Seedlings In Tray

My Seed Starting Sins


Seedlings In Tray

With February nearly here, I’m thinking it’s time to start some seeds for spring planting. It’s a great way to get a jump on spring gardening. It also helps to save a few bucks, an important consideration in my home, I can tell you.

I must however confess that despite being a “garden expert” I’ve had my share of seed starting disasters. Let me tell you about some mistakes I’ve made and how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Using Old Seeds That Won’t Sprout – Every spring I have leftover seeds from last year. Old seeds may or may not sprout. To test before I sow, I take 10 seeds from a packet, wrap them in a wet paper towel, and store them in a plastic bag for a week. At the end of the week I count the number that have sprouted. If it’s less than five, I toss the old seeds and buy new.

sowing viable seeds in a tray
Only seeds that are viable (able to sprout) are worth sowing. If you’re not sure, test your seeds first with the “wet paper towel” test.

Mistake 2: Not Using Seed Starting Medium – If I’m pressed for time, I sometimes cheat and plant seeds in any old soil I have handy. Bad move on my part. Seed starting medium works better than any potting soil for starting seeds. These special blends are light-weight and fungus-free. Seeds are more likely to stay moist without getting soggy. It may cost a few more bucks but the results will be worth it.

Mistake 3: Using the Wrong Pot –The soil in pots crafted from porous material (peat, newspaper, cardboard) are inexpensive but will dry out quickly. I’ve had much better success using seed starting trays with a water reservoir underneath. Refilling a water reservoir every four to five days is also better for distracted people like me.

Mistake 4: Ignoring Directions – I’m one of those impatient souls who believe instructions are for the other guy. All too often that means I waste time fiddling around before I admit my foolishness and go back to the directions. I’ve learned the hard way to read the seed package first before sowing. Directions such as “don’t cover seeds,” “soak before sowing,” and “keep warm” are there for a reason. If I ignore these directions, I shouldn’t expect much to come up.

labeling seed starts
Always use labels when sowing seeds. It will help you avoid mistakes later.

Mistake 5: Not Labeling the Seed Trays – Many plants look similar when they are small. In the weeks between sowing and planting it’s all too easy to forget what you planted where. I made the mistake once of planting half a tray with parsley and the other half with cilantro, two close cousins. Weeks later when I was ready to transplant, I convinced myself I knew which half was which. Then disaster struck. I managed to overturn the flat as I was preparing to plant them outdoors. I had no choice but to plant them higgledy-piggledy and hope I could tell the difference later when they were grown.

Mistake 6: Poor Lighting – Home is a wonderful place for me and my family. Not so for those seedlings. Plants need a wider spectrum of light than humans see. A sunny window may look bright to our eyes but only 10-15 percent of the sun’s total illumination makes it through the glass. I’ve learned to compensate for the darker indoor conditions with a grow lamp, a fluorescent bulb designed to imitate the sun’s broad spectrum of light.

Now you know all the seed starting sins I’ve done over the years. Take a tip from my older and wiser self. Don’t do what I did.

Seeds and seed starting supplies
Be smart. Use seed starting mixture, fresh seeds, and a seed starting tray with a water reservoir. This will get your new plants off to a good start.



Ann McCormick
Ann McCormick, Southwest Gardening contributor

If you enjoy herbs and organic gardening, you’ll want to meet Ann McCormick, the Herb ‘n Cowgirl. A life-long gardener, she has devoted her time for the last 20 years to writing and speaking about her favorite subject. The Herb ‘n Cowgirl also shares her love of herbs and her gardening techniques as a speaker and media guest. She lives in Fort Worth, TX with her husband of 37 years and an assortment of dogs. To find out more about the Herb ‘n Cowgirl visit her at

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  • Darcie Naylor

    In all my years of gardening, which are many, I have never caught the “plants from seed” bug. I’ve always preferred that instant gratification. Through the years, though, I have learned to slow down and enjoy the process of gardening, which has recently included learning to start plants from seeds. It IS a learning process, but not a hard one. I actually really enjoy perusing seed catalogs – yes, the actual paper ones I get in the mail (I’m old fashioned like that) and this year I picked out 4 new to me plants to try. So far, every single one of my little squares in my seed tray have sprouts! That is so exciting, isn’t it?? Thanks for this post. It was informative and fun.

    • Ann McCormick

      Darcie, glad to hear you are exploring the new-to-you territory of seed starting. Yes, it is fun to watch the transformation of brown seeds into young plants. I started a tray about 10 days ago and am taking photos every 7 days. I’ll be posting the results on FB and TW later this month. – Ann

  • Kathy Nickolich

    So what your saying is that the Romaine lettuce seeds I planted (from last year) on January 9 and still haven’t sprouted, are never going to? Okay, I’ll go buy a new package.

    • Ann McCormick

      Yes, Kathy, it’s time to buy more seeds. Some seeds have a relatively short shelf life – measured in months. It’s also possible that the seeds were stored where they got too hot and dried out too much. better luck with your next package of seeds.

    • Ann McCormick

      Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah. I think we all can learn from our mistakes – sometimes the more outrageous the better.

  • Sandy Smith

    This was very helpful, thank you. I bookmarked this. You forgot to mention my favorite seed mistake, Fling the seeds in the garden and hope for the best. Lol

    • Ann McCormick

      Ah yes, the seed fling. I do sometimes do that when I run out of time and patience. Just don’t tell anyone else – it will be our secret. :>