Ready…set…sow! If you haven’t got your first seedlings underway now’s the time to think about getting started. Actually, scratch that: less thinking, more doing! Depending on where you live the growing season has either already begun or is just about to, so there’s no time to waste!
Hopefully your sowing schedule will get off to a strong start but to help you on your way I’ve put together a few pointers for diagnosing and troubleshooting some of the most common problems associated with germination and young seedlings.
What, no seedlings? Don’t worry, we’ve all fallen at the first hurdle. There are several reasons why seeds fail to germinate, so let’s take each in turn.
Old seed: Like fresh food, seeds have a use-by date. Check seed packets and, if in doubt, try a simple germination test to ascertain once and for all whether seeds are good for sowing or throwing. Seeds of some vegetables, like parsnip and onion, only keep for one year, while others will store well for up to five years or even longer. How you store seed has a profound effect on its viability too.
Timing: I’ve said it so many times before I’m at risk of boring you to tears but it’s worth repeating (again!): patience is a virtue. Sometimes seedlings fail to appear because they simply haven’t had enough time to do so! Check seed packets for typical germination times but bear in mind these reflect ideal conditions. Case in point: radishes are notorious for speed but it took three weeks for seedlings to emerge from a recent sowing in my unheated greenhouse. Vegetables known for slow germination can be chivvied along by pre-sprouting on damp paper towel before carefully planting the tiny seedlings.
Temperature: Different seeds need different temperatures. Cool-season crops like lettuce or any of the brassicas happily germinate at temperatures as low as 10°C (50°F), while warm-season vegetables prefer something above 20°C (68°F). Refer to seed packets and check the temperature at soil level to ensure seeds are cosseted correctly. Heat mats and propagators help to raise the temperature and keep it steady, while a cool cellar, cloak of damp newspaper or overhang of shade cloth should counter hot weather.
Moisture: If seeds are too wet they run the risk of rotting before they’ve had a chance to germinate, but too dry and seeds won’t receive the cue to sprout. I like to moisten my seed sowing mix before sowing, using a spray bottle to dampen the mix before using it to fill containers.
Pots of warm-season favourites like peppers and tomatoes germinate quicker when covered with a propagator lid or clear plastic, which raises humidity to the steamy level they love. Remove covers once the seedlings are up.
Your seedlings are up but then they collapse and wither as quickly as they appeared. It’s a common complaint, and ‘damping off’ is the culprit. Damping off is caused by one of a number of soil or water-borne fungi that thrive in very wet and/or muggy conditions. Seedlings typically collapse at the base and sometimes you may notice fluffy white fungal growth spreading across the soil surface. Attacks spread with alarming speed.
The solution is to ensure good air circulation at all times, while taking care not to overwater. Always use clean pots and trays and fresh seed starting mix, and water seedlings with mains water, not rainwater that’s been standing around.
Mouldy Potting Compost
Green or white mould across the soil surface is unlikely to harm seedlings in itself but is a sign that conditions at the root zone are too wet. Consider it a warning and react accordingly.
Begin by gently scraping off the mould then improve air circulation around seedlings, for example by opening up all vents in the greenhouse. Surface mould is less likely to develop when seedlings are watered from below. Sit pots and trays in a reservoir of water until you can see moisture at the surface. Remove them immediately and ensure that any excess moisture can drain out freely from the bottom.
The barely discernible flies flitting about just above soil level are probably fungus gnats. While the adult flies don’t damage plants, their larvae can, feeding at the roots so that seedlings fail to flourish.
If you spot fungus gnats you have a few tactics at your disposal. First, allow seedlings to dry out slightly between waterings. Newly sown pots can be covered until they have germinated to deny gnats access. Hanging up yellow sticky traps, horizontally and close to soil level, is an effective way to put a dent in fungus gnat numbers. Good hygiene in and around propagation areas goes a long way to avoiding problems in the first place.
Stretched seedlings with big gaps between sets of leaves and an often pale complexion are classic signs of poor light levels. They can also be symptoms of overcrowding or excess heat. Each of these causes is easily rectified.
To address a lack of light, often accompanied by seedlings leaning towards a light source, move seedlings onto a brighter windowsill or consider setting up grow lights early on in the season.
The alternative is to just wait another week or two for conditions to warm up enough to begin sowing in the greenhouse or directly outdoors. Good airflow will help to keep greenhouse highs pegged to something a little less exhausting, while sowing with restraint and prompt thinning will prevent problems with overcrowding.
These are the most common problems associated with germination as experienced by myself and others in the GrowVeg team. Barbara Pleasant offers plenty more in her article on starting seeds indoors indoors and don’t forget to check out our pest and disease identification guides for other culprits. Forewarned is forearmed!