By Ryan Dorn, SouthernSeeds.com

Growing your own plants from seed is a magical experience that connects you with the rhythms of nature and rewards you with a flourishing garden. It's the ultimate expression of self-sufficiency and the joy of watching life sprout from tiny beginnings. But let's be honest, seed starting can also be a frustrating endeavor with unexpected setbacks and mysterious failures.

At Southern Seeds, we've had the privilege of guiding countless gardeners on their seed-starting journeys, sharing in their triumphs and troubleshooting their challenges. Over the years, we've noticed a pattern of common mistakes that even experienced gardeners make, mistakes that can hinder the growth of their seedlings or prevent them from sprouting altogether. These mistakes often stem from a lack of understanding about the unique needs of each seed variety, the importance of following instructions, and the subtle nuances of plant care.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll unveil the top 10 seed-starting mistakes we encounter most often, shedding light on the common pitfalls that can sabotage your gardening success. We'll also provide expert advice and practical solutions to help you overcome these challenges and nurture your seedlings into thriving plants. Whether you're a seasoned gardener or a beginner, this guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools you need to achieve a bountiful harvest and a garden that flourishes.

1. Completely Ignoring Growing Instructions

Woman in Gloves Holding a Packet of Seeds

 

Mother Nature has her own set of rules, and we at Southern Seeds (as well as most seed companies) do our best to translate those rules into clear and concise growing instructions for each seed variety we offer. We understand that gardening can be a bit of an experiment, and sometimes bending the rules can lead to unexpected success. However, completely disregarding the instructions is a recipe for disaster. Each seed has unique needs regarding planting depth, temperature, light levels, and watering frequency. Ignoring these guidelines can result in failed germination, stunted growth, or even the death of your seedlings.

It's disheartening to see customers contact us, excited about their seed-starting endeavors, only to discover that their struggles stem from a simple oversight: not following the instructions. Countless times, we've helped troubleshoot issues that could have been easily avoided by simply reading the seed packet or checking our website for detailed growing instructions. Take the time to understand your seeds' specific requirements, and you'll set yourself up for a successful and rewarding gardening experience.

2. Not Cold Stratifying Seeds

Many seeds have a built-in survival mechanism called dormancy, preventing them from germinating at the wrong time or in unsuitable conditions. For many species, this dormancy is broken by a cold cycle, like winter. This is how plants know to start growing in the spring.

Fortunately, we can mimic these natural winter conditions, allowing us to grow seeds whenever we choose. If you skip this crucial cold stratification step, your seeds might remain dormant and fail to sprout.

At Southern Seeds, we understand the importance of cold stratification and clearly indicate which seeds require this treatment in our growing instructions. The process is simple: place the seeds in a moist medium, like peat moss or vermiculite, and store them in the refrigerator for a few weeks. This chilling period activates the seed's internal mechanisms, preparing it for germination when warmer temperatures return. Don't let dormancy deter your gardening dreams! By following our instructions and providing the necessary cold treatment, you'll unlock the full potential of your seeds and ensure a successful start to your growing season.

For more info, please visit our stratification guide.

Likewise, this video by Valley Roots is outstanding for showing how to cold stratify seeds.

3. Incorrect Seed Depth

Side view of germinating pea stages

 

Seeds are like Goldilocks ‚Äď they need their environment to be "just right" in order to germinate. One crucial aspect of this environment is planting depth. Each seed comes equipped with a finite amount of stored energy, and this energy reserve determines how deep it can successfully push through the soil to reach the sunlight. Some seeds are designed to be buried deep, germinating in complete darkness, while others need to be sown close to the surface or even on top of the soil to access light.

Overlooking the correct planting depth or even washing too much soil over your seeds while watering can have dire consequences for your seedlings. Seeds sown too deep may exhaust their energy reserves before reaching the surface, while those sown too shallow may dry out or become vulnerable to pests and diseases. It's a delicate balance, and that's why we provide detailed instructions on each seed packet and our website. By understanding the specific needs of each seed variety and planting them at the appropriate depth, you'll give them the best chance to sprout and thrive. I cannot stress this enough. Seed depth is easily one of the most common mistakes we see from our customers.

4. Not Enough Light

young tomato plant under LED grow light

 

Light is the lifeblood of plants, and seedlings are especially sensitive to its absence. When starting seeds indoors, it's easy to underestimate their light requirements. A seemingly bright windowsill may not provide enough direct sunlight for optimal growth. Seedlings that don't receive adequate light can become leggy, weak, and prone to toppling over.

In general, most seedlings need at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day to thrive. If your indoor growing space doesn't meet this requirement, you'll need to supplement with artificial light. Grow lights can be a lifesaver for indoor gardeners, providing the full spectrum of light that seedlings need to flourish. Investing in a good quality grow light setup can make all the difference in the health and vigor of your young plants. However, if you're using grow lights, remember that plants also need a day and night cycle. Don't overdo it with constant light, as this can disrupt their natural rhythms and hinder growth. A timer can be a helpful tool to ensure your seedlings get the right amount of light and darkness.

5. Water Issues (Usually Overwatering)

Watering a seedling

 

Water is essential for seed germination and seedling growth, but it's a delicate balance. Too little water, and your seeds will dry out and fail to sprout. Too much water, and you risk suffocating the seeds and promoting the growth of harmful fungi and bacteria. While underwatering can be an issue, overwatering is a far more common problem we see among our customers.

Seedlings are particularly vulnerable to overwatering, as their delicate roots can easily rot in soggy soil. To avoid this issue, make sure your seed-starting mix is well-draining and never let your seedlings sit in standing water. Using a pot with drainage holes and a well-draining seed starting mix is crucial for preventing waterlogged soil. Water them thoroughly when the soil surface feels dry to the touch, but avoid watering them to the point of saturation. A good rule of thumb is to water until the excess drains out of the bottom of the container, then empty the saucer or tray to prevent the roots from sitting in water.

6. Thinking You Know Everything About Gardening

A magnifying glass and paper that says learn more on a table.

 

Gardening is a lifelong learning journey, filled with unexpected twists and turns. It's easy to become overconfident, especially after a few successful plantings, but remember that nature always has a way of humbling us. Even the most experienced gardeners can make mistakes. At Southern Seeds, we've heard countless stories from seasoned growers who thought they had it all figured out, only to encounter setbacks due to overlooking crucial details or underestimating the unique needs of specific plants.

This humbling truth applies to everyone, even "professional growers" like us. With over 400,000 different plant species in the world, it's impossible to know everything. Even if you've successfully grown a particular plant before, variations in weather, soil conditions, window lighting, etc. can throw you a curveball. Plus, nature isn't a 100% guarantee; sometimes things just don't go as planned.

Take, for example, the common pairing of basil and lavender in herb gardens. Basil thrives in warm, humid environments, while lavender prefers dry, sunny conditions. While you may know how to grow each of these individually, when paired together, simple watering habits can be detrimental to one or the other. 

To avoid this mistake, approach each plant as an individual with its own unique needs. Research the native habitat and growing conditions of each plant you intend to grow, and tailor your care accordingly. Pay attention to sunlight, water, temperature, soil type, and fertilization requirements. By understanding and respecting the individuality of each plant, you can create a thriving garden where every species has the opportunity to flourish.

7. Excessive Fertilization

Gardener applying fertilizer to garden

 

While it's tempting to give your seeds a nutrient boost to encourage vigorous growth, excessive fertilization can actually be detrimental to their development. Remember, seeds contain all the nutrients they need to germinate and establish their initial roots and leaves. In fact, some seeds actually prefer a slightly leaner growing medium.

Overfertilization can lead to salt buildup in the soil, which can dehydrate and damage delicate seedlings. It can also disrupt the natural balance of nutrients, causing imbalances that hinder growth and development. When starting seeds, it's best to focus on providing a clean, well-draining seed starting mix that's specifically designed for germination. Save the fertilizer for later growth stages when your seedlings have established a strong root system and are actively growing. This includes Miracle Grow fertilizers and enriched soils which are common issues we see with our customers. While we do not think it is a bad product, they can create too rich of an environment for some plant types.

8. Crowded Seeds and Seedlings

Throwing seeds into a garden.

 

It's easy to get excited about the potential of a bountiful harvest and sow seeds with a heavy hand. However, overcrowding can quickly turn your seed-starting tray into a battlefield where seeds and seedlings struggle to survive. When seeds are sown too close together, they compete fiercely for limited resources like light, water, and nutrients. This competition can result in weak, spindly seedlings with underdeveloped root systems. While this may sound like common knowledge to experienced gardeners, we just had a customer who sowed over 10,000 seeds of various types into a single 10" container. Trust me, it's a mistake we see time and time again and the 10,000 seed mistake was the inspiration for this blog post.

In cases of overcrowding, seedlings may fail to germinate altogether due to lack of space and resources. The seeds may become starved and unable to break through the dense mass of other seeds. To avoid this issue, it's crucial to sow seeds at the proper spacing, as indicated on the seed packet or our website. If you find yourself with a crowded tray, don't hesitate to thin out the seedlings, giving the remaining ones ample space to grow and thrive. Remember, a few healthy, vigorous plants will yield a better harvest than a multitude of weak, stunted ones.

9. Not Hardening Off Before Transplanting

Plants wilting from environment shock

 

Imagine spending weeks nurturing your seedlings indoors, only to watch them wither and die within days of transplanting them to your outdoor garden. This heartbreaking scenario is often the result of transplant shock, a condition caused by the sudden exposure of tender seedlings to harsh outdoor conditions.

Seedlings grown indoors become accustomed to a controlled environment with consistent temperatures, gentle breezes, and filtered sunlight. When abruptly exposed to the full force of the sun, wind, and fluctuating temperatures, they can experience stress and damage. To avoid transplant shock, it's crucial to gradually acclimate your seedlings to outdoor conditions through a process called hardening off. This involves exposing them to increasing amounts of sunlight, wind, and cooler temperatures over a period of 7-10 days. By gradually toughening up your seedlings, you'll prepare them for the challenges of the outdoor world and ensure a smooth transition to your garden.

10. Soil Issues

Soil in hands for planting

Soil is the foundation of your garden, and its quality can make or break your seed-starting success. Using the wrong type of soil or soil that's contaminated with pests or diseases can lead to germination failure, stunted growth, and even the death of your seedlings.

When starting seeds, it's crucial to use a fresh, sterile seed starting mix that's specifically designed for germination. Seed starting mixes are typically lighter and fluffier than potting soil, providing optimal drainage and aeration for delicate roots. They also contain a balanced blend of nutrients that support early growth without overwhelming the seedlings. Avoid using garden soil or old potting mix, as these may harbor harmful pathogens or lack the necessary nutrients for successful germination.

Additionally, it's important to consider the pH level of your soil. Most seeds prefer a slightly acidic to neutral pH range (around 6.0-7.0). If your soil is too acidic or alkaline, it can inhibit nutrient uptake and hinder growth. You can easily test your soil pH with a simple kit and adjust it as needed to create the ideal environment for your seeds to thrive.

Be a Detective

When your gardening plans go awry, don't despair. Instead, channel your inner detective and investigate the situation. Start by reviewing the germination window for your specific seeds. Often, we hear from customers who haven't seen sprouts after a week or two, but the germination window for many seeds is 21-28 days or even longer. Remember, whether it's a pregnancy or a seed's germination, nature has to run its course.

If the germination window has passed and you're still not seeing any signs of life, don't be afraid to dig up a few seeds and examine them. With larger seeds, you can often determine what went wrong. Did they rot from overwatering? Did they dry out? Were they planted too deep? For seeds sown outdoors, check if they're still there. If they're missing, critters may have snatched them away.

Often, gardeners blame the seeds first, but in today's competitive seed market, most reputable companies offer products with laboratory-tested germination rates around 90% or higher. The odds of an entire packet failing due to non-viable seeds are astronomically low. To put it in perspective, with a 90% germination rate, the chance of 100 seeds failing is...

0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%.

Even with a smaller sample size, like 10 seeds, the odds of all 10 failing are a mere 0.00000001%.

These numbers aren't made up; they're the real odds. Most seed companies like Southern Seeds offer guarantees as a reassurance to their customers, so I am not trying to shirk blame. The point is to show that the likely culprit is somewhere in the process.

The reality is that a little magic is needed to bring life into this world, whether it's a plant or an animal. Occasionally, that magic just isn't there, and it's our job as gardeners to use our detective skills to learn and grow. That's how our ancestors, with little more than fire and stone tools, figured all this out 12,000 years ago. Gardening is a process of trial and error, and every failure is an opportunity to gain valuable knowledge and improve your skills.

Wrapping Things Up!

Seed starting can be a challenging, but rewarding endeavor. By understanding these common mistakes and implementing sound gardening advice, you'll be well on your way to a thriving garden full of healthy, vigorous plants.

Remember, gardening is a journey of learning and experimentation. It's like riding a bike ‚Äď while there are lessons to learn and bumps in the road, once you master the basics, those skills will serve you for a lifetime. Don't be discouraged by setbacks ‚Äď every mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. At Southern Seeds, we're here to support you every step of the way, providing high-quality seeds, gardening supplies, and expert advice to help you achieve your gardening dreams. If you ever have questions or need guidance, don't hesitate to reach out to us. We're always happy to help!

So, roll up your sleeves, grab your seed packets, and get ready to sow the seeds of success! Happy gardening!