4 Common Seed Starting Problems & How To Fix Them

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Starting seeds is a great way to get a jump start on your growing season as well as save some money. But there is quite the learning curve and we are going to talk about 4 common seed starting problems and how to fix them.

how to grow plants from seed

I really love starting plants from seed. Not only do I get to save a few bucks and extend my growing season, but I also get a larger variety of heirloom, organic and non-gmo seeds to choose from – it’s hard to find plant starts of that quality at the local nursery.

Let’s talk about 4 common seed starting problems and how to fix them.

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Common Seed Starting Problems

If you are brand new to gardening or maybe you are an experienced gardener, but have never started plants from seed, I wanted to tackle some of the most common problems when it comes to seed starting.

Starting plants from seed is very rewarding, but there is definitely a learning curve, let’s dive into some common seed starting problems and how to fix them.

“My seeds never germinated”

This is really frustrating when this happens, but fortunately there are quite a few things you can do to fix this problem.

Old Seeds

Sometimes the seeds were not stored properly or maybe they are just too old. The germination rate of seeds drops the older the seeds get.

Also, humidity and warmth can reduce the seeds’ viability. It’s best to store your seeds in a cool, dry place.

So if you seeds never germinated, make sure that your seeds aren’t too old and that they were stored properly.

seed starts in greenhouse

Overwatering or Under-watering

I think our natural instinct is to water, water, water. It’s ingrained in us that plants need water. And while that is true, improper watering can easily kill tender seedlings, sometimes even before they get a chance to germinate.

While the seeds are beginning to germinate, you want to keep the soil evenly moist. If you water too much you can actually cause the seeds to rot before they even germinate. On the flip side, if you allow the soil to dry out, they may not germinate and if they do germinate, they will mostly likely die as very young seedlings due to lack of water.

Using a plant mister is best when the seedlings are young and just germinating. You can get a hose attachment like this one, or just use a simple spray bottle to mist the seedlings.

Once the seedlings emerge, watering from the bottom is ideal because it allows the roots to soak up all the water they need. But you don’t want the roots sitting in water, so make sure you drain off excess after the plant has had time to “drink.”

Planting Depth

On the seed packet, you should see a planting depth. It may say “sow seeds 1/4” deep and cover lightly” Or “sow on surface, as light aids in germination”. Every seed is different, but if you plant a seed a half inch into the soil and it needs light to germinate, the seed likely wont germinate. Reading the seed packets can help avoid quite a few mistakes, especially for beginning gardeners.

Wrong Temperature

A lot of seeds need warmth to sprout, but it depends on the seeds. You can use heat mats like these, under the pots to warm the soil enough to encourage germination.

If you are starting seeds in a greenhouse, you can even use special heaters to warm the space.

“Seeds sprout and then slowly die”

It can be very discouraging to have great germination, only to find them dead a few days later. There are several common issues that come to mind, so let’s talk about those.

seed starting problems and how to fix them
hands planting sweet pepper seedlings

Start With Clean Soil

It may be tempting to reuse potting soil from past years, but it’s not such a great idea. There can be diseases and pests laying dormant in the old soil and those things can kill a tender seedling in just a few hours.

Starting with fresh soil and clean pots/trays is a gardening best practice.

Proper Watering

Again with the watering, I know, but it’s such a big deal! If you over water the seedlings it can cause mold and other diseases to grow. Once your seedlings are growing, only water them when the soil is starting to dry out. Again, watering from the bottom is best because it allows the roots to reach down and soak up the water it needs.

“My seedlings aren’t growing very big”

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks, you planted the seeds, they germinated and have started reaching towards the sun. And then a few weeks in, you notice that the growth has been stunted. Let’s talk about some reasons that may be happening as well as some solutions.

Water Issues

Again, getting the water right is crucial. Over watering is the number one reason for growth being stunted in seedlings. You will often see stunted growth, yellowing leaves and blisters.

Too much water in the soil keeps the roots from bringing in oxygen, which will damage the roots and plant. Letting the soil dry out a bit before watering is best.

Back off the water and watch the seedlings. Once the soil starts drying out, you can water them, but water less than before.

Temperature Issues

Plants started in colder rooms or areas will naturally grow more slowly than those grown in warmer temperatures. Slow growth isn’t always a bad thing, oftentimes the plant will make up for their slow start once they are planted outdoors in warmer temperatures. But keep in mind that if the area where you are starting seeds is cooler, you may see slow growth, so consider moving them to a warmer spot.

seed starting tips and tricks
Woman planting the tomato seedlings at peat tablets

Nutrient Deficiencies

I have had this issue plenty of times. I think I am doing everything right: water, light, temperature etc and the plants still seem stunted.

It seems like the seed starting mix that is sold in my area doesn’t have quite enough nutrients to feed the plants from seedlings until they graduate into the ground, so here is how I help them along:

Once my seedlings have been potted up a few times(meaning they have graduated from smaller pot sizes into larger ones), I start to feed them with organic liquid fertilizer. I choose one that is high in nitrogen value and dilute it with water and bottom-feed this liquid to the seedlings.

“My seedlings are thin, leggy and falling over”

This is a common problem when starting seeds indoors. Seedlings need a lot of light to grow properly, and the way they make up for not getting proper light is to grow as tall as they can and literally reach for the light, for their survival.

This creates “leggy” seedlings, which aren’t generally healthy. Oftentimes they will reach so high they fall over and break their stems, which is a big problem for obvious reasons.

To prevent leggy seedlings, there are a number of things you can do, let’s talk about those.

Start Seeds In A Greenhouse

If you have the budget for a greenhouse(I have this greenhouse and it was budget friendly), this is a great option. The sun will warm the greenhouse and usually offers plenty of light for seedlings to grow sturdy without having to reach for the light.
One thing to note, is that if you plan to start seeds in the winter using a greenhouse, you will need heat mats or a special greenhouse heater. Almost all seeds need warmth to germinate, then once they break through the soil, they need light more than heat.

Use The Winter Sowing Method

I shared an entire post all about the winter sowing method. It’s one of my favorite ways to start seeds because of how simple it is. You can read all about winter sowing here, but one of my favorite things about winter sowing is that the seedlings get plenty of light and don’t grow ‘leggy’. Every plant that has come from my winter sowing containers has been very healthy and sturdy, never leggy or thin. 

common seed starting mistakes

Indoor Grow Lights

If you must plant your seeds indoors, use grow lights. You can find grow lights on amazon, I have experience with these and they really worked well for my house plants. I also like that they screw right into a regular lamp, so you don’t have to spend a ton of money buying special lights in addition to the bulbs.

If you are going to use grow lights, make sure to rotate your trays every few days to ensure all the seedlings are getting equal amounts of light. If they are not getting enough light, the seedlings will reach for the light causing them to become thin and “leggy”.

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I hope this post all about common seed starting problems and how to fix them was helpful to you. And as always, if you have any questions, leave us a comment.

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