Reasons my seedlings were duds
June 22, 2017 6:52 AM   Subscribe

I typically grow my garden from seed. This year was a little chaotic because we're in a new house and I had to build the garden before I could plant the garden and the weather was just crazy swings up and down for a couple months, so there could be a lot of reasons for this, but I'd like to hear some of the most likely and how to avoid them next year.

I had a bunch of seedling problems while they were still in the trays but that's not the mystery I'd like to solve (I think I know why that happened). What I'm curious about are the things that were going gangbusters in trays, but once planted just stopped growing and slowly faded away to nothing. This happened with zucchini, cucumber and eggplant. (Also to some extent my bush beans which are doing okay but not great.) The zukes, cukes and eggplants were all doing great in the trays. Healthy, green, happy, growing. I wound up taking quite a long time to get them in the ground because the weather was swinging from high 80s to low 50s wildly for weeks. But they still seemed to be pretty happy with their prolonged stay in their cells.

Then I planted them. And they did... nothing. The zukes and cukes started flowering while they were still incredibly small, as if to say "We must reproduce before we die!!!" The eggplants seem to be, like, shrinking. Not withering. Just getting smaller and smaller. Same with the cukes and zukes. I have some peppers too that just aren't growing but at least aren't visibly disappearing. New leaves start to grow, stay incredibly small, then fall off. The plant doesn't die entirely but also doesn't grow.

Meanwhile, my tomatoes, butternut squash (took a while to get going but is now doing just fine), escarole, lettuce, snap peas, are all a-okay. All grown from seed in the exact same way.

Everything is in raised beds with newly-delivered soil-compost mix, southern exposure with some shade at various times of day depending on the angle of the sun. It's been quite a wet summer so far.

So, what could I have done wrong, what is going on, how do I prevent this next year?
posted by soren_lorensen to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Squash bugs? I've all but given up on squashes in my garden because of squash bugs, and the main symptom is that sort of "failure to thrive". If you look at the stem at the base and see a hole, that's the problem. The larva dig into the stem and just suck up all the juice and nutrients. Not sure why they didn't get the butternut but you might want to keep an eye on them as well.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:17 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm curious about the soil. If you intend to garden again next year, I would get it tested to see about a nutrient deficiency.
posted by Juniper Toast at 7:17 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Flowering can be triggered when plants are root bound. Hot weather might do the same. When I can't get my tomatoes and peppers in the ground quickly I transplant them into much bigger pots, with the stems partly buried so they can put out more roots. Some plants do better when they are direct seeded, peas and beans in particular aren't usually started in containers.
Then check your soil in case it doesn't drain well. This is causing problems with the rain this year. If you dig up one
of the failing plants and find the roots are rotting that could be one of your issues.
One last thing I can think of to check is infestation, even with a magnifying glass. Sucking insects can be hard to see.
It sounds heart-breaking but if you figure it out this year you'll be set for next year.
posted by Botanizer at 7:21 AM on June 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Could be residual pesticide in area you chose for the garden or in the compost. there have been terrible problems with Grazon remaining active even after passing through a cow and being composted, to the point at which many people are saying don't use grass clippings or cow/horse manure:
Could also be just poor soil, eggplants like lots of fertilizer, and warm temps, you could put some jugs of water on the north side to keep them warm and night, and black plastic under them.
posted by 445supermag at 7:52 AM on June 22, 2017

I had similar results, though presumably different individual conditions. 4 out of 6 tomatoes and 2 of 2 cucumbers didn't survive 2 days, just wilted and flopped into the soil. Only the largest 2 tomato plants survived, and though they're alive they're not growing noticably in the past week. My unproven self-diagnosis was (a) I started my seeds late and the seedlings were very small (but definitely not rootbound at least) (b) I didn't ease them into it, they went straight from indoor climate control to outdoor with direct sun and wild temperature swings. Seeds were in those sterile peat pucks and went into my garden which had brand new soil (loam+compost blend) from the garden center, in which the peas and the nursery-purchased swiss chard are thriving so it's not my soil. So why are my tomatoes not doing well? I'll blame it on the fact that they're small in delicately bred. Why aren't yours? No idea. Better luck to both of us next time, is about all I can say.
posted by aimedwander at 8:17 AM on June 22, 2017

Flowering can be triggered when plants are root bound.

That was my first thought, too. Plus, the lack of vigor is a pretty classic symptom of transplant shock -- that has probably weakened your plants and they're having a rough time rebounding. My go-to magic elixir for this sort of thing is some fish+seaweed liquid fertilizer. If you're patient and baby them a little, you might rescue them yet for this year.
posted by desuetude at 8:25 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

What was the soil temp at planting ? I've had cases where things I put in too early fail to thrive, but plants from the same seed batch/started at the same time, but put in the ground a week or two later leapfrog the first.
posted by k5.user at 9:02 AM on June 22, 2017

You don't mention your hardening off procedure - if not done correctly this could cause the problems you're seeing. Another potential cause is root damage when transplanting.

I'm having the same problem this year (so annoying) and I suspect it's because I didn't harden off very carefully and also didn't water them enough in the first week after transplanting.
posted by randomnity at 9:48 AM on June 22, 2017

Are you sure there's enough water? I don't know how raised your beds are, but if they're the tall kind, the soil might not be wet all the way down. I'd dig down six or eight inches after a few dry days and make sure.

If I remember we live kind of near each other. My plants are in the ground and mulched, and I've had to water on hot days. The rain hasn't been enough. Also it's been a real great year for bugs in my garden so I'd keep an eye on that too.
posted by Bistyfrass at 10:57 AM on June 22, 2017

I'm in Maine and lots of people had to re-plant because the spring was so cold and wet. Those who planted late have tended to do better in some cases. You may be able to re-plant zucchini or summer squash and get a late harvest, depends where you are.
posted by theora55 at 1:25 PM on June 22, 2017

Also, your local Cooperative Extension Service may have more information.
posted by theora55 at 1:40 PM on June 22, 2017

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