Solve Seed Starting Problems Before they Start

Even the most experienced gardeners sometimes have issues when starting seeds indoors for spring transplant. Let's take a look at some common problems so that you can (almost literally!) nip them in the bud.

Are your seedlings at first nice and tall, then suddenly way, way too tall and spindly? (Maybe they're a bit pale, too?)

This is probably the most common problem with growing indoors in winter: not enough light. Even bright windows may not offer enough sunlight during winter's short days, and they usually come with cold drafts. And while setting yourBio Dome or seed flat beneath the kitchen fluorescents may work in the short run, your seedlings aren't receiving the wide-spectrum light they need for healthy growth, so eventually they may shoot up, trying to find a better source of light!

The best solution is to use wide-spectrum plant lights, commonly known as grow lights. This is one investment that repays you over and over by making a huge difference in the quality of your seedlings.

If grow lights aren't a possibility this season, consider starting your seeds later. The closer to spring your seeds germinate, the longer the days are, and the more benefit the seedlings will receive from those bright windows!

Occasionally does a whole row or even tray of seedlings sprout well, then keel over for no apparent reason?

This heartbreaking phenomenon is calling "damping off" (not to be confused with "hardening off," which is a good thing — see below). It's a general term that covers problems caused by fungal disease. And fungal disease is usually brought on by too much moisture, combined with heat.

But seeds need heat and moisture to germinate, of course, and seedlings grown indoors in winter need additional protection from the cold air around them. So what's the solution?

Overcrowding is one cause of damping off. In the Bio Dome, seedlings are spaced a safe distance apart, though as they add leaves you need to make sure that they don't outgrow their cells. (If they do, remove every other one, popping them into a seed tray with a soilless grow mix.) But in seed flats and trays, seedlings can easily become overcrowded, especially if you are waiting for them to acquire true sets of leaves before thinning them.

Look carefully at the base of the stem, right where it makes contact with the Bio Sponge or grow mix. If it turns white and begins to thin, the seedling is at risk for damping off and you should take action, either by thinning nearby seedlings, removing the protective humidity dome, or reducing the amount of water provided. Always bottom-water seedlings to prevent damping off.

Are your seedlings healthy, well-branched, and bushy long before it's time to transplant them into the garden?

We have all made this mistake — in fact, it may be one of the signs of a great gardener in the making! Simply put, you started the seeds too soon. So what to do now?

If possible, transplant the seedlings into larger pots and keep them in the same conditions that made them grow so well. But if this is not possible — 60 well-branched little Geraniums take up a lot more space than 60 tiny seedlings in a Bio Dome did! — do what professional growers do to slow plant growth:

  • Reduce the heat
  • Reduce or eliminate the fertilizer
  • If possible, pinch the plant (see below)

Do you pinch or not pinch seedlings, pretty much at random?

Ah, to pinch or not to pinch — that is every gardener's question! Pinching is the practice of squeezing off the tip of a seedling to encourage it to grow side shoots instead of simply acquiring more height. These plants always benefit from pinching:

Snapdragons Petunias Basil Celosia Osteospermum
Dahlia Coleus Dianthus Impatiens
Pinching a plant

Never pinch a plant when you are growing it for large blooms. You will pinch off the primary bud, which typically produces the biggest bloom on the whole plant.

Always pinch plants you are growing for foliage, such as herbs including basil, mint, and oregano. The branchier the better!

Do your seedlings look fantastic... until you transplant them into the garden?

Transplanting is pretty simple, as long as you "harden off" your seedlings. This is simply the process of acclimatizing the little plants to being outdoors, and it takes a few days to a week. Here's how to do a good, careful job of hardening off:

  • The first few days, put the seedlings outdoors during the warmest hours of the day, in a place protected from wind. Increase the time spent outdoors each day. Then move them to the place they will be transplanted into the garden. Let them spend the whole day there, then a night or two. They're ready for their new home!

If you have hardened off your seedlings and they still fail to thrive in the garden, they may be a type of plant that "resents" being transplanted. Here are some common types you should always sow directly into the garden ("direct-sow") rather than starting indoors:

Dill Borage Cilantro Poppy Parsley Beans
Nasturtium Melon Cucumber Corn Fennel Carrot

Remember, starting seeds is not an exact science. You will always be surprised — sometimes pleasantly! — by how certain varieties perform for you. That's part of the fun of it!

Why Can't Plant Names Stay Put?

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Well, Rosa has never been put to the test, but many other plants have undergone name changes that seem baffling and sometimes unnecessary (just ask any that used to be called Chrysanthemum!). Why does this keep happening?

Before recent times, plant names were often changed to correct errors or to reflect new information. Some had been incorrectly named in the first place. Others had been named twice, and the later name had (incorrectly) become the most commonly used. And often, as scientists studied the physical traits of plants more closely, they realized that one belonged in a different family than the one in which it had been classified.

In recent years, the study of plants has changed from observing their physical traits to determine their origin to studying their DNA. The good thing about DNA is that it takes all the guesswork out of family relationships. So even though Lavatera trimestris is now Malva trimestris and Aster novae-angliae is Symphotrichum novae-angliae, we can be reasonably sure that these new names will stay put!

Valentine's Day Special-the Language of Flowers

Lovers and friends have always used flowers to communicate thoughts that they could not express in words. In ancient Turkey, a woman who wanted to encourage a suitor would tuck Grape Hyacinth (Muscari) into her bouquet; in ancient Greece, she would send him an Iris to indicate that his love was not returned. Victorian England experienced the height of the language of flowers fashion, even giving it a name ("floriography") and evolving complicated messages.

So what might you send the special people in your life on Valentine's Day? Well, if you are giving Roses, every color has its specific meaning:


Red - true love Yellow - friendship or apology White - innocent or eternal love; virtue
Orange - desire Red and White - unity Blue - mysterious, impossible to attain
Pink - grace Lavender - love at first sight Burgundy - unconscious beauty

Red flowers of nearly all types have come to symbolize love. But what if you want to honor a friend, relative, or colleague with a flower that expresses your feelings? There are many messages from which to choose:



Zinnia - thoughts of absent friends Violet - modesty and faithfulness Lily-of-the-Valley - trustworthiness
Heliotrope - devotion Coreopsis - good cheer Ivy - faithfulness
Geranium - gentility Daffodil - admiration Rosemary - remembrance
Dahlia - elegance and dignity Daisy - innocence, simplicity Mint - virtue
Hollyhock - ambition Mullein - good nature Gerbera - innocence, purity


None of us will ever outdo Edward VII, when in 1869 he sent Empress Eugenie the gift of a basket bursting with every single named rose in Europe! But it might be fun this Valentine's Day to slip a packet of seeds into our greeting cards, to express what mere words cannot.


Thank you to everyone who entered this contest. Each of the "lessons learned" stories was remarkable in its own way, and as one of the judges here at Park remarked, we all learned a lot just from reading them!

After much debate, we selected a winner: Dennis D. from Rice, Minnesota! Dennis will receive a $25 Park Gift Certificate, and we are delighted to share his story with you:

My first garden was, technically, not a garden at all. It was, in fact, a plot of stunted vegetables hiding their homely little selves within a sprawling weed patch.

It's amazing I wasn't arrested for the crime of "attempted gardening in the first degree."

About 40 years ago, early one spring when I was 21, I decided to dig up a big patch of lawn and grow vegetables. It was to be a dazzling garden of about 40 feet by 20 feet. There seemed to be plenty of sun on that back yard and so I started digging literally by hand, using just a sharp-edged shovel. It took many sweaty days to take off that layer of crab-grass disguised as "lawn." It took several more days to dig up the compacted soil.

I had never planted anything before, but I thought it would be a fun thing to do — to watch my vegetables grow and then share them with friends and neighbors. I scritched the soil with a rake, breaking up the lumps, but it seemed to be awfully dry and sandy. Then I watered it to make it nice and moist, ready for the planting.

The exciting part was buying the seeds: tomatoes, carrots, onions, radishes, green beans, watermelons and lettuce.

On a sunny day, oh what fun it was to plant those seeds in nice, even rows with each seed packet staked at the end of each row like a colorful promise of things to come.

I watered the garden and stood back proudly, imagining the bounty that would spring forth in a few weeks.

Every day I would water it and wait and wait.

Finally, one morning, I saw a few cracked lines with tiny exclamation points of bright yellow-green. "Lettuce!" I exclaimed.

I called friends and neighbors over to admire my brand-new baby crop.

In the next few weeks, more sprouts pushed up through the soil. Trouble is, in the next few weeks leaves were sprouting, too — sprouting like crazy from the giant oak at the end of the yard. Within a month, my garden was enjoying dappled sun at best. Many seeds did not emerge. Those that did began to look pale and sickly as they grew. Later, I pulled up a few carrots that looked like stunted witches' fingers. The lettuce developed a bad case of anemia. The green-bean plants were jaundiced. The rest of the seeds did not emerge.

Finally, by mid summer, as despair set in, the weeds took over. Defeated, disgusted, I gave up. Since then, that miserable non-garden only deepened my determination to become a successful gardener. I still have a lot to learn, but I have plots in my yard now that flourish and that are the envy of my good neighbors.

Here is what I learned from "my first garden."

1. Make sure there is plenty of all-day sun for a vegetable or herb garden. In my ignorance, I had completely ignored the fact a tall oak tree would cast shade over the entire yard for most of the day. That poor garden received, at best, only an hour of late-afternoon sun. 2. With many vegetables, such as tomatoes, plant seedlings from a greenhouse unless you start the seeds indoors in the winter, which I did last year with great success. 3. Check the soil to make sure it has what your plants will need. The best way is to bring or mail samples to County Extension. Always amend the soil. Because I live where the soil is very sandy, I use bags of composted manure, plenty of peat moss, some bone meal and some all-purpose fertilizer pellets. I dig all of that down to a good level, and I do it every spring a few weeks before planting. 4. Know and understand which plants are suitable for your climate zone. In central Minnesota, where I live, it is virtually impossible -- without a year-round greenhouse -- to grow plants from southern climes. So many times I ordered seeds and plants from catalogs that just did not work in this northern zone. 5. Do not over-plant. My gardens from 20-30 years ago were invariably too big, with too many vegetables planted in them. They became overwhelming by mid-summer, and too many times I let the weeds "win." Keep things nice and manageable, and you will do just fine.