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Common Mistakes Made While Growing Seeds Indoors

Guidance on Watering, Lighting, and Other Growing Factors

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The Spruce / K. Dave

It is quite economical to start seeds indoors, especially when the seedlings grow into robust plants. However, growing seeds indoors can be challenging. To significantly increase your chances of success, avoid these common seed-starting mistakes.

Watch Now: Mistakes to Avoid When Growing Seeds Indoors

Not Supplying Enough Light

Seedlings need a lot of light to grow into sturdy, healthy plants. No matter what anyone tells you, chances are that you do not have enough natural light in your home to grow robust seedlings. Even a south-facing window usually will not do. You can, however, use artificial light to achieve the right amount of light required by seedlings. To do so, obtain grow lights explicitly designed for plants. Or, for a more economical solution, purchase large fluorescent shop lights outfitted with one warm bulb and one cool bulb.

Suspend the lights from chains so that you can raise the lights higher as the seedlings grow. Keep the lights as close to the seedlings as possible without touching them (2 to 3 inches). When seedlings first appear, keep the lights turned on for 12 to 16 hours per day. To reduce your hands-on time, use a timer to turn the lights on and off automatically.

Applying Too Much or Too Little Water

The amount of water you supply can make or break seedling growth. Watering is one of the most challenging aspects of seed starting. Because seedlings are so delicate, there is very little room for error when it comes to watering. You must keep the sterile seed-starting medium damp but not wet.

To increase your chances of getting it right, here are a few things you can do:

  • Create a mini-greenhouse to keep soil moist: cover the container with plastic until the seeds germinate.
  • Water from the bottom to enable the seedlings to soak up water through the container drainage holes. There is less chance of over-watering when you use this approach. Add water slowly for 10 to 30 minutes, and use your finger to touch the top of the soil to ensure that moisture has reached the top of the container.
  • Check soil moisture at least once a day.
  • Buy a self-watering, seed-starting system.

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The Spruce / K. Dave

Starting Seeds Too Soon

Many plants do not tolerate cold temperatures, and exposing them to chilly air or cold soil will stress them out. Chas Gill, who runs the Kennebec Flower Farm, agrees that one of the biggest mistakes people make when starting seeds is starting the seeds too early. Stressed-out plants are more susceptible to pests and disease. Most plants are ready to go outside four to six weeks after you start the seeds.

Planting Seeds Too Deeply

Seeds are finicky when it comes to how deep they are planted. Some seeds need complete darkness to germinate and others require light to germinate.   Proper planting depth is usually provided on the seed packet. If there is no information on the packet, the rule of thumb is to plant seeds two to three times as deep as they are wide. Determining depth can be a challenge, but if you are not sure, err on the shallow side.

For seeds that need light to germinate, make sure the seeds are in contact with the seed starting medium but are not covered. To do this, gently press the soil medium to create a firm surface. Then, place the seed on top of the medium and gently press down, making sure the seed is still exposed.

Moving Seedlings Outdoors Too Soon

There is no benefit to a tough-love approach with seedlings when they are young. They will either instantly die or become weak and then fail to thrive. Even the most stalwart plants, when young, need a considerable amount of coddling and attention.

When your seedlings are large enough to plant outdoors, you need to prepare them for the transition by hardening off.   Hardening off gradually prepares them for outdoor conditions like wind, rain, and sun. The hardening-off process is simple, though it can be time-consuming; it involves exposing your plants to the elements gradually. The first day of hardening off, place your seedlings outdoors for one hour, and then bring them back indoors. Gradually increase the amount of outdoor time every day for 6 to 10 days. You will need to make some judgment calls based on the outdoor temperature and the fragility of your seedlings. If it is a particularly cool day or very rainy, you will want to decrease the time of that hardening-off session.

Sowing Too Many Seeds

When sowing seeds, begin modestly if you are a beginner. If you sow more seeds than you can reasonably maintain, it will become challenging to nurture the seedlings into adulthood. Depending on the type of plant you want to grow, you might be able to direct-sow seeds in outdoor containers or in the ground when outdoor temperatures warm up.

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The Spruce / K. Dave

Keeping Seeds Too Cool

For seeds to germinate, most must be kept warm: about 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. A favorite place to keep seeds warm in order to germinate is on top of the refrigerator. Or, you can purchase seed-warming mats to place under the seed trays. Once a seedling emerges, they can tolerate fluctuating temperatures (within reason). Whatever type of light you use, natural or artificial, make sure it produces enough heat to keep the plants in the 65- to 75-degree range.

Failing to Label Seeds

To be able to identify seedlings as they grow and to know when they will be ready for transplanting, you should label the seed containers as you are sowing. For every type of seed sown, use popsicle sticks or plastic plant markers and permanent ink pens to record the plant name and date sown. Insert the plant labels into the soil near the edge of the container or tray.

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The Spruce / K. Dave

Giving Up Too Soon

Starting seeds can be a difficult process. However, one of the most satisfying benefits of this labor of love is eating a tomato or marveling at the flowers that you nurtured from day one. Growing plants from seed takes dedication, attention, and time. Recognize that you might make mistakes along the way, but you should not give up. The results outweigh the challenges along the way.

Growing seeds indoors isn't hard, yet keeping them alive can be challenging. You can save a lot of money by starting plants from seeds.

Most Common Seed-Starting Mistakes

Seeds are magic to gardens. Tuck them in soil, add a little water and you’re 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’ll improve your success by avoiding these common errors.

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Seed-Starting Mistake #1: Catalog Hypnosis

It’s tough to resist the beautiful pictures and glowing words in seed catalogs. Even experienced gardeners struggle to resist the allure. That’s 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’re new to the practice, don’t 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’s too cold to garden outdoors. Don’t 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’s better to plant seeds too shallow than too deep. Some seeds, such as certain Lettuces or Snapdragon, need light to germinate and shouldn’t be covered at all.

Seed-Starting Mistake #4: Not Labeling Trays

Once you start sowing seeds and get dirt on your fingers, you won’t 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 Isn’t Warm

Seed packets specify the temperature seeds need to germinate – soil temperature, not air temperature. Most seed germinate at 78ºF. You’ll have sure success if you use a waterproof root-zone heating mat. Once seeds germinate, 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’s enough ambient light in a south-facing window to grow stocky seedlings. In northern areas where winter brings persistent cloud cover, you’ll 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

For seeds to germinate, you need to keep the growing soil damp but not too wet. Many seed starters cover the container to keep soil moist until seeds germinate. Once seeds sprout, don’t miss a watering. Unlike established plants, seedlings don’t have an extensive root system they can rely on for vital moisture. At the same time, it’s 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’re young. If you can’t monitor seedlings daily, checking on germination, soil moisture, temperature, and lights, you’ll definitely reduce your chances of success. Seedlings don’t 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.

Improve your success when planting seeds by avoiding these common seed-starting mistakes and errors such as planting too deep, starting too soon or watering too much.