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Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 25, 2020 8:42 AM CST
Washington, DC
Dear Gardeners,

For my second year in the garden I decided to try starting my tomato, pepper, and cucumber seedlings indoors. I planted one cucumber varietal (Straight Eight) three tomato varietals (Lollipop, Sugar Gem, Mortgage Lifter) and five pepper varietals (Corona, Jupiter, Sweet Chocolate, Red Cherry, Jimmy Nardello's Italian). All seedlings were planted on March 29 with a 2:1 coconut coir to worm castings starter mix under an admittedly inexpensive LED grow light. Nearly two months later, nearly all of the seedlings (with the exception of the cucumber and the mortgage lifter) have lost one or both of their cotyledons but have just 0-1 tiny true leaves. It is likely that the plants were oversaturated early in the growing process (the coir castings mix retained more water than I expected) but, other than this (and the possibility that the grow light was ineffective), I am at a loss. None of the seedlings have actually died (although one of the sugar gems is on the fence), they are just tiny and underdeveloped. In a desperate effort to jumpstart growth I have just begun hardening-off some of them outdoors. I am in zone 7B/8A and can grow well into the early fall but I fear my seedlings are now so far behind that, even if they survive, I won't get any tomatoes/peppers this year. Any ideas on both what went wrong and what, if anything, I can do now to salvage the seedlings, are welcome. Thank you in advance for your time.
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Last edited by PlantByNumbers May 25, 2020 10:28 AM Icon for preview
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May 25, 2020 8:48 AM CST
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
Eat more tomatoes!
Bee Lover Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Tomato Heads Salvias Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Peppers
Organic Gardener Native Plants and Wildflowers Morning Glories Master Gardener: Arkansas Lilies Hummingbirder
Could you please post a pic?
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 25, 2020 10:28 AM CST
Washington, DC
Edited with photos (see above).
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May 25, 2020 4:57 PM CST
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
Eat more tomatoes!
Bee Lover Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Tomato Heads Salvias Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Peppers
Organic Gardener Native Plants and Wildflowers Morning Glories Master Gardener: Arkansas Lilies Hummingbirder
Thanks for the pics! I'm thinking your problem is the led light, I don't like them, don't use them, and when I was using them before switching over to fluorescents, had the same problems you have. Moving them outdoors was a good move, start introducing them to the sun, and they should start responding fairly rapidly. I'm in the same zone, I'm thinking you still have time for a harvest. When is your first frost, usually? Most years we have warm weather until nearly Christmas.
Plant out when they're a little stronger. I would recommend buying fluorescent lights for next year. Good luck, and keep us updated!
BTW, below is a pic of some of my plants in my raised bed. They were planted about 4 to 5 weeks ago, and some were the puniest plants you've ever seen. I have little green tomatoes now. Thumbs up
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Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
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May 25, 2020 9:32 PM CST
Name: Sally
central Maryland (Zone 7b)
Let's all play ukulele
Charter ATP Member Houseplants Keeper of Poultry Vegetable Grower Region: Maryland Composter
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Region: United States of America Cat Lover Birds Butterflies
Hi, Welcome! neighbor,

I think the mix was too dense. And lights may have been an issue.
Cucumber seed can go right in the ground now. Mine are up, they will come up quickly now.
Peppers grow very slowly so go get started plants now.
Tomatoes grow quickly but may be better to get plants or put new seed right in the ground than mess with these. I have volunteer tomatoes sprouting already from last year's dropped fruit.
Plant it and they will come.
Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 26, 2020 10:39 AM CST
Washington, DC
Thanks gardenfish and sallyg!

gardenfish - The earliest we get first frost is around mid-October although it's usually later than this. It's funny you mentioned flourescents because I actually ordered a set a couple of weeks ago. They should arrive this week and I will use them for all future seed starts. Your tomatoes look great!

sallyg - Should I add perlite to lighten the starter mix? If so, how much? I also realized I was over saturating with my watering technique. I switched to bottom watering last week and this works much better. I direct sow most of what I grow but with tomatoes and pepper I think it's important to get a jump start. I am hoping the switch to fluorescents will help. Regarding cucumbers, I may take your advice and direct sow next year.
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May 26, 2020 1:44 PM CST
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
Eat more tomatoes!
Bee Lover Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Tomato Heads Salvias Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Peppers
Organic Gardener Native Plants and Wildflowers Morning Glories Master Gardener: Arkansas Lilies Hummingbirder
You're most welcome. Good luck with your veggies! Hurray!
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
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May 26, 2020 6:58 PM CST
Name: Sally
central Maryland (Zone 7b)
Let's all play ukulele
Charter ATP Member Houseplants Keeper of Poultry Vegetable Grower Region: Maryland Composter
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Region: United States of America Cat Lover Birds Butterflies
How much perlite? I don't know. I will say, probably more than you think you should have to. I have never used bagged worm castings, they sound 'mucky.' I start tomatoes, peppers and cukes in whatever good peat based potting mix I have.

You do have time to plant in the garden for this year, (unless you've decided to bag it altogether.)
Plant it and they will come.
Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 27, 2020 12:40 PM CST
Washington, DC
Thanks. I did a bit more research and I think I am going to move away from coco coir for seed starting and use seed starter mix with my own vermicompost and some humid acid and rock dust (I used bagged castings for this round of seed starts because I didn't have enough of my own vermicompost to use). I am now working on hardening-off all of my remaining seedlings so hopefully that will jumpstart growth a bit. Thanks again for all of your help!
Avatar for macrophylla22
May 27, 2020 3:11 PM CST

Be careful with a seed starting mix with nutrients in it (vermicompost, worm compost, etc) it can burn the seedlings before they have their first true leaves and are ready for food. Also, if you are making your own, I'd highly recommend sterilizing in a very low oven for a couple of hours. Having lost many a seedling to damping-off and other fungal threats I now swear by commercial seed starting mixes from the big seed sellers like Johnnys or Hoss. They are lightweight, maintain just enough moisture, and a couple of bags was enough for 400+ seed starts this year.
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May 27, 2020 3:26 PM CST
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
Eat more tomatoes!
Bee Lover Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Tomato Heads Salvias Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Peppers
Organic Gardener Native Plants and Wildflowers Morning Glories Master Gardener: Arkansas Lilies Hummingbirder
I've used Johnnys, it's very good. I don't recommend ever using regular garden soil. And sterilizing soil in an oven stinks!
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 28, 2020 9:24 AM CST
Washington, DC
I am sold on incorporating commercial seed starting mix and will pay close attention to nutrient content. Side note: wouldn't heat sterilization kill the good micro-organisms you find in castings?
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May 28, 2020 9:39 AM CST
Name: Sally
central Maryland (Zone 7b)
Let's all play ukulele
Charter ATP Member Houseplants Keeper of Poultry Vegetable Grower Region: Maryland Composter
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Region: United States of America Cat Lover Birds Butterflies
I think the track history of seeds being started commercially, in peat based mix, speaks for itself. And then there are my tomatoe volunteer plants out there in 'dirt' with no help from me.

all I can say is, from March 29 to May 25 for tomatoe seedlngs to look like that, something is really, really wrong. Tomato seedlings are usualy little monsters, you can barely keep them inside for 6 weeks. Shrug! I often kill lettuce but its hard to stop tomatoes.
Plant it and they will come.
Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 28, 2020 11:58 AM CST
Washington, DC
I agree that something went awry. And, as best I can tell from my own research and comments here the starter mix and poor lighting is to blame. That being said, as far as I can tell only one plant has actually died. So the question is, can I salvage the rest and, if so, how. As I see it I really only have four options. Option #1: Get them outside on a full time basis and hope the sun gives them enough of a kick to jumpstart enough growth for eventual transplant in the current medium they are in. Option #2: Try to transplant the seedlings into another small pot with a better starter mix (it would have to be potting soil/compost as I don't have any seed starter mix). Option #3: Transplant the undersize seedlings ASAP into the container beds and hope for the best. Option #4: Abandon the seedlings and restart with direct plantings from seed. Would be curious to hear your recommendation. I won't hold you to it. Just a best guess based on your experience. Thanks!
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May 28, 2020 1:45 PM CST
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
Eat more tomatoes!
Bee Lover Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Tomato Heads Salvias Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Peppers
Organic Gardener Native Plants and Wildflowers Morning Glories Master Gardener: Arkansas Lilies Hummingbirder
I would go with # 3. Times awasting. You want to eat your first tomato before November. Hilarious!
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
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May 28, 2020 2:16 PM CST
Name: Sally
central Maryland (Zone 7b)
Let's all play ukulele
Charter ATP Member Houseplants Keeper of Poultry Vegetable Grower Region: Maryland Composter
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Region: United States of America Cat Lover Birds Butterflies
Smiling Well I'm am very glad I didn't sound too critical and turn you off.

I looked again at them.
I'm voting .. drumroll..

Tomatoes, option 3/4. Very gingerly put them in the bed. Protect from direct sun. At the same time, stick a couple seeds of the same next to them. The current seedlings just might grow, the seeds might beat them out starting fresh.

Cucumbers, opt 4- Just stick two seeds out directly, you'll probably see them sprout in five days and in two weeks it will be bigger than this one.

Peppers- opt 3/4.. Transplant these very carefully, add seeds. Unfortunately .. peppers are very slow growing; however I know fancy varieties can be hard to find so this may be your only chance to get these particular peppers this year at all. If you have a good supplier it may be worth looking to see if they have enough fun plants left to satisfy you. I already have flowers and tiny fruit on my Jalapenos. Started seed mid January I think. Or Feb? Even if Feb, I am 3 months ahead of you.

Once your nice mix gets outside, out of a small pot, it changes drainage and aeration and may let these babies recover.

Others may vote differently.
Plant it and they will come.
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May 28, 2020 3:43 PM CST
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
Eat more tomatoes!
Bee Lover Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Tomato Heads Salvias Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Peppers
Organic Gardener Native Plants and Wildflowers Morning Glories Master Gardener: Arkansas Lilies Hummingbirder
No, I agree. Very good info, and detailed nicely.
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 29, 2020 10:54 AM CST
Washington, DC
So I have been hardening-off all of my seedlings this week. About half will be ready for transplant tomorrow and the other half will be ready Monday. As per your excellent suggestions, I will do a combination transplant and replant. I have plenty of seeds for all varietals so I will hope for the best.

This year has been a bit of a learning curve. My first year went very well - probably too well. But this year I struck out on the indoor starts and overcrowded my lettuce (which is incredibly runty as a result). On the flip side, carrots, herbs, and spinach have been OK. Oh well - it's a process.

I want to thank you both again for all of your help. I really appreciate you both taking the time to share your knowledge and experience to a novice like myself. Incidentally, my fluorescents arrived yesterday. I will set them up this weekend and use them for my fall starts - in a very different starting mix!
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May 29, 2020 11:35 AM CST
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
Eat more tomatoes!
Bee Lover Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Tomato Heads Salvias Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Peppers
Organic Gardener Native Plants and Wildflowers Morning Glories Master Gardener: Arkansas Lilies Hummingbirder
This sounds great! Now, don't forget, we want to see pics of your plants!
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
Avatar for PlantByNumbers
May 29, 2020 1:27 PM CST
Washington, DC
I agree that something went awry. And, as best I can tell from my own research and comments here the starter mix and poor lighting is to blame. That being said, as far as I can tell only one plant has actually died. So the question is, can I salvage the rest and, if so, how. As I see it I really only have four options. Option #1: Get them outside on a full time basis and hope the sun gives them enough of a kick to jumpstart enough growth for eventual transplant in the current medium they are in. Option #2: Try to transplant the seedlings into another small pot with a better starter mix (it would have to be potting soil/compost as I don't have any seed starter mix). Option #3: Transplant the undersize seedlings ASAP into the container beds and hope for the best. Option #4: Abandon the seedlings and restart with direct plantings from seed. Would be curious to hear your recommendation. I won't hold you to it. Just a best guess based on your experience. Thanks!

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