Problems With Seedlings

Newly-germinated seedlings are delicate. As they grow, they become more robust, but for the first few days—until the first true leaves appear—they need special attention. Here’s a troubleshooting guide for when things go wrong with seedlings.

The items near the top of the list are the most likely and usually the easiest to fix.

Seeds Never Germinate

  • The seeds were planted too deeply. Replant them to the depth listed on the seed packet or in Planting Depths for Vegetable Seeds.
  • The soil dried out as the seeds began to germinate. This kills them instantly, so they never show above the surface. Replant and water carefully.
  • The seeds were washed by heavy rain or irrigation and either exposed and dried out or buried too deeply. Replant and protect the seeds from heavy rain.
  • The soil temperature was outside the range for the seeds, either too hot or (usually) too cold. See Seed Germination. Wait until the temperature is in the right range and replant.
  • Birds or other pests ate the seeds. There should be signs of digging if this happened. Plant again and protect the seeds.
  • The seed was old or not viable for some other reason. Plant again with fresh seed from another batch.

Seedlings Die

  • Seedlings wilt from lack of water. They won’t recover; wilting is fatal to new seedlings. Replant and watch the watering carefully.
  • Damping off. This fungus disease attacks the stem of seedlings just above the soil line. The seedlings fall over, looking like tiny felled trees. On close inspection, you can see a thread-thin portion of stem near the base. Replant in fresh potting soil, following the instructions in Damping Off.

Seedlings Disappear

If only stumps are left, something ate them. If you don’t see any insects, it was probably a nocturnal feeder. The most likely culprits are browsing animals like rabbits or deer, earwigs, slugs or snails, or cutworms. Look for tracks around the plants, slime trails from slugs or snails, or search with a flashlight for insects after dark.