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First time experience with seedlings - what's wrong?

Jackson, MS

I am growing my first flowers from seeds and am using the Jiffy seed starter kits from Wal-Mart.
I'm growing moss rose (using peat pellets) and a mixture of cut-flowers (mostly marigolds).

1st Photo - I planted the moss rose based on instructions from the seed packet (place on top of soil, keep moist). I used the peat pellets for these because they are so small.
They shot-up 1 inch in a couple of days ... literally! Now, (1 week later) many are falling over and dying. I've tried misting them often then allowing them to dry a little, putting them in the sun for a few hours but nothing seems to help. Any idea what I did wrong? Can I fix them or should I just start over?

2nd Photo - The cut-flower mix is doing great after a week but some seem to be falling over although they look healthy otherwise ... I think. Maybe I didn't plant them deep enough? I can't tell you which ones are which because they came from a bag of mixed seeds.

Thumbnail by captKirkS Thumbnail by captKirkS
Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

I can't really tell much from your first picture, but falling over and dying is typically a sign of damping off which is a common fungal problem with seedlings (caused by too much water)

If they were falling over and dying before being put out in the sun then I'd blame damping off, but if the falling over and dying didn't start until after the sun exposure then that could be what caused your problem too. If you've been growing the seedlings indoors or somewhere shady, you can't just put them out in the sun. A full grown plant will get sunburned if you do that but will typically recover, but for a baby seedling that's just too much. You need to let them get bigger before you try to put them outside, and when you do you need to adjust them gradually to the higher light levels outdoors.

The seedlings that are just falling over but not dying probably need more light. Assuming these are indoors, I'd recommend getting them under a fluorescent shop light, and make sure the light is no more than a few inches above the top of the seedlings.

Vicksburg, MS(Zone 8a)

It also helps to put a fan blowing on them gently to help them adjust to the wind they will have to endure once they're outside--it helps the stems become stronger as they grow.

Calgary, AB(Zone 3b)

I know that fans are used by many people but they are not essential - I've never used one for growing indoors. Perhaps the air circulation is effective at reducing damping off though? (I don't usually have any problems with damping off so I have not looked for cures.)
Light usually seems to be the biggest factor for starting seeds indoors (inadequate light, that is), aside from problems with damping-off. I agree that putting the survivors under fluorescent lights set as close to the plants as possible is probably the best thing to do.

Dublin, CA(Zone 9a)

I've never used a fan either, although if you have sufficient light I could see it might be a bonus to help make stems stronger. But if you have insufficient light, it's not going to compensate for that and might just blow the seedlings over.

Jackson, MS

Oh boy! I should have done my homework before starting this. I don't have sufficient light or a way to get it to the seedlings. I'm sure they are too wet and will let them dry out but lighting is an issue for sure!

Thanks everyone for your responses.

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

I don't know what Zone you are in so this might be a silly suggestion, BUT, can you put the trays of seedlings outdoors for a few hours during day-light, any kind of light will help, even placing them on a counter top beside a window, the other problems as well as damping off is too little light makes the tiny seedlings go too tall AND the stems cant support them, this tall leggy growth is the seedlings natural habit of wanting to reach up-wards to find / search for light.

If this is you just getting started and learning to grow plants from seeds than please don't be disheartened as this is the start most of us had and sometimes still do, as mentioned above, this is quite common fungal disease and can strike withing hours.

Next sowing of seeds I would find a place that gives more light, even a windowsill and use smaller trays with good potting compost, sprinkle VERY thinly some seeds, place the tray in a basin of water about half / inch deep and water the compost from below instead of watering above, the soil will change to a darker colour, then remove the try, set tray aside to drain any excess water and when drips stop, place the tray on a windowsill, remove at night IF very cold as the glass will maybe allow cold air to get to the seedlings.
Only after you see 2-3 proper leaves on your seedlings would I prick them out from the tray and then place them into your Peat pellets or small pots that have been previously soaked. Allow the seedlings to grow on till large enough to move onto flowering position out in the garden when ALL dangers of frost have gone.

For growing seeds, warm moving air close by, don't sew too many at one go or in one pot / tray, you get a second chance to re-sow IF things go wrong, always water from bottom. allow a good flow of air to get to the seedlings to prevent a build up or stale air /moisture sitting on tender seedlings. Don't mist the seedlings unless they are large enough to shed the moisture off there foliage after several minutes, and IF growing close to window, rotate the pot/trays etc so all sides get some light as this prevents leggy or seedlings bending to-wards the light. IF too sunny, place a sheet of newspaper at window to protect seedlings from too much DIRECT sunlight.

Lastly, don't give up Capt, we all had to start somewhere and as we went along, learned what was better or Don't do somethings, I don't know any experienced gardeners who has full success every time with seedlings as some are easy as pie where as others try the patience of a Saint. keep with it and always ask whatever questions you need answers to, always someone here will help you out.
Good luck, WeeNel.

Calgary, AB(Zone 3b)

I've never found the need to water from the bottom or to mist seedlings... It just shows there's no single recipe for success at seed starting (a very simple thing once you get the hang of it)! ;-)

Just some suggestions... it's cheaper and may even be less work to sow directly into reused plastic pots (thus avoiding buying peat pellets). If you have problems with damping-off, it is probably a good idea to wash and sterilize the pots prior to re-use (although it's not clear if your problems are due entirely to inadequate light or to damping-off). By sowing directly into pots, you may be able to avoid some of the potting on that's necessitated by using peat pellets. (However, don't be worried by potting on either - seedlings are incredibly resilient - it just requires some gentleness with the root systems which is helped by using a nice, loose soil mixture.)

Seeds require constant moisture for germination, which can be easily achieved by covering them with clear plastic. Then proper soil moisture can be easily maintained without excess watering; it also greatly reduces frequency of watering. Nurseries give away plastic trays, which are conveniently sized for square pots, and you can also buy cheap plastic domed covers that fit these trays perfectly. Failing that, any clear plastic cover is OK. As the seeds in various pots start to germinate, remove the sprouted pots from the under the plastic into another tray that is not covered.

This message was edited Mar 19, 2012 8:26 AM

Jackson, MS

Thanks WeeNel!!

That is so encouraging! I'm gonna get one of those little greenhouse shelving kits and stick it on my patio which gets no direct sunlight this time of year. I'll put them out there in the mornings then bring them in at night!

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

How right you are Altagardener regarding different methods and recipes for starting seeds or other gardening work for that matter, I have to start my seeds off in a heated propagator between the months of Jan - March, but because like me, your temps at this time is much cooler than that of Captkirks, then a lot of folks do have to water there compost for seed sewing, as it dries out from the bottom heat, I also use a greenhouse for extra light as inside the house at these months there is either nowhere to place the pots close to light, or not enough daylight hours.
Thankfully next week we change our clocks to 1 hour forward and cant wait, I still remember My Dad telling us ( Spring Forward and Fall back) to remind us re the clock change, so I do agree for lot's of folks watering is not always essential.
Sometimes where a lot of new gardeners go wrong is when reading the instructions on seed packets and not realising these are for general use only, we all have to adapt our own ways and as you said, even different recipe's, but that takes time and the last thing we want is for new gardeners to give up at the first stage or problems.
I've been gardening for yonks and still have the odd seeds that collapse on me, not done anything different, nothing changed yet disaster, fortunately there is usually enough time to give it another go.
Hope you also have a great gardening season and as always, great to read all your ideas, hints and tips.
Good luck, WeeNel.

Kiowa, CO(Zone 5b)

capt...I like to use shop lights when I start seeds. At home depot they are approx $10-12 and two lights, approx 2-4 each. This is a very inexpensive way to start things. Figure how to hang the light just a few inches above your plants and move up as they grow. Personally I used light chain and or thin rope. Last year I had to take down my seed starting stand (pix below), and used my bathtub area in an extra bathroom. I moved the shower rod over and hung a shop light. To make a stand I used an old piece of plywood cut to size for the tub. Now I have a small set up to start my babies. Works great, but I wanna put my stand back up again, but until then I use the tub method. It's really hard to grow from a window sill, I know people do it but the plants just don't get the amount of light they need. I also use the black trays with a dome. First I start with potting mix (or mix my own, straight peat moss and peralite, then seeds and a light covering of vermiculite). I start many seeds in 21/2" pots and later (month or so depending on what it is annual or perennial), let the pot dry a bit and gently tease them apart for potting on so they can grow larger. I have a large garden 40ft X 100ft. and most was from seedlings I grew, a great sense of acomplishment and satisfaction. Don't give up, you just have to get the hang of it. Have fun and good luck, kathy.

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Kiowa, CO(Zone 5b)

sorry middle pix is a couple of flats that were given to me when I worked a home and garden show. I do keep my babies under the plastic lid for a few days to a week, and I lightly mist them (sometimes 4-10 times a day, they love it.) as needed after they come out from under the dome. I have had damping off tho rarely, I even saved them when I get a mold sometimes by taking off as much as I can and then give better air circulation. I would have to say 90-95% of my border is flowers that I grew from seed. Just look what you can do with a few seeds!!! Enjoy! Kathy

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Jackson, MS

If I had as much room as you, I could do what you do. All I have is my washer and dryer to place stuff on so I bought a little 36" x 18" x 48" greenhouse ( at Freds for $20. It's the best I can do for now.
I'll place the trays indoors on the washer & dryer at night then in the greenhouse during the day.

Thanks for your input. I'll make note of it all.

Kiowa, CO(Zone 5b)

Am thinking they have small shop light at depot too, think they are14-18" maybe, also could go with a grow light in a clamp light. A clamp light is the ones they use for raising chickens, round with reflector, 'bout 6-8", and they have a clamp attatched so they could be clipped onto something above your babies. Clamp light under $10 and light bulb under $15 all from h. depot. Just a few more hints for ya, lol. Sorry I'm so Have fun!!! Kathy

This message was edited Mar 20, 2012 9:44 PM

Thumbnail by warriorswisdomkathy
Calgary, AB(Zone 3b)

Kathy, your method is pretty much the same as mine... plant stand made of rough cedar in my case - each shelf accommodates 4 trays, each tray holds 32 - 2 5/8 inch pots. I have 2 or 3 2-bulb 4-foot long fluorescent lights over each shelf, suspended on chains; these are lowered to almost touching the seedlings to start, then gradually raised; on for 16 hours per day. (There's also another smaller shelf with lights.) This light set up is adequate light to keep seedlings healthy from February until the last frost which is not until the end of May here. Since this is indoors and room temperature, there is no bottom heat required.

Kiowa, CO(Zone 5b)

My stand is 4ftx2ft, I can stuff 7 regular trays and a couple of pots per shelf, lol. Then I figured I needed a place to harden them off outdoors so I build a little 4ft high stand on the ground, open on all ends (leaning onto the house), plywood top and covered it in plastic. When I first put them in after I allow the ground to warm, I use frost blankets til they harden off a bit or if it's gonna be real cool, keeps them from freezing. On warm days, I may open a whole side or just alittle to get some air in or let the heat that has built up escape. I only do this with perenns. tho when it's early in the season. Another hint for those starting out this year.....check to see if there are any larger nurseries close that recycle pots. I get many trays and pots these days for free by doing such, just have to buy the plastic lids.

Pix: daisies are easy from seed and fill out nicely even in the first year.

This message was edited Mar 20, 2012 10:08 PM

Thumbnail by warriorswisdomkathy
Calgary, AB(Zone 3b)

I'm able to get my seedlings outside earlier than I used to by using another wooden plant stand, this one on wheels, that I can roll out onto the driveway, then back inside the garage if there is a threat of frost overnight. It can be covered with shade cloth for hardening off.
Before that, I would just set trays in the shade for a week to harden off, but usually waited until most risk of frost was past, so as not to have to bring them into the garage too often...

Sugarland, TX(Zone 9a)

Warriorswisdom - Kathy - this is the most help I have received - a picture is worth a thousand words. You do know what you are doing and I would very much like to review all the wisdom you have shared. I spend endless hours on flights and this reads makes stress go away.
Please keep talking. Regards.
Jamshed - Jamper

Kiowa, CO(Zone 5b)

LOL....anything in particular???? Have pictures of my stand above, instuctions for making and pix of all the babies I grew this last season 2012-13 (I made a new stand and it's larger than the first...) Am thinking I ended up with more than 1500-2000 seedling, mostly perenns. In fact I just finished planting and lining out what was left last Tuesday. Sure hope all the babies make it thru the temps we've had the past few days........ It's about 3* at the moment... Yikes. I'd say send warmth this way but saw Texas had snow and cool weather also!!! LOL.

Pix is new stand that is larger than the first.... 3/15/13. And a few more pix from last April of babies.

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Litchfield, IL

I just started reading this thread a couple of weeks ago. Last week, after gleaning some basic knowledge from this thread, I started my seeds. I have a shop light and experimenting with both the pods system and just potting mix. So now, one week into this adventure, I have many seedlings. The tomatoes, zinnias, and bachelor buttons are about 1" high. I have opened the lids on them. Now what?
Thanks for your help.

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

Good Luck gardennanna, sounds like you've found the right method of seed starting that suits your own personal conditions, light, temp and soil / compost, it takes some folks a little while to get success and others get great results first time, we all get there in the end,
Have a great gardening year, much success and let the enjoyment blossom as well as the flowers.
Kindest Regards. WeeNel.

Kiowa, CO(Zone 5b)

Gardennanna...come over to the seed germination thread started by Pfg... those are the types of things we discuss. This is the second year for this thread and we talk about how to do what and problems if any plus solutions that we may be having. I personally have started almost 200 varieties of veggies, annuals and perenns so far and most of my annuals will be started this month.
We welcome any and all questions so just jump in...

The next step is if you still have pots waiting to germinate under the dome leave it on. In fact you can leave your newly emerged babies in there for a while yet. after I see some good growth and they appear t be getting stronger I then move them to an open tray under lights yet. I mist seedlings several times a day to give them some humidity. Once they are up and growing strongly I will pot them on as needed. This week I've been potting on tomatoes. I start a group of seed in a 2 1/2" pot (this year all were started on 1/14) . Now (3/2) I put an individual plant per pot. Tomatoes can be buried all the way to the bottom of the pot. I remove any leaves that would be burried. Tomatoes will root all the way up the stem, (the little hairs will turn to roots if allowed)...
Does this help?

Also some plants can be pinched once they are up and growing, this will help them fill out and become bushier plants... I only do this with annuals and perenns tho it depends on the variety. Ie, I gave my dianthus varieties a hair cut already...(I make sure I leave atleast one growing node.). Come on over ....Kathy

Litchfield, IL

Thanks, Kathy! I will try to find you on the seed germination thread now.

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