero windchills this morning, so it’s not a good time to have seedlings outside even with protection. I start seedlings in the basement with fluorescent lights. I believe using one cool white and one warm white bulb approximates daylight. A couple of years ago, I purchased a few grow lights, but really couldn’t tell much difference in the seedlings grown under them compared to those grown with the cool/warm fluorescent bulbs.

  • Great input Mary. Appreciate your taking the time to comment.
    I’ve heard what has also been your experience from so many gardeners. Just regular fluorescent lights work just as well as the fancy and more expensive grow lights. Also, I’ve had many gardeners tell me that they too use one warm white and one cool white.

    Today is 33 degree which is a heat wave compared to your 25 below windchills! My seedlings wouldn’t like that at all!
    Hope your weather will warm soon Mary!

  • I have seen a picture of your improvised cold frame – I think that your simple frame is making the difference this year. So far I have had zero germination of onions that have been left out in wintersown jugs. Also, I’ve had very sluggish germination of spinach. I’m concerned to get things going because I want to eat as much spinach as possible before heat kicks in.

  • Sandra, I did not realize that you put your onions outside to germinate. The optimum temperature for onion seed germination is about 68 degrees F. Even 50 degrees would give fair germination but just takes longer (about 2 weeks) with less percentage of germination. Onion seed will germinate even at 32 degrees but it may take 4 or 5 months!

    If you left them outside in these freezing temperatures – that is why you did not get germination. The other main reason would be old seed. Onion seed deteriorates quickly. Use it the first year if possible. Two years will also do ok. After that the percentage declines drastically.

    For best and quickest results, start your onion seed inside. They should be up in 4 to 7 days. A few days after germination you can put them outside in the jugs.

    For others reading, this post shows a picture of the cold frame.

    And by the way, it would NOT have been warm enough under the coldframe for germination of onions. I started them inside.

    PS – Spinach takes about 2 weeks to germinate at 50 degrees
    above 50 degrees will increase the speed of germination but decrease the % of germination. At about 68 degrees you might get only about 50% germination.

  • Boy Theresa, this explains so much. Thanks for this information. Now I can see why nothing germinated – which helps – a lot.

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