Seed Starting Questions–Answered

by Fern on April 3, 2011

in Community Garden,Fruits & Vegetables

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We’re going to turn our Community Container Garden eye towards containers tomorrow, but I wanted to take a second to answer some common–and not so common–seed starting questions. How are your seedlings doing?

My seeds never germinated, what happened?

Are you using fresh seeds? If your seeds are more than a year old, they are probably no longer viable. If you collected them yourself, you may have inadvertantly collected “fluff” instead of actual seeds, or you may have harvested them too early.

If you used new seeds that you purchased from a reliable source, then you may not have kept them warm enough (most seeds need to be kept between 70-80 degrees to germinate). Or, you might have let them dry out. You need to keep seeds evenly moist for them to germinate.

Why can’t I just plant the seeds at any point and let the seed decide when it is safe/appropriate for it to come up?

Well, if you sow them in fall, they might very well germinate at the appropriate time. But if you want to get a jump start on the season, you need to start them inside, so that they can take advantage of the warmth inside your home that doesn’t exist outside. By the time your outdoor temperatures are warm enough for seeds to germinate, your indoor seeds will have been growing for four weeks or more. Starting seeds indoors improves your germination rates as well, since you can control all aspects of their environment.

Why do I need to know WHEN to plant the seed?

Regardless of what you read on the internet about growing plants indoors, it is almost impossible to have healthy, vigorous full-sun plants growing indoors without supplemental lights. By starting a few weeks before temperatures outside are warm enough for your seedlings, you’ll be balancing the benefits of starting seeds indoors with the benefits of giving them full access to sunlight outdoors.

How do I know when to plant the seed?

Seed packets will tell you how much before your last frost date you should sow the seeds indoors. You can find out what your last frost date is by entering your zipcode here.

What are some tips for starting heirloom peppers from seed?

First, be sure to use good quality seed. If you’re having a hard time getting them to germinate, try increasing the temperature by using a seed starting heating pad underneath the seed tray. Be sure that the soil stays moist but not soggy.

Do I need “Grow Lights” to start my seeds indoors?

If you are starting seeds that will eventually be moved outdoors after the plants are a few weeks old, then you can use a cool fluorescent light bulb, even a CFL. If you want a plant to flower and make fruit indoors, you will need a special grow light that has a larger spectrum of light.

A couple of days after germinating, my seedlings flopped over and died, what happened?

It sounds like your seedlings have succumbed to what is called “damping off.” Damping off is caused by bacteria that cause the seedling’s stem to appear pinched right at the soil line. The seedling falls over and dies. The best way to avoid this problem is to use soil specially marked for seed starting, to use new or sterilized trays, and to not over water your seedlings.

I’ve been wondering if other gardeners cut off the first leaf when the true leaves come out?

I never have, and I don’t see what benefit doing this provides?

My seedlings are leggy and are not getting dark green, what am I doing wrong?

It sounds like you’re not providing enough light. Seedlings need a very bright light source that is an inch or two away from the top of the seedling.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie Haven/Authentic Haven Brand April 4, 2011 at 7:27 am

Wonderful post that should surely help take the fear out of starting seeds and get them growing this Season Annie


Fern April 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Thanks Annie!

Sprout April 4, 2011 at 9:44 am

I was curious about cutting the first leaves so this year I did it on half my tomatoes. I haven’t noticed a difference at all between the ones that I did cut the leaves from and the ones I didn’t.


Fern April 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Cool, glad to have some data to back up my hunch. Thanks Sprout!

Kathie Norris April 4, 2011 at 11:56 am

Thanks very much for these seed-starting tips!
Last year I placed my seeds in a small pyrex bowl and left them on my candle warmer overnight. Perfect–they were fully opened and ready to place in starter trays by morning!


Fern April 4, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Interesting. I’ve never heard of doing that before. Ya learn something new every day! :-)

Debbie April 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm

I just repotted some of my tomatoes, buried them deeper to develop more roots. Looking good!!


Fern April 4, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Smart idea Debbie!

Ali April 4, 2011 at 6:19 pm

You really take the most wonderful pictures! I love them!


Fern April 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Thanks Ali! I had the help of an iPhone app called Instagram for this photo. :-)

Taylor April 4, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Great article! I just started germinating some of last year’s seeds over the weekend. The cukes and tomatoes are already sprouting! I can’t wait for the snow to melt. :)


Fern April 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Yay! It’s always exciting to see them sprout up. So amazing that an inert seed can turn into a living plant in a matter of hours.

Eunice April 4, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Thanks for the tips, Fern! This is going to be a big help since I’m planning to grow my own plants too.


pam April 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm

OK – YOU are officially wonderful! We have sprouted tomatoes! Followed all your advice and for the first time we have tried to start seeds indoors – SUCCESS!

We have become so used to not having any luck that we actually missed the shoots at first so they got just a tiny bit leggy (didn’t turn on the lights until we noticed shoots. But they are getting quite fat and happy and we are very excited and pleased!

So – thank you 100 times for sharing.


Laura Hodge April 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I have had a very busy early spring and it has taken me a while to recuperate from the killing frost that decimated my little porch garden. Thus, I did not have the energy or heart to put into seed germination. I just tossed some radish, beet, and marigold seeds into a couple of long planters and watered every day. Then, I went on vacation. (See how scattered I am?) The radishes did not like the neglect. The marigolds and beets seem to be quite happy. I’m going to start some squash and spinach the same way and see what happens. Obviously, I am sticking with easy plants. (I expect I will be experimenting all year long as I start over.)


dara childs July 18, 2011 at 9:45 am

I bought a Burpee seed starter and some new seeds and nothing came up. I first started with some flowers and then I tried tomatos. Nothing. I kept it moist. I am in Houston, so temperature was quite warm. I kept it on a table in the back yard, so lots of sunlight. Nothing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Any thoughts?


Fern July 18, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Hi Dara! Many seeds won’t germinate when temperatures get over 90 degrees. Try germinating a fresh set of seeds indoors and then bringing them outdoors when their first true leaf appears.

Cameron Hobden March 4, 2012 at 4:36 pm

A couple of days after germinating, my seedlings flopped over and died, what happened?
I used new peat fiber trays and some new plastic small pots with fresh seed starting soil. Too damp? I didn’t thinks so but perhaps. Any other cause?


Fern March 5, 2012 at 11:48 am

It sounds like a fungus called “damping off.” In addition to the measures you already took (using new pots and fresh soil), you can use a light breeze from a fan to help improve air circulation, which will make your seed starting area less hospitable to the fungus.

Sonya April 19, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Wow, Thank-you so much for all these amazing tips. I am hoping you can help me with this question I have. Should I not be putting my seedlings outside when it is nice and sunny until they have their true leaves??Thanx in advance! Happy gardening!


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