Seedling Disaster!

“No one talks of failure as anything but shameful; this is wrongheaded and foolish . . . Mistakes are synonymous with learning. Failing is unavoidable. Making is a process, not an end. It is true that deep experience helps avoid problems, but mainly it gives you mental tools with which to solve inevitable problems when they come up.”

-Tom Jennings, as quoted in Mark Frauenfelder’s excellent new book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World 

Oh, but those mistakes sure can be frustrating especially when they happen in the garden!  I’ve had nothing but bad luck germinating seeds this spring for our summer garden and, as a result, our vegetable beds are as bare as the Serengeti. What happened? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  • watering too much
  • watering too little
  • damping off 
  • unseasonably cold weather (we germinate outside here)
  • the occasional hot day on top of cold evenings
  • the mindset of the gardener: being in a hurried, stressed mood as we finished our next book

Nature being a complex system, you can often get stacking problems that make figuring out what went wrong difficult. I’m leaning towards the cold weather as I’ve noticed some of the seeds I planted starting to come up as it has warmed up. Lesson: you’ve gotta watch the weather reports even in a mild climate such as ours or invest in heating mats or a cold frame. 

Despite my pledge to grow vegetables only from seeds, panic over a summer without homegrown tomatoes prompted me to call Garden Edibles owner Craig Ruggless to see if he had any seedlings. Thankfully he had some heirloom tomato seedlings that he gave to me in return for helping him try to capture a swarm of bees that had shown up in his olive tree (unsuccessfully, it turned out–more on that misadventure in another post). At least I’m not alone. My friends in Chicago, the Green Roof Growers, had their own tomato seedling apocalypse.

I once saw Julia Child on Martha Stewart’s show demonstrating how to make an elaborate dessert called a Croqembouche, a pyramidal tower of cream filled pastry balls. Stewart and Child built separate Croqembouche towers. At the end of the demo Stewart’s was perfect and Child’s was, well, a big mess. Yet Julia soldiered on, laughing at her mistakes. My pledge with the garden is to try to do the same and have fewer of my notorious garden meltdowns when the inevitable crisis happens. So what if it ain’t perfect around here? Now Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown neighbor should make note of that pledge . . .

Readers, please feel free to share some recent disasters.

Leave a comment


  1. Germination here last year was terrible overall, weather being the issue. One of the beauties of agriculture outdoors is we are subject to the whims of nature.

  2. We’ve had the coldest May on record and plants that should have germinated back in March (our last frost is March 27th) are still having problems. This is the first time I’ve ever had to deal with seedcorn maggots…they love the wet soil.

  3. I bought ‘Sea Soil’ with fish emulsion in it for some new planter boxes, and my dog eats it by the mouthful whenever I am out of sight..

  4. Being in SoCal I might as well chime in. About 3-4 weeks ago I planted a bunch of stuff via seed. Beets, tomatoes, sorrel, cucs, and a few other things I dont remember because Im drunk right now. One of the biggest things Ive upgraded this year was a soaker hose for my plants and seeds. The plants I bought…. tomatoes, squash, lettuce, etc are all doing very well… very robust, green, happy. The seeds are coming up well too. Tomatoes are BARELY peaking through finally, but they have always been slow for me. It has been a real important viewpoint for me and seeds… keep the soil moist. Those few hot days a week or two ago didnt affect anything for us. Where’d my sangria go? Ok… yah. May the seeds be with you!


  5. Thanks for commiserating. That’s a fine quote at the top of your post. I’m ordering the book from the library now.

  6. My own seed disaster will I hope help to console you…is it true misery loves company? The little seedlings started out life looking healthy and normal (cherokee tomatos, black krim)but alas sometime before they were big enough to move from their starter container into the garden they have failed to thrive. Good thing I hedged my bets and purchased plants from the annual Cal State U’s plant sale. Better luck next time.

  7. It’s ok! I’ve been having a tough time keeping my pygmy goat in her pen. she’s escaped a few times and destroyed our strawberries, grapes, melons and radishes as well as a few ornamentals, not to mention the dogs’ occasional digging in the veggie garden. At least the dogs like to chew up those unwanted mexican fan palms that keep coming up.

    We start all our seeds indoors and then transplant them outside.

  8. Ha ha, Claire, my dog LOVES to eat finished compost. We have to wrap it up tight in plastic and tarps to keep her out of it.

  9. This year has been the worst for me starting from seed. My tomato seedlings are nowhere near where they should be by this time of year. I am already planning purchasing some heirlooms, which is so disheartening because I have way more awesome varieties suited to the cool, foggy bay area summer than I can usually purchase as transplants 🙁

  10. One word: bubblewrap. Okay, technically, it’s bubble wrap, so two words.

    It did an amazing job of protecting my melon and squash seedling from further hail damage, and acted well as an insulator from cold evenings (one was in the upper thirties) to boot. I am keeping my eyes peeled for large pieces of bubble wrap for next spring, because it did a great job helping me get a jump start on the garden.

    I also protected my tomato seedlings with water jug cloches, and when they got too big for those, put mini-greenhouses fashioned from overturned tomato baskets and heavy mil plastic. My ‘maters are almost two feet tall already and I’m just south of Portland, OR.

    For disasters, after saving my various pepper plants from further hail damage by hooping the bed with PVC and covering the whole thing in heavy mil plastic, it looks like I introduced a boat load of sow bugs to the bed when I mulched it with compost which is full of them. I just remembered last night that I have DE (diatomaceous earth) in the garage and I’ll spread that the next time we get a sunny day. If we get a sunny day. Anyway, you learn by screwing up sometimes.

  11. I had some special seeds starting to sprout that I was keeping in the kitchen. I was using a spray bottle to mist them. Worked out great until I realized I used bleach on them one day. They stopped sprouting after that. Learned my lesson, and now the next batch of special seeds is coming up better.


  12. Ours is a little different than other folks, I live in Nashville and at the beginning of the month we had a “1000 year flood” over the span of two days. After my raised beds were submerged for several days and all the mess we had to clean up from our flooded basement, and all the people there were to help, there has been no time to plant much of anything or replace what was lost.

  13. I grew a bunch of thriving little Sweet Pea Red Currant tomatoes from seed indoors and had them all translpanted into 3″ pots and starting to harden off. I even grew extra to donate to our neighborhhod plant sale fundraiser. As it turned out, on the morning of the plant sale last weekend, I proudly (too proudly) handed them all over and didn’t save one for myself! I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere involving pride…

  14. Our chickens are escape artists. They love seedlings. AARRRRRGGGHHH. That, and I swear my wildflower patch is where all the world’s earwigs return to spawn each spring. My best defense is just to keep the seedlings out of the ground until they are too large and tough to be of much appeal to the earwigs, and promising the chickens a horrible death if they keep getting out (that one hasn’t worked so well).

  15. This year has been so wet and cold that I am amazed more hasn’t gone wrong.
    We have had escaping hens, an invasion of Pigweed (and it may be coming back.),a slug infested Straw bale Garden and then the problem of what to do with 8 bales worth of slug infested straw.
    I never fell like I shouldn’t write about our disasters, I learn from them so why shouldn’t someone reading my own blog not learn from it? And most of the time I can find some sort of humor to it. Like bee swarms and popping a very old and rotten egg,it was funny later so laugh and it will all be good.

  16. I am in Chandler, AZ we try to start our tomato seedlings at the end of November in a small greenhouse for spring planting, in years past we have had 1.5′ tall robust plants by early February, this year by February the seedlings barely had thier second set of leaves and they were kind of anemic looking, I’m not sure what the problem was, very disappointing, had to do a nursery run and purchase some heirloom seedlings, to save the season. I think the problem might have been the new paper pot maker, we usually use the Jiffy peat pellets, hmmmmmm………..

  17. Mr. Homegrown might disagree, but I’m pretty sure the seedlings were distressed by being kept on the concrete porch. Ordinarily we keep the flats up on a table, but the table was gone this year, so the flats were on the ground. I think the wide day to night temperature fluctuation, aggravated to a great degree by the concrete, did the seedlings in.

    Stability of all conditions really is the key to happy seedlings: even temps, even watering, etc. Next year maybe we can rig up a mini greenhouse to keep the seeds in a more stable environment. No doubt it will be something attractive, like a cube made of stained old shipping palettes stapled over with plastic sheeting.

    Re: dogs eating our compost and amendments — Ours devours compost, fish emulsion, and most organic fertilizers, but we’ve found that he’s not at all interested in ground alfalfa meal. It’s something, at least!

  18. I love starting seeds. My most life changing seed starting discovery are speedling trays. I can start hundreds of seeds now and they pop out of their little downward facing pyramid shaped styrofoam homes perfectly and without any root damage. I was put off by the styrofoam aspect until I talked to people who have had the same tray for 10 years. I keep them indoors on my flat files in a south window and then move them outside so the cold weather hasn’t been a problem. I used a heat mat under a speedling tray and grew tomato seedlings incredibly fast. I also gave up on the biointensive wood flats filled with soil from the garden bed because frankly, my garden beds could be used to dig clay for pottery, and no seedling is happy in a wood box filled with clay (sorry mr jeavons!).

  19. Failure is a part of success, some people believe failure is inevitable, I don’t think so, I like how you described it being a part of the process.

  20. Last year I used those expandable pellets to start seeds in. They are supposed to be biodegradable and melt back into the soil, but I’m still digging them up completely unchanged. And the plants started in them ended up dwarfed because their roots couldn’t expand past the cloth barrier. Learned my lesson.

  21. Living in Buffalo NY, tried indoor seed starting for the first time this year. Tried reusing cardboard egg cartons as seedling trays. Between my basement being too cold and the cardboard wicking the water right out of the seed soil, definitely room left for improvement. Wound up composting about half my efforts, though I did have a few successful tomato and tomatillo seedlings. Biggest problem was spindly plants; stems too long and narrow to hold up the leaves.

  22. We have never gardened before this year and we have gone at it, as I do everything, as if we are professionals. That has had both positive and negative outcomes.

    On the negative, I started about 4 times the seedlings than we had room for. The positive side of that was having extras to replace the ones that got eaten by birds before our anti-bird measures were installed. That’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

    For future reference, though, chamomile tea sprayed directly on the leaves of plants that are dampening off is said to halt the dampening. So, worth a try!

    May we all find the success in what seems a sea of fail.

    Happy gardening!

  23. Deep mulch this year has meant I have excellent soil, and a huge population of slugs.

    If plants can get large enough to survive a little grazing, they do extremely well. Not many of them make it that long.

    I decided to start plants indoors, and to plant sacrificial buckwheat and marigold next to the tomato seeds for this most-recent round of transplants, which brought my success rate up to 50%. On to round 3…

  24. I am in SoCal also (one block from the homegrown couple) and am having very good luck.

    Tomatoes are 5 feet tall, I have eaten some beans already, corn looks good, Herbs are slowing coming along, Asparagus is going crazy and peppers are looking good.

    Just lucky I guess.

  25. After waiting and waiting for signs of life, I decided to see what was available at the local pot grower’s paradise. They had little plastic propagation houses, tiny pot sized greenhouses, for $6 per seed liner. Everything’s working much better now, the soil moisture is much more even, and it’s cosy warm in there. Rigged some shade cloth too, so the daytime sun in tender.

  26. How do you determine which plants to start in a flat to transplant later and which to sow directly where you want them? We are in SoCal (between San Diego and LA) and started our first 4’X8′ bed last October, full of carrots, parsnips, onions, broccoli, and assorted lettuce, all direct-sowed (if that’s a phrase).
    It’s done so well that we’re building a couple more raised beds and have ordered beans, corn, peas, cucumbers, huckleberries, oats, flax, melons, onions, peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, watermelon, brussels sprouts, and coffee (just to see what it does).
    Do any of those hate transplanting (I’ve heard Basil should be direct-sowed)? Would you start all of them in seed flats?

  27. Hey Joss,

    It depends on your conditions and personality. I’ve had a lot of luck following the suggestions in Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. He suggests what to transplant and what to sow directly. I’ve had my best luck in the garden when I follow his directions.

    The things I sow directly are lettuce and arugula. A lot of the summer stuff I start in a small cold frame I built. I always start more stuff in flats than I need so that I can fill in the vegetable bed if a skunk goes marauding (a common problem for us).

    Like many things with gardening you’ll figure out what’s best for you and your location through a process of trial and error.

    And, in case you don’t know about it already, this planting chart is handy for us in SoCal:

  28. Hi there! My partner and I built a 50 gallon self-watering bed for our front patio in Brooklyn, NY to house a polyculture vegetable garden (from The Urban Homestead). We’ve never gardened and I got seed happy….full packets in a 3’X5′ space 🙁 The radishes’ little greens are showing after 5 days, they’re everywhere….it’s beautiful and exciting but I’m afraid that, even with a great and generous soil depth, they’ll crowd out the next wave. HELP! Should I remove plants when they’re bigger or now or just let it be and hope that the waves come after I harvest such a prevalent group?

    • It sounds like you should thin those out some–just pinch them off at the base. I know its easy to get over excited and er..spill your seed. But each radish needs to be…oh, I don’t know, maybe three inches from the next one to develop properly. The secret to radishes is to plant a few seeds every week or two, because they grow fast, and because no one really wants bushels of radishes, just enough for salads.

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