Seed Starting Mistakes – Reasons Seeds Fail To Germinate

By: Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden

Starting crops from seed is a common, economical way to get plants for your garden and flowerbed. When growing from seed, you can choose many plants that aren’t available in stores. Lack of space doesn’t allow room for nurseries to stock many great plants, but you can get them started from seeds.

If you’re new to growing from seed, you’ll find it is a simple process. Avoid common seed starting mistakes for best results. Some reasons seeds fail to germinate are described below and can help you avoid making these mistakes.

Common Mistakes with Seed Germination

While starting from seed is simple and easy, there are a few steps to follow for optimum germination. Don’t expect each seed to germinate for different reasons, but your percentage should be high. Use these easy tips to avoid mistakes and make your seed-starting process most productive.

  • Not putting them somewhere noticeable: Since you probably only start seeds a few times a year, it is easy to forget about them, so put them in full view. Locate them on a table or countertop with the right warmth and light to sprout. The other tips do no good if you forget to practice them regularly.
  • Planting into the wrong soil: Seeds need consistent moisture to germinate, but the soil should never be wet or soggy. If the soil is too wet, seeds can rot and disappear. Therefore, use a fast-draining seed starting mixture that allows water to move through quickly. This soil holds the appropriate amount of water to keep the soil moist. You may use regular potting soil that you’ve amended, but don’t start them in soil from the garden.
  • Too much water: As mentioned above, seeds can rot away from being too wet. Establish a watering schedule for seeds until they germinate, usually once or twice a day. Once seeds are sprouted, cut back slightly on watering to avoid damping off. Damping off is when sprouted seeds flop and die back from being too wet.
  • Too much sunlight: As you have likely discovered, young plants grow toward the light if placed in a sunny window. This takes a good deal of their energy and makes them tall and spindly. When starting seeds indoors, placing them under lights allows more regulated growth. This lets them develop and devote their energy to filling out properly. Grow lights are not necessary, just place them about an inch or two below fluorescent bulbs.
  • Not keeping them warm enough: While seeds should not be in direct sunlight, they need warmth to germinate. Seed failure often occurs when there is not enough warmth. Locate your seed starting tray away from drafts such as vents and open doors. Use a warming mat.
  • Large seeds: Large seeds with a hard covering will usually sprout more quickly if nicked or soaked overnight. Check each seed type before planting to see if it is a candidate for scarification or stratification.

This article was last updated on

Seeds Not Germinating? 12 Causes and Things to Watch For

Steph Coelho

Steph is a certified Square Food Gardening Instructor who has been gardening for more than 10 years in Canada where the winters are long and cold, and the summers are unpredictable. She is a volunteer for her community's Incredible Edible project. In the past she created an educational gardening space for seniors and taught classes at a local community center where she created her own curriculum and activities. She participated in several local municipal garden days where she set up a booth to educate citizens about the joy of gardening.

Unfortunately, the process of germinating seeds doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes, seeds simply don’t sprout.

Isn’t it incredible, when things go right, how a tiny carrot seed transforms into a chunky root vegetable?

But what about when you plant your seeds and you don’t end up with a healthy plant? If you’re struggling to germinate your seeds and want to know what might be going wrong, read on as I address the common pitfalls and mistakes people make when starting seeds—indoors and out.

The 5 Biggest Seed Starting Mistakes Gardeners Make

#1 Starting Seeds Too Early, Or Too Late

Starting seeds indoors at the wrong time is by far one of the most common mistakes of all when it comes to growing from seed.

Start seeds too early, and you’re faced with overgrown seedlings well before it’s time to transplant outdoors. But start too late, and plants may never have the chance to bloom or fruit by the end of the season.

Seeds started too late may never get large enough for transplanting outdoors until it’s too late.

So what is the answer? It all comes down to knowing your specific areas average last frost date. From there, simply count backwards the number of weeks required for seeds to be ready for transplant. And that is exactly when you should plant!

Almost all seed packets will contain this information right on the back of the packet. (See : Picking The Right Time To Start Seeds Indoors)

#2 Using Old / Stale Seeds

Your garden and flowerbeds will provide you months of blooms and vegetables. So why try to save a few cents using seeds that might be past their prime?

It is a seed-starting garden mistake that is easy to avoid by always using fresh, quality seeds.

Never keep seeds for more than a year. Fresh seeds provide better germination rates, and a better chance for healthy plants.

Old seeds don’t only germinate at lower rates, they can also have less strength and vitality as they grow. As a good rule of thumb, never keep or save seeds beyond one growing season.

And when saving seeds from your plants, always be sure to store in a cool, dry location. A cool, dark basement is a great choice – and in the refrigerator is even better.

#3 Using Inadequate Soil

Seeds need great soil to become great plants! Unfortunately, a big mistake many gardeners make is to use poor seed-starting soil in their seed trays. It puts plants behind the proverbial 8 ball right from the start!

To germinate and grow well, seeds need lightweight, nutrient-filled soil that drains well. Those tiny cells of soil are a seed’s home for its first 6 to 8 weeks of life. And that soil need to perfect to promote strong root growth.

Never use plain garden soil or top soil to start seedlings. Instead use a high quality seed-starting mix with slow release nutrients. Product Link : Espoma Organic Seed Starting Soil

You can also easily make your own high-powered potting soil right at home. We have for years, and not only does it save money, it is a great way to fill your seed starter with all types of great nutrients. (See: How To Create The Perfect Seed Starting Soil)

#4 Starting Seeds In A Sunny Window – A Big Mistake!

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a good idea to start vegetable or flower seedlings in a sunny windowsill. The young seedlings indeed grow quickly to the light of the sun. But in the process, they become spindly and weak, even with constant turning.

Seedlings in windows tend to be spindly as they try to grow quickly to the light. Windowsills are simply not a good place to grow flower or vegetable seedlings.

The light from the sun through a window is simply too far away. And young seedlings spend too much energy growing towards it, and not filling out.

It is far better to grow seeds indoors with artificial light. But no need to purchase fancy and expensive equipment. Ordinary fluorescent bulbs set an inch or two above seedlings as they grow promotes slow, steady growth.

We grow all of our seeds underneath ordinary shoplights. It keeps them both strong and straight, with slow steady growth.

We use our DIY homemade seed starting stand with a few shop lights to grow all of our plants from seed. And it works wonders to create strong, vibrant transplants! See : How To Make A DIY Seed Starting Stand

#5 Not Hardening Plants Off Before Planting Outdoors

Finally, the last mistake many gardeners make when starting seeds indoors is to not properly prepare the plants for outdoor life.

Plants grown indoors have had an easy life. And if they are simply taken out and planted directly into the soil, most won’t and don’t survive.

Allowing seedlings to adjust slowly to outdoor life is known as the process of hardening off.

The process of hardening off prepares plants for life outdoors. Begin by setting plants out for a few hours to adjust to fluctuating temperatures and winds. Start this process a few weeks before plants will go in the ground.

As the days lengthen and warm, leave them out longer to continue to adjust. Finally, keep them out overnight as well as temperatures allow. (See : How & Why To Harden Plants Off Before Planting)

Your plants will “toughen up” and be ready when it comes time to be planted in their final outdoor spot.

Here is to avoiding the 5 biggest seed starting mistakes, and growing your plants from seed this year! Happy Gardening – Jim and Mary

Why Seeds Aren’t Germinating When Environmental Conditions Are Right

Sometimes, you might be convinced that the environmental conditions were perfect. Damping off was not the problem. So what went wrong? Here are a few more reasons your seeds aren’t germinating:

7. Low Germination Rates Are Normal For the Seeds You Are Attempting to Grow

It is a fact of life that some seeds naturally have a higher germination rate than others. With any seeds, it is common for a certain proportion to fail.

For some particular species, however, you may find that only half of the seeds germinate – or even fewer. This may be due to a problem. But it could also be the case that seed germination rates are usually low for the seeds you are attempting to grow.

Check seed packets and information online or in books to see whether the results are normal for the plants you are trying to grow before immediately jumping to the conclusion that something is wrong.

8. Seeds Were Stored Incorrectly

Another reason why your seeds aren’t germinating might be that they are no longer viable. Unfortunately, seeds can lose their viability if they are not stored correctly.

For example, if your seeds were stored somewhere with temperatures that were too high, this could be the problem. They may also have been exposed to high temperatures or other environmental hazards in transit to a garden centre, to a store, or to your home.

Unfortunately, if this is the case, the seeds will not germinate at all and are no longer any good. They may have been damaged enough that they can no longer mature into healthy plants.

9. The Seeds Are Simply Too Old

It is also important to realise that seeds do have a ‘use by’ date. It may simply be that the seeds you are trying to germinate are simply too old. Seeds are only viable for a certain time period, and some will lose their viability more speedily than others.

Carrots and parsnips, for example, are amongst those seeds that lose viability at a quicker pace. Of course this means that it is important to plant your seeds in time.

Aim to plant seeds from these plants, and others that lose viability quickly, within a year. Alternatively, collect or buy these seeds afresh each year.

Seeds packets often come with a ‘sow by’ date on them. This is not a hard deadline and some seeds may still germinate after the date given. But sowing seeds after this date will often lead to lower rates of germination.

If you are saving your own seed, be sure to mark containers with the date when you collected them, so you know when to use them.

10. Seeds Were Eaten Before Germination Could Occur

If no seedlings have appeared at all, there is one final potential answer to this puzzle. If you sowed seeds outside or in an open greenhouse or polytunnel, something may have eaten the seeds before they had a change to germinate!

Birds, rats, mice or voles are the likely culprits.

If you think that pests eating your seeds is the problem, you can increase your chances of avoiding this problem in future by sowing seeds inside your home, or on a hanging shelf in a polytunnel or greenhouse. You can also try to protect your seeds with a cloche, row cover or mesh.

In gardening, not everything always goes according to plan. But when you slowly work through the various options to find the source or sources of a problem, then seek solutions to each one in turn, you are sure to have plenty of great success stories. If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again!

My Seedlings Are Dying. Did I Receive Bad Seeds?

If these three requirements (moisture, temperature, and air) are met, and fresh seed is used, you should get a high germination rate. If your seed germinates, and then your seedlings die, this is not because the seed is “bad”. All a seed has the capacity to do is germinate. That’s it!

Common Seedling Problems

If seedlings are dying off, something else in the process is causing a problem and you need to figure out what it is. Is the soil too wet or too dry? Are seedlings damping-off due to fungal pathogens? Does the soil mix lack nutrition? Are air temperatures too hot or too cold? Are seedlings getting enough light? There are many cultural and environmental conditions that must be met to keep seedlings happy.

Seed Germination Testing

Remember, all seeds have the same simple mission to break dormancy, put down a simple root (radicle) and send up their seed leaves (cotyledons). This is all a seed can do with the energy it has stored. The rest is up to you, the gardener, to make the new seedlings happy, continue to grow, and thrive. Manifestations of “bad seed” are poor or no germination. Under proper conditions, if the seed germinated…it was not a bad seed. Rest assured seed companies thoroughly and continually test their seed lots for germination. We try to maintain seed lots that will test higher than national standards allow. This means we are shipping some of the healthiest, freshest, and most viable seeds available.

4 Requirements For Healthy Plants

You should also know that all of a vegetable plant’s growth habits like how large it gets, how healthy the plant is, and the size, quantity, and quality of the fruit produced is totally dependent on 4 main things:

  • The health of the soil
  • The cultural care plants receive
  • The environmental conditions
  • Proper pollination of the plant’s flowers

If a plant becomes infected with a disease, or the plant produces inadequate to no fruit, this has nothing to do with the seed. Failures of fruit production like the size, quantity, or quality of the fruit, relates to care and the environment a plant is growing in, not the seed itself.

All a seed can do is germinate. A child born to doctors will not automatically have the capacity to become a doctor. Give your seedlings the same care and nurturing you give to your children plenty of sun, elbow room, air to breath, proper nutrition, and moisture. Weak, spindly plants will not reward us with adequate flowers or fruit and plant diseases will latch onto them quite easily. We all need as much optimism as this spring can bring, for our seeds and of course for our children. Remember, gardening is a noble, intellectual, and passionate pursuit that anyone can do, but it all starts from an ordinary, humble sleeping seed.

Jung Seed Company has over 800 seed varieties available! View our color catalog online or browse our website for all of your gardening favorites. To receive info on new products, exclusive deals, and specials, be sure to sign up for our weekly email.

Seeds forum→Question on seed germination.

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Have you used this before, Kristi?

I only tried something like this once (campanula, super tiny seeds). I didn't think of using a baggie (I assumed that would give it too little air). I used two paper towels below and one above and still had to re-wet them twice a day.

I thought spouts could find the tiny holes in the towel above and punch through. The campanula certainly can't, and I later did a lot of damage while removing the upper and one out of two lower towels. Campanula did punch roots through one layer of towel below. But I don't know how much that delayed their progress.

Several months and accidents later, I'm down from many hundreds of sprouts to about 40 (none doing very well, indoors) which was subject of another thread.

Having made such a bad start with these seeds (including other attempts that yielded zero), in November I just scattered ALL the rest of the seeds (of a few different plants) in various places on the ground and dusted over them with a tiny amount of soil and hoped nature would work in the Spring.

So I'm not going to try again with paper towel any time soon. But I'll probably be crazy enough to try again when the first new campanula seed pods outside, dry in July. So what is the method? (Or link to where I should have read it).

If the roots happen to go through the paper towel, just carefully cut out a piece of the paper towel surrounding the seed (being careful not to disturb the root) and plant the entire thing in your potting mix. The paper towel disintegrates very easily and doesn't seem to cause problems.

I've done artichoke seeds this way, and they almost always poke their roots through the paper towel.

I'm not sure how well this would work with really tiny seeds. I tend to do it with larger seeds--artichokes, beans, etc.

The damp paper towel in a baggie works well.
I tend to use moist vermiculite in a baggie.

The use of towels or vermiculite gets around the problem of molds.

Caroline, it is interesting to learn that the paper can be treated to aid germination.

I also read that brown paper towels will work. I suspect they (like the brown coffee filters are not treated with chemicals/bleach) would also be tougher and maybe prevent the roots from penetrating it. Linda, that is clever to just plant the seedling with a little of the paper towel attached.

jsf67 - like you, I feel like a beginner with this. The seedlings are so delicate I'll be nervous about damaging them when planting.

This was the first place I read about the germination paper use about half way through the article.

I will have to give the baggie method a try. I thought the plastic would inhibit circulation and cause mold but then it would be like watching a pot try to boil. I wouldn't leave them alone and would keep checking for green and that might not be good either.

I totally agree with you - man-handling those delicate-looking roots scares me.

But I've read people who sow or germinate large numbers of seeds in bunches, and then (by my standards) RIP them apart willy-nilly and lose very few of them.

Some day I plan to grit my teeth and try to do likewise. I theory, I understand that losing a few just means that I'll thin out or throw away fewer seedlings a week or two later.

But pulling two seedlings' roots apart feels like separating conjoined twins without anesthesia. I guess I'm the only one that needs the anesthesia. Or a tranquilizer?

With 2x glasses that let me get far closer to the work than I could otherwise, I can resolve the two cotyledons of a campanula sprout (without such glasses, both together are one green spec).

I still have no idea when campanula sprouts develop roots nor whether those roots went on top of my one layer of wet paper towel for a long time before finding a path through. Campanula roots are initially so thin, that even with the 2x glasses, they are way below the size I can see. It was many weeks before the main root of a seedling was heavy enough to see with 2x glasses (BTW, I can see a lot more getting very close with 2x glasses than at any distance with a 5x magnifying glass. So short of a real microscope, I'm not going to see these things).

When I made my one attempt with a wet paper towel above as well as below and separated those as carefully as I could, about a quarter of the seedlings came away with the towel above. I'm sure I could not have picked them up with tweezers without destroying them, so I just laid the whole top sheet on top of dirt, sprout side up (just as I did with the sheet ). Most of the sprouts on the main sheet managed to punch their invisible roots through to the dirt underneath and survive. But zero of the upside down sprouts on top of the inverted top sheet survived. I'm only inferring "upside down". When all you can see (with magnification) is a pair of cotyledons, not any other part of the plant they belong to, "upside down" is neither a visible nor manually correctable characteristic. (So I think the paper towel over the seeds was a bad idea).

I have also used it in early Winter to test some seed vials for viability before ordering time arrives. It is surprising sometimes how some seeds last and others don't. And I don't mean in general "seed-life" listed in books. Sometimes, seeds last longer than expected and some shorter.

I know nothing about starting seeds but have managed to start a bunch of coleus. In seed starting mix. Now I am not sure what to do. I have been misting. They have just there seed leaf, no other leaves yet. Thinking about watering from the bottom now. Any suggestions?

Interesting, I always top water but start my seeds outdoors and move in if the weather turns too cold. If bottom watering, I certainly wouldn't let them sit in water.
Thinking the key is to do what works for each individual situation and boy do we learn from our mistakes.

Be Careful Out There! Stay Safe! Check On Your Neighbors!
The aboriginal people of the world and many other cultures share a common respect for nature and the universe, and all of the life that it holds. We could learn much from them!

"Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."

On this end, I gave up and tried Papalo seed laying on moist soil in a wintersowing container on Feb 5th. Yesterday I saw I had one (only) germinate. Needless to say I was delighted!

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