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Seedling Germination Sins: You Reap What You Sow

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture

Has your attempt to grow seedlings gone awry? Don’t give up yet, there’s still some time to start some seedlings by recognizing and repenting from these common seedling germination sins that every gardener is guilty of at least once in their life.


There’s nothing as disheartening as taking the time and effort to start a garden from seedlings only to discover that your starter flat of seeds is a dud, and a couple of crucial, early weeks of gardening has passed. Fear not. There’s still time to start seeds from a new starter flat and learn an important gardening lesson many first-time—and some experienced—gardeners make.

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Deciding to take the time and effort to grow seedlings has several benefits:

• You will end up with more plants than you need, which you can share or sell to others.
• By germinating in a seed bed, you do not waste valuable space in your propagation area with containers where seeds may fail to germinate.
• If the seeds used have declining viability, you can sow extra seeds in a seed bed and transplant what actually germinates and is vigorous.
• Growing seedlings for transplanting prepares you for the growing season by having the best plants ready at the best time for planting outdoors.
• You save a lot of money by not having to buy potted seedlings ready for transplanting.

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While buying a packet of bad seeds is a possibility, it is not the most likely source of the problem for why your seedling flat is a dud. Rather, it is more likely due to what I call “committing seedling germination sins”—those little missteps you took when you first began to put seed to soil.

Listed below are common seedling germination sins, and the corrective steps you can take to ensure seedling germination success:

Seedling Germination Sin #1: Reusing last year’s germination pots without washing them first.

Reusing last year’s seeding and transplant containers, or the ones left-over from nursery plants you bought earlier are fine to use, but need to be cleaned thoroughly before reusing because of a potential mold that may linger in the pot from last year and kill the seedlings at this early stage. To sanitize used containers, use a solution of one-part chlorine bleach to nine-parts water to wash the pots, followed by a thorough rinse with clean water.

Seedling Germination Sin #2: Using subpar growth media.

Seeds grow in dirt and therefore using your yard dirt should be fine…right? Not necessarily. Not unlike carrying a pregnancy, many germinating seedlings need an optimal environment for successful growth and development during its most fragile period.

Like seedling beds and pots, the seed starting media needs to be relatively sterile so as to be free of competing weed seeds and disease causing organisms. Furthermore, that yard dirt may carry too much fertilizer in it from previous lawn treatments that could inhibit germination.

Another factor is that proper germination often requires a media with a fine, even texture that is fairly uniform that allows not only good drainage, but also aeration and ease of root development. Recommended is the use of sterile, soilless media consisting of a mixture of sand, perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss to create a media that both holds moisture and allows good drainage.

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Seedling Germination Sin #3: Using subpar seeds.

Buy your seeds from a reputable source of seeds to ensure they are free from contaminants that could interfere with germination. Avoid using last year’s seeds if you have not stored them properly over the winter. Seeds stored in an airtight container and a low-humidity environment such as the crisper drawer in your fridge may suffice, but viability will be decreased.

The biggest misstep, however, is choosing seed varieties that are not a good match for your growth region. Before buying seeds, check with your local agriculture extension service to find out what grows best and when in your region.

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Seedling Germination Sin #4: Not reading the seed package.

Failing to read the seed package entirely is probably the most common seedling germination sin.

Packet info varies from one commercial seed seller to another, but all typically provide the planting seed depth, plant spacing, and amount of sunshine exposure required for optimal growth. The more informative packets will add more details such as whether to start indoors or outdoors, temperature requirements, and will have a color-coded map of the US illustrating transplant and direct seed sowing regions recommended.

The recommendation is to follow the instructions on the seed packet, but to also check with your local agriculture extension service for more precise growing recommendations for each plant in your specific region.

Seedling Germination Sin #5: Improperly managing the environment.

Germination is heavily influenced by the four environmental factors: water, oxygen, light, and temperature. Neglect any one of the four and you will have either poor growth or none at all.

Water: Without water, seeds will remain dormant. The amount of water is critical—too much water and the seeds will rot; too little water, and the seed embryos will die. Another water-related factor is the adequate application of water. Do not try to pour water over seedlings, it disrupts the germination and rooting process. Instead, use a misting bottle or some other source of gentle spray to keep the media moist, but not sopping wet. Keep the humidity high around germinating seeds by covering the pots or flats with a clear plastic dome, but remove it as soon as the seeds germinate and seedlings begin to emerge.

Oxygen: seeds actually need to respire during germination. This is why it so important to have a seed starting media like vermiculite mixed with peat to provide good drainage of water and aeration. If the soil is too wet or compact, the seed will essentially suffocate.

Light: Depending on the seed, some require light to germinate, whereas others require darkness. If a seed requires light for germination, sow the seeds on top of the soil. If a seed requires darkness, cover it lightly with a layer of fine peat moss or vermiculite. Your seed packet should provide this information, but it pays to do a little extra online research to be sure.

Temperature: 65 to 75 degrees F is the typical temperature range for germinating most seeds; however, some seeds actually require a narrow temperature range that must be monitored and maintained. The recommended way to do this is to monitor the media temperature using a thermometer with its probe in the middle of the container or flat, and controlling the temp using a moisture-proof heating mats designed for seedling flats. Once the seedlings begin to emerge, place them under grow lights or sunlight while continuing to maintain temperature control which is usually a few degrees lower after successful germination.

By avoiding the seedling germination sins listed above, your next flat should provide you with a more positive yield of reaping what you sow.

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Video Instruction about Growing Plants from Seeds to Seedlings

For the most informative video…EVER!..about germination and seedlings, this is a must-see for anyone wanting to understand plants and improve their gardening skills:

If you have seed to seedling tips, please share them in the comments section below.

Image source courtesy of Pixabay

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Reference: Starting Plants From Seed for the Home Gardener” University of Georgia Extension Service