Problems with Your Seedlings? Here’s What to Do!

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Most of the time, if you sow seeds and give them reasonable growing conditions, you’ll end up with quite decent results. On the other hand, when things go wrong, they usually do so very quickly, so always keep a close eye on your seedlings, ready to give them a helping hand at a moment’s notice.

Here are some situations you may encounter with young seedlings along with an explanation of what to do to help them recover.

ProblemExplanationSolution
Poor or no germination.Seeds unviable or of poor quality; poor growing conditions; soil allowed to fully dry outBuy fresh seeds; improve conditions; keep soil evenly moist during whole germination process
Seedlings wilt, soil dryLack of waterWater gently, but deeply; if seedlings recover, keep soil moist in the future; if not, resow
Seedlings wilt, pinched at the baseDamping off (fungal disease)Use fresh seedling mix; avoid soil from garden for indoor sowing; improve ventilation
Indoor seedlings leggy and pale greenLack of lightGive seedlings better light: sunny window or artificial lighting
Indoor seedlings leggy and dark greenToo hotReduce night temperature
Small black flies presentFungus gnatsRarely cause much damage, but can carry diseases. Allowing soil to dry a little longer between waterings will kill larvae
Outdoor seedlings cut off at the baseCutwormsInsert tin can with bottom removed around unaffected seedlings to serve as a barrier; harvest cutworm by hand (will be hiding in the ground at the base of its victims)
Leaves eaten on seedlings outdoorsVarious insects, slugs, etc.Hand pick slugs or apply slug bait; treat insects with insecticidal soap. Sometimes you have to resow
Seedlings blackened after a cold nightFrost damageResow
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What Mowed Down Your Seedlings?

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20150522CWhat a shock! You get up in the morning to tour your vegetable garden, in perfect condition the day before, only to find some of the young plants mowed down, cut off at the base. What could have done it?

20150522AThe answer is “a cutworm”, the larva of a moth (one of many species of Euxoa). The moth lays its eggs in the soil in the fall or early spring, often in weeds or grasses near the garden. The worm itself (actually a caterpillar) is often greyish and rolls up into a C when it is disturbed.

Cutworms can cause considerable damage to young plants, especially vegetables, but also seedlings of annuals, perennials and others. After it hatches in late spring, the cutworm crawls out of the soil at night and chomps away the base of the plant until it crashes to the ground.

To stop the disaster, you’ll have to do a bit of prospecting. With a flashlight, go out into the garden the next night and look for the culprit (it starts to move to the surface of the soil at dusk): cutworms never go very far and should be in the same area where the plants were cut down the day before. Or, if you prefer working in daylight, dig around in the soil near the fallen plant with a trowel, about 2 inches (5 cm) deep: a cutworm is not hard to find.

20150522BOr be proactive and protect the base of your plants and your transplanted seedlings before cutworms attack. Cut the bottom off a few cans, plastic pots or plastic, styrofoam or cardboard cups, thus forming a tube. You can even use the tube from a roll of toilet paper! Place a tube barrier around each seedling, pressing the lower part of the barrier into the soil to a depth of 1 inch (2 cm). With a barrier around the base of the plants’  stem, cutworms, which always act right at soil level, will find nothing to eat and will either die or move elsewhere.