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Most Common Seed-Starting Mistakes

Seeds are magic to gardens. Tuck them in soil, add a little water and you are on the way to a beautiful bloom or tasty harvest. Start seeds indoors to jump-start your garden. Whether or not you have experience starting seeds, you will improve your success by avoiding these common errors. 

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Seed-Starting Mistake #1: Catalog Hypnosis

It is tough to resist the beautiful pictures and glowing words in seed catalogs. Even experienced gardeners struggle to resist the allure. That is the first mistake most seed starters make: ordering too many seeds. A simple secret to success with seed-starting is exercising self-restraint. If you are new to the practice, do not start too many different types of seeds. Stick with simple ones, such as Tomato, Basil, Zinnia or Cosmos.

Seed-Starting Mistake #2: Starting Too Soon

In many regions, sowing seeds gives you a chance to get your hands dirty when it is too cold to garden outdoors. Do not start your seeds too soon. Most plants are ready to shift into the great outdoors in 4-6 weeks. Learn more about perfect timing for seeds.

Seed-Starting Mistake #3: Planting Too Deep

Read seed packets carefully, for detailed information about how deep to plant seeds. The rule of thumb is to plant seeds at a depth equal to two or three times their width. It is better to plant seeds too shallow than too deep. Some seeds, such as certain Lettuces or Snapdragon, need light to germinate and should not be covered at all.

Seed-Starting Mistake #4: Not Labeling Trays

Once you start sowing seeds and get dirt on your fingers, you will not want to stop and make labels. Before planting, prepare labels and add them to containers as soon as the seeds go into soil. Otherwise, it can be tough to tell seedlings apart. Be sure to include sowing date on your labels.

Seed-Starting Mistake #5: Soil Is Not Warm

Seed packets specify the temperature seeds need to germinate – soil temperature, not air temperature. Most seed germinate at 78ºF. You will have sure success if you use a waterproof root-zone heating mat. Once you start germinating seeds in soil, aim to keep soil temperature in the 65-70ºF range.

Seed-Starting Mistake #6: Too Little Light

In the warmest regions of the country, there is enough ambient light in a south-facing window to grow stocky seedlings. In northern areas where winter brings persistent cloud cover, you will need supplemental lights. Purchase or build an illuminated plant stand to start seedlings. For stocky, healthy seedlings, provide 14-16 hours of light daily. Suspend lights 2-3 inches above seedlings.

Seed-Starting Mistake #7: Water Woes

How much water do seeds need? For seeds to germinate, you need to keep the growing soil damp but not too wet. Learning how to water seedlings is pivotal for success. Many seed starters cover the container to keep soil moist until seeds germinate. Once seeds sprout, do not miss a watering. Unlike established plants, seedlings do not have an extensive root system they can rely on for vital moisture. At the same time, it is important not to overwater and let seedlings sit in water. 

Seed-Starting Mistake #8: Not Enough Pampering

Seedlings are delicate creatures. They need daily attention and lots of tender loving care, especially when they are young. If you cannot monitor seedlings daily, checking on germination, soil moisture, temperature, and lights, you will definitely reduce your chances of success. Seedlings do not survive neglect.

Learn More About Starting Seeds

Not sure you want to start seedlings? Learn why you should consider starting your own seeds.

Seedlings must be prepared for the transition to life in the garden. Learn how to strengthen seedlings before planting.

Some seeds can be sown directly into soil outdoors. Learn more about the process and which seeds are best for this method.