The 7 worst mistakes I've made starting seeds (you want to avoid these!)

I've been gardening for many years, but I only started growing plants from seed about 10 years ago. Over the years I have made many mistakes starting seeds. Sometimes I lost a whole crop of seedlings at just a few days old. Other times they made it all the way to transplant before dying off or failing to grow properly. 

seed starting mistakes

That's disappointing!

It took me awhile to figure out the ins and outs of growing a garden from seed but I think I have it right now. Hopefully I won't make any of these mistakes again!

From too much or too little water, to the wrong dirt and skipping the labels... here are my 7 worst mistakes I've made starting seeds.

Seed starting mistakes

I gave them too much water: I know that seedlings have to stay damp to germinate. I didn't realize that too much moisture after germinating would cause damping off. This is when the seedling stem rots where it meets the soil surface. 

I did know that it doesn't take very long for a seedling to dry out if it doesn't have enough moisture. Dry seedlings are dead seedlings. In my effort to prevent dry seedlings, I caused damp seedlings. Neither one is good. Let the soil dry out slightly between watering.

Cinnamon can help with dampening off. 8 Reasons why plants love cinnamon, though you'll still need to watch how much you water them.

Not enough light: I thought I had enough natural light. I thought the rooms lights would be enough added light in the evenings. After all, the lights in that room were broad spectrum fluorescent bulbs like most people get for seedlings. I was wrong. 

Apparently the lights need to be hung real close to the seedlings to work. The ones on the ceiling weren't helping at all. I was growing tall, weak seedlings. This year I got 2 different grow lamps and my seedlings are looking much stronger! 

HGTV explains the different types of grow lights here. 

seed starting mistakes

Not enough heat: I always started my seedlings on top of the refrigerator as I'm sure many people do. The problem was, my new refrigerator is no warmer on top then the rest of the room is. Seeds took forever to germinate, many just got moldy. 

I bought a heated seed mat and my germination rate tripled this year. 

Horrible labeling system: Let me tell you something that will save you a whole lot of problems: most seedlings look alike. Don't be like me and expect to be able to tell them apart, or you'll end up with a zucchini growing in the pumpkin patch. (true story) 

Use a sharpie to write on cheap Popsicle sticks, write on the containers, make a list or separate them with different size or color pots. 

Whatever you decide on, just make sure it's an easy to understand labeling system. I know the extra steps may sound like more work than it's worth, but at least you won't have a pepper plant in the flower garden. I found some plant markers on the Seeds Now website that do the trick nicely, plus they were pretty cheap.

seed starting mistakes, not labeling

Using garden dirt: This was a bad idea for several reasons. Mainly it was bad because my garden soil is not all that great. It has some crushed sandstone and clay qualities that aren't ideal for delicate seedlings. 

I can manage it with lots of compost in the garden, but in those tiny pots it was just too much for seedlings to fight through I only made that mistake once. That was also the year I had weird dirt bugs appear in the house. Never again.

If you make your own leaf mold it can be used to start seeds quite well. It's lighter than garden soil without having the heavy nutrient load compost does, as that's often too much for seedlings!

Cheap potting soil: The year after I tried starting seeds in dirt from the garden, I decided I better switch to potting soil. I bought some pretty cheap stuff and those poor seedlings really struggled. I later learned that there probably wasn't enough nutrients in the soil to sustain the seedling for the 4-6 weeks before they were to be moved to the garden. 

Most of the seedlings were weak and grew slowly. They didn't transplant well either. I got much better results when I switched to a high quality organic potting soil...although the organic part is optional.

Starting too early: I had a few years where I started seed so early they became root bound before it was warm enough to put them in the ground. Once they were in the ground it took them awhile to adapt and start growing again. 

I know it sounds like you'll get a jump on things by starting seeds extra early, but unless you have a really short growing season it's unnecessary and counterproductive.

If you do start your seeds way too early and they start to outgrow their pots, you can repot them in a larger sized container. It's not ideal to keep repotting your seedlings, but it's better than letting them get root bound!

The Farmers Almanac can help you decide when to start seeds indoors.

Luckily, using expired seeds doesn't seem to affect the quality of seedlings they produce.

Thankfully, it seems like my seedlings are all doing well this year. I have the herbs started now, but the veggies are next in line. Happy planting!

Related reading: How to start seeds cheaply!


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  1. Hi Lisa,

    Great tips for starting seeds! I especially found your experience about the soil from your garden and its consequences very interesting. This spring, I will definitely look for organic potting soil JUST to be safe!

    Have a lovely weekend!

    Visiting from Saturday Sparks,

    1. Hi Poppy,

      I had heard that you needed to use new potting soil for seedlings but of course I had to learn the hard way! lol Thankfully my plants do much better in the organic soil (and I usually find it on clearance at the end of the season so it's cheaper!)
      Have a great night!'


  2. LOL I have done so many of these things too!!! I've kind of given up starting seeds from scratch indoors. Now I just start them outdoors. You've given me some good ideas to start again.

  3. I'm such a novice with this stuff that I didn't even know to start seeds indoors! No wonder nothing ever came of my seeds! Just subscribed. :-) #happynowlinkup

  4. I can't tell you how many seedlings we've killed over the years. We finally gave up and started buying small plants. Maybe we should try seedlings again (after the baby is through the current wrecking-ball phase...those poor seedlings wouldn't have a chance right now).

  5. We tried growing a few plants from seeds last year but only one actually survived-- the butternut squash. We had some die right away and a few others died as i tried to transplant them outside. I wasn't surprised since I know nothing about growing plants but it sure was fun to try.

    1. It is fun to try! Almost every year I have something that I have to give in and buy at the nursery, but that doesn't stop me from trying a bunch more the next year! lol


  6. Thanks, for the information. I am just beginning to garden dream for the year. We have a long season, so I was close to burn our last year. However, I'm almost ready to have half my den devoted to baby tomatoes! Thanks, again, for sharing!

  7. I have never done this, but always wanted to. Thanks for sharing these tips at Brag About It! Pinning to share!

  8. These are great tips! I'm guilty of sloppy labeling and probably over watering too. Thanks for sharing on the #WasteLessWednesday Blog Hop!

  9. I have a lot more success by just planting the seeds directly into the ground when the time is right. I don't really have a good place for starting them early. Thanks for sharing your tips with SYC.

    1. Some seeds just don't start well inside. Amaranth is giving me a really hard time this year, but it's super easy to direct seed....I'm just being impatient! lol


  10. Thanks for sharing with us at our To Grandma's house we go link party! You will be featured tomorrow (Wednesday) morning when the new party starts!

  11. I have tried to start seeds and I know I made every mistake you did. It is a trial and error process. Keep working at it and your get right. The lighting can be a big problem. Visiting from #WasteLessWednesday Shared on twitter & pinned.

  12. Great tips on starting seeds! I've certainly made several of these mistakes myself!