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Seed-Starting 101: How To Avoid Leggy Seedlings And Other Common Problems

Small green seedlings in peat pots with soil.
Jon Spalding
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With an eye toward spring, you can begin to start your seeds indoors in a week or two. Learn how to avoid problems like leggy seedlings or seeds that just won't germinate.

The sun (when it appears) seems a bit warmer on your skin and you've got dreamy garden-plotting thoughts in your head. Right now, though, patience is your best friend when it comes to seed-starting!

You want to ensure your seedlings get the best beginning they can. This ensures they can thrive and produce fruits, veggies and flowers once you plant them in your garden or raised bed this spring and summer.

So, for right now, gather what you need and in a week or two, you should be good to start begin your seed-starts!

The first rule of thumb in seed-starting is to wait for just a bit longer! Seed-starting is all about timing. 

When to plant?

First, determine Vermont’s last frost date - around May 15th, depending on where you are in the state.

Using the fact that most seeds will need about four to eight weeks for germinating and growing, you should start seeds in early to mid-March.

If you're planning to start tomato plants indoors, you can wait even longer, like until mid-April. For all seed-starts, your goal is to grow a small seedling that is actively growing and not something that you’re trying to hold back because it has gotten too big.

Legginess

That sense of accomplishment and burgeoning green-thumb status can get pretty heady when your seeds begin to germinate! You might also see them growing very fast and tall and think that's a good thing.

Legginess is not a good look on a seedling! This means your light source is too far from the seedling.

Seeds need light as soon as they germinate, so have compact fluorescents or grow lights very close, even a couple of inches right off the top of the pot to the seedlings. You goal is to create short, stocky seedlings. Once they get leggy, they will stay that way the whole time.

Too much nitrogen fertilizer can also cause legginess. Try a weaker fertilizing solution so the seeds don’t grow too fast.

Seeds didn’t germinate?

Most seeds should be up in about a week or so. Parsley can take up to a week. If your seeds aren’t germinating, check a couple of probable causes. Is your soil too wet? Is it too dry? Then look at your seed packet. If the seeds inside are more than a couple of years old, purchase some fresh ones and start again.

Damping-off fungal disease

This can occur when there is too much moisture in your seed-starting soil. To remedy this condition, try a germinating soil mix, one with coir in it to help with draining. If your seed-starts do get fungus, don't fret. Just start all over because you’ve got time!

Is that a pot of radishes?

Remember to put labels on your pots and seed-starts! Once they start growing, it can be hard to determine what has germinated because the early seedlings can look similar.

Q: My Bradford pear trees are causing itching. Are they toxic? — Barbara in North Carolina

Though the fruit or tree itself might not be causing the itching, it might be due to other pollen from nearby trees and plants. And planting and growing Bradford pear trees might not be the best choice.

The trees do have beautiful flowers, but Bradford pears split easily and the trees don’t last long. Perhaps try a different pear variety.

Q: I started my long-day onion seeds two weeks ago, and with the help of my new heating pad they are all up. I’ve tried starting onions in the past and they were so thin and frail, they died after a couple weeks. How else can I help them grow into hearty starts? — Samantha in Hampton, New York

You’re off to a great start! Try to add some weak compost-based or worm-poop-based fertilizer. This will keep the starts nice and short and stocky so they will survive and thrive once you replant outdoors in your garden space.

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All Things Gardening is powered by you, the listener! Send your gardening questions and conundrums and Charlie may answer them in upcoming episodes. You can also leave a voicemail with your gardening question by calling VPR at (802) 655-9451.

Hear All Things Gardening during Weekend Edition Sunday with VPR host Mary Engisch, Sunday mornings at 9:35.

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