Sowing Seeds

Life Wants to Live, but Not My Seedlings

I don’t know what the weather will be like when I publish this article, but as I write it on March 5, it’s 15°C (59°F), very sunny, and I’m outside for the first time this year! My cap, my deckchair, my sun cream… everything I need to be inspired! I’m a bit of a plant myself, you see, I need sun and warmth!

Anyway, it’s with a happy heart that I’m going to talk to you about a subject that annoys the hell out of me: seedlings.

Photo: Karolina Grabowska

Why does this make me angry? Well, my philosophy is that life wants to live, that plants are self-sufficient and resilient, that if they need too much care and are never happy, it’s because they’re not happy with me, and that they should just die. Balance, the power of nature and all that, that’s the rule with me. If a plant can get rained on in the wild, it’s going to put up with a few drops on its leaves: it’s not true that I’m going to start mopping up every little splash to please the missus!

But then come the seedlings… And if I want tomatoes, I don’t have much choice but to treat them with the utmost care.

Photo: Tima Miroshnichenko

A Fragile Little Baby Plant?

Yes… and no! In fact, there are many reasons why seedlings are temperamental, gardeners are overzealous and biologists are exasperated. So let me introduce you to baby plants in the wild versus those we’re (desperately) trying to grow at home…

1. Numbers and natural selection: the strongest prevail

When a fruit, or more generally a plant, produces seeds, it usually takes several. Think of the number of seeds on a single raspberry, then the number of raspberries on the plant: that’s enough to make many, many little raspberry bushes.

Of all the seeds on the ground, only the most vigorous will germinate. It’s hard to know in advance which ones they’ll be. And among those that do germinate, there will also be failures. I’m not even talking about sunlight or water conditions here, just the composition of the seed: some simply don’t have enough energy to produce all the basic organs needed to start drawing resources from nature. Only the best seeds will produce a baby plant, which is why many types of plant produce a large number of seeds.

Photo: Pixabay

In nature, selection takes place to produce ever-stronger plants, with seeds that are also increasingly robust and adapted to the environment.

For example, some plants disperse their seeds via the birds that eat their fruit. It’s the big, colorful fruits that are the most likely to be eaten, the most likely to be dispersed and the most likely to produce new plants. These will then tend to produce larger, more colorful fruit: this is what we call natural selection. Selection also takes place in terms of seeds and their composition: those that produce new plants will be the best.

Obviously, this happens over several generations. But this is what strengthens wild species.

Now comes the laidback gardener with his little bag of seeds. Yes, the seed supplier normally sorts the seeds a little so as not to sell damaged seeds. But having said that, the seemingly perfect ones may still be runts! And as for natural selection, well, that’s another story… In fact, we select seeds that favour what we want: good taste, productivity, speed of production… That’s artificial selection. And frankly, even if this gives rise to millions of cultivars, it’s still an “unnatural” selection and “side-effects” to these perfect fruits can occur… like a low germination rate, for example!

Take this beautiful seedless melon as a witness: it will be delicious, but has a reproductive success of -10/10! Do you think the seed that produced its plant was the best? I have the impression that it was the only one available!Photo: KoolShooters

In short, the gardener sows five or six seeds and crosses his fingers. Only two will germinate and he’ll be disappointed, wondering what he did wrong, when it’s perfectly normal.

The problem isn’t me, okay? It’s the seed! And I’m not even talking about expiration dates!

2. Ideal conditions are much more violent than we imagine

In the terrible jungle, in the middle of a tropical storm, a seedling grows.

In my living room, watered, sprayed and exposed to a fan, a seedling dies.

Life ain’t fair.

Photo: Raphaël Menesclou

Natural selection doesn’t just apply to fruits and seeds, it applies to everything. So, a plant could die at two or three months for no apparent reason; it could simply be a plant with bad genetics.

Maybe it has fewer roots than average, maybe its photosynthesis is less efficient, maybe it has an ankle that’s not flexible enough to cause back pain in adulthood… (thanks, Mom!).

Anyway, you get the idea. Once again, in our gardens, natural selection cannot take place, and the “weaker” plant may still manage to produce offspring. But a fragile offspring. The kind that may never reach maturity. Extreme conditions in nature, the struggle to get roots into the ground, strong winds and floods or droughts are extreme conditions that eliminate these “weaklings”. I know: selection isn’t kind!

Photo: Khamkéo Vilaysing

In our homes, too, the “sanitized” greenhouse with controlled humidity and a small fan may simply be too much, or not enough. In nature, the weather is not the same every day, and a stronger wind is sometimes needed to dry out the young shoot and prevent it from rotting, just as a few days of scorching sun can be beneficial. A little violence with these young seedlings!

The lazy gardener, brought out of his laziness by tending to his seedlings, occasionally has a panicky reaction when humidity drops by 5%. You spray it, put it in a bag, quick, quick, it needs moisture! But at the same time, maybe not today? How do we know? Let me know if you ever manage to communicate with your baby plants…

3. A baby plant dies quickly

My plant is thirsty: I water it. Did I water too much? Well then! It’ll recover in three or four weeks.

My semi is thirsty: I water it. Three drops too much and it dies.

My semi isn’t thirsty: I don’t water it. It dies anyway!

I’m exaggerating, I know, but my point here is that small, fragile seedlings don’t have a very high tolerance for stress. Burning a few leaves on a pothos in spring is far from dramatic. But if we burn the only four small, fragile leaves on our young tomato plant, it will be much harder for it to recover.

Well, Audrey, you’re not making much sense! In point 2, you say that maybe we pamper them too much, and in point 3, that we absolutely mustn’t stress them!

Now you know why seedlings annoy me! Tell me… Do you also look at your seedlings and ask “But why? What do you want?”, with tears of rage in your eyes at their decline? That’s my daily spring routine!

Sorry, I’m not bringing you a miracle solution today, but rather a little humor. In fact, I want you to be my witnesses because…

Mom! Yes, you, Mom: no stress, but will you be able to take care of my seedlings in April while I’m away? I warn you, I want them all alive when I get back! Hihi!

On that note, I haven’t checked my greenhouse temperature in 30 minutes, so I’ve got to go! My baby eggplants probably need their fan replaced! Good luck with your babies!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

3 comments on “Life Wants to Live, but Not My Seedlings

  1. Colleen Cunningham

    I needed this laugh! Thank you! Every night and every morning I’m looking too close at my seedlings and basing my mood around them. I need to put an end to that. I do very well with up-potting. So I’m going to assign my seed trays “beta” status and my up-potted plants “alpha” status and not worry about those three or four seed tray cells that are barren. Seed starting is humbling!

  2. This is an advantage of a climate that allows almost everything to grow directly in the garden if we want it to. I know seedlings can have problems there also, but not as badly.

  3. Thank you for articulating my frustrations with this topic!

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