So if you are reading this then I will assume that you are curious about seedling starting mistakes. Either because you want to start seedlings for the first time and want to know what to avoid OR that you have started seedlings before and run into some issues. In either case you are in the right place my friend! So before we jump into the topic at hand I should introduce myself. Hi, I am Kiri and I am a micro homesteader from Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people start growing their own food so that they can become more self-sufficient and discover how great homegrown food tastes!
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Now I should point out that just about any micro homesteader or gardener would have their own list of seedling starting mistakes. So that is not to say that this list is the be-all-to-end-all as far as lists go. But it is my list, that I have cultivated after many years of screw ups. So hopefully it helps you along you micro homesteading journey. So let’s dive in!
Number 1 – Not washing your hands
Hands are nasty, dirty things! I have this at the top of my list as given the whole COVID thing EVERYONE should be washing their hands. So when you are planting your seedlings is no exception. There could be bacteria or other nasties on your hands that can be transferred to the seed casing or the soil during the planting process. These can be very damaging to new plants and this issue is easily avoided. So remove this risk with some plain old soap and water and your seedlings will thank you!
Number 2 – Starting the wrong seeds indoors or at the wrong time
So this is a two for one kind of deal, mostly because I didn’t want a list longer than 12 seedling starting mistakes. Plus they are closely related, so work with me. Knowing when to plant and how to plant will be helpfully listed right on your seed packets. If for some reason it is not then a. Quick Google search you arm you with the necessary information. Each type of plant will either benefit from being started indoors with some relation to your frost dates OR is best suited to a direct sowing (such as carrots). So make sure to keep this in mind when you go to start your seedlings. If you decide to start carrots indoors then don’t be surprised if they grow weird once transplanted outside.
The second part of this issue is starting seedlings at the wrong time. As I mentioned the seed package should give you an indication of the best time to start the seedlings. Typically it will be X weeks prior to your last frost date or in some cases of direct sowing it may be prior to your last frost date. If you start them too soon then you will most likely have to pot up once or twice and will have larger plants that you have to house and provide light for. Start them too late and they may not have time to reach maturity before the first winter frost hits.
Number 3 – Not wetting down your seedling starting mix
Not sure why I put this as number 3, it probably should have gone at the end of the list. But it is still something to keep in mind when starting your seedlings. By wetting down your seedling starting mix BEFORE you plant your seeds it helps ensure it is fully moistened and compacted. The soil in the container is the only nutrients your seedlings will have access to, so you want to make sure that you have the most in there as you can.
Another benefit of wetting down the seedling starting mix is that when you plant your seeds in, they will stay put better when watered. If you don’t wet down your mix and you water (especially if you top water) chances are everything floats and then who knows how deep the seedling ends up. Too deep and it could use up all it’s energy before it manages to grow above the soil line and then you have a dead seedling my friend.
Number 4 – Not labelling your seedlings
If you have a photographic memory then feel free to skip on ahead but the rest of you need to read this. Labelling is important so that you know what is what and where it needs to go. As much as you THINK you will remember tomorrow, a month from now or in 15 minutes, chances are you won’t so please do us all a favour and label your seedlings! If you are using a marker then make sure that it is a UV marker intended for use in the garden. No a sharpie won’t cut it, trust me, I learned the hard way. Mother Nature does not favour the unprepared.
Number 5 – Not enough light
Ok, so I am the first one to say you don’t need a lot of stuff to start out as a micro homesteader. But if there was one thing I would recommend it would be a grow light. This is the grow light I use, not saying it is the best, it is just the one I know, have used and have had success with. Back in the day I tried the cheaper stick on LED strips and it just turned into a sticky fiasco that I would rather not reminisce on. But I would suggest you buy whatever is in your budget to help your seedlings grow strong.
While you CAN put your seedlings in a south-facing windowsill, it if definitely not ideal and will most likely result in leggy seedlings (when they desperately stretch for the light). If this happens with tomato seedlings you can rectify it a bit by planting them deep. All those ‘hairs’ on the tomato stems can turn into roots. So honestly, even if your tomato seedlings are not leggy you should always plant them deep to encourage more root growth. But bottom line, if you can afford it get a grow light, you seedlings will thank you for it.
Number 6 – Watering
While water is key to seedling growth it can also become a detriment if not done properly. That may sound like a weird thing to say but there are definitely better ways to water. So what is this magical way to water? Well, it starts at the bottom, watering that is. I keep all my seedlings trays in other trays that have no holes. This allows me to pour the water into the bottom tray and the seedlings absorb the water through the holes in the bottom of their cells. So why is this important?
Watering from the top can lead to water on the leaves that can lead to scorching from the lights hitting the water drops and them acting as little magnifying glasses. Water splashing down from above can also damage delicate seedlings or cause soil-born pathogens to splash up onto delicate seedling tissue. By watering from the bottom you avoid all these issues and you also foster stronger root development as the roots must reach down to get to water. It also helps avoid the issue of seedlings drying out as the bottom tray can be filled with enough water to keep them going for a good few days.
Number 7 – Not using an oscillating fan
Number 7 in my list of seedling starting mistakes is not using an oscillating fan. But why does it matter? Well in the real world the seedlings would be exposed to wind and using an oscillating fan helps to recreate this in an indoor environment. The air passing over their stems and leaves serves two main purposes. Firstly, stems that encounter a breeze grow stronger to help support the plant in the breeze. Secondly, the air passing over stems and leaves helps with air circulation. There are loads of options, you could use a fan that you already have or pick up one of these little oscillating fans that have a handy clamp.
Number 8 – Not thinning your seedlings
Ok so this is the HARDEST one for me personally. I seriously can’t bring myself to sacrifice any seedlings that manage to grow. So instead on pinching off the weakest seedling I usually end up carefully teasing it out and transplanting it into another container. This leads to LOTS of seedlings. Plus in reality you want to keep the strongest seedlings, but I know my weaknesses. Whatever you do you don’t want more than one seedling per container as you don’t want them competing for nutrients, light and space or neither will grow strong. So whether you prefer to pinch off the weakest seedling or transplant them, just make sure you thin them.
Number 9 – Not keeping data
Personally, I think this is one of the most overlooked and biggest of the seedling starting mistakes that many micro homesteaders make. Either they are too excited to just grow their own food or they don’t think it is important. But with data you have knowledge, you can use it to make decisions and know what worked and what didn’t. My day job is as an analyst, so data is always top of mind for me, but that doesn’t make it any less important for YOU! Below are just a few of the things you should aim to keep track of as far as your garden is concerned.
- What and when you sowed your seeds
- What seedling starting mix you used
- What method of seedling starting you employed
- What containers you used
- When and how you hardened them off (if you skip this step see Number 10 below)
- What the weather was like month to month
- What pests you encountered
- What plant diseases you encountered
- What grew well and what didn’t
- What you liked and what you didn’t
- What seeds you need to save this season
- What your yields were
Number 10 – Not hardening off your seedlings
You could avoid all the previous seedling starting mistakes only to have it all fall apart at Number 10. Don’t let your enthusiasm to get your wee plant babies outside foil all your hard work. When plants are started indoors, in a lovely cushy environment, they need to gradually be exposed to the harsh realities of the outside world. This process needs to take place over a week or more and skipping it can lead to a seedling massacre. The basic premise is that you VERY gradually introduce them to the outside world and then bring them back in over a span of a week (and a few days). I outline my own process in my post on How to harden off seedlings (so they don’t die when you plant them).
Number 11 – Only starting seedlings once
In Canada the prime planting season is the Victoria Day May 2-4 weekend (third weekend in May). Many a Canadian gardener will start their seeds and plant them out on this glorious weekend while enjoying a beer or two, or maybe a Caesar. Then they sit back and wait for their harvest. But this is such a missed opportunity! You should be planning for a second big planting in late summer, for your fall garden. But even THAT is a missed opportunity! Between those two big plantings there are many opportunities to pop in some transplants all the way through the growing season. The best was to take advantage of this is to plan your garden on a monthly basis.
In my own attempts at coming up with my own game plan I have created a Month to Month garden planner to help you do just that! It has monthly planting suggestions, trackers, month in review and a grid view to plan out your garden each month! You can check it out in my Etsy shop or here is the link to the photo version or the floral version.
Number 12 – Not starting at all
Sometimes it can all seem so overwhelming, especially if you are just getting started and so maybe you just don’t. Start that is. And that is truly a shame, sure you may fail, but you may also succeed! So much of gardening is making mistakes and learning what works for you, where you live and your garden. So what works for someone else may not work for you, and that’s ok. But you have to start so that you can learn so many valuable gardening lessons. So please, please, if you are scared of starting just grab some radish and lettuce seeds and give it a go! I am sure that you will be pleasantly surprised!
So that’s it, my list of 12 seedling starting mistakes that are reducing your yields. You may be making one, all or none of them so take what you will from this list. It is mine and not the be all or end all by any means. Every gardener would have their own version of this list, your forays into starting your own plants from seeds will help you craft your own. I truly hope you found this list helpful and that you have loads of success in starting your own seedlings.