Seeds not germinating? Strive these fixes

If I told you I've never had problems with seeds not germinating, I'd be lying. There is a learning curve between starting transplanting and helping the seeds germinate. Much goes in the time to plant seeds. The seed germination process involves many different elements. Problems arise when you first start launching Seed.

But it's not the end of the world. Plants are miracles. A whole organism develops from just one seed. Germinating seeds is a process that may surprise you. As you continually help the seeds germinate, you will learn over time.

But we are here to address issues that can arise in the seed germination process. We'll discuss ways to mitigate some of these issues so you can come away with an informed perspective on what might be happening. Sometimes it is the conditions present during seed germination such as the growing medium, and sometimes it's the seeds themselves. Sometimes you get it right, but some outside constraints nibble at your seedlings.

Don't whine if you face problems when planting seeds for the upcoming season. Let's learn how to grow seeds in conditions that will directly contribute to your growing season success.

Germination conditions must be adjusted

Are your seeds not germinating? Maybe we have an explanation! Source: hello-julie

The conditions under which seeds are set have a direct impact on germination rate. You control this with the right attention and the right tools. Make small adjustments as needed and you'll easily sprout seeds into plants.

light and temperature

Incorrect lighting causes problems. Not all seeds need light to germinate, but some do. Some seeds get the best lighting from direct sunlight, but that's not always available when growing seeds indoors. Study the species you're growing to determine the optimal light conditions so certain seeds don't go dormant while others germinate. Problems with a lack of sunlight are often reconciled with a cheap shop light. Sometimes you need something more specific, for example when growing tomatoes from seed. Fluorescent lights are best in this situation. When it comes to lighting, there are options, so take the time to consider which seeds need which lighting if you're starting indoors where sunlight isn't available.

Incorrect temperature is often the cause of seeding problems – especially when seeding indoors. The vast majority of seeds require a soil temperature between 65 and 85 degrees. While this may be the temperature in your home, if your setup is near a drafty window, the seeds may not be getting the warmth they need. An arctic blast with extreme temperatures could prevent these winter-sown seeds from breaking dormant. Use a soil thermometer to determine whether or not you need extra help in the form of a plastic tub or container over your winter seed (if winter sowing) or a heat mat under seed trays. Sometimes a grow light is enough to warm a cold soil temperature and help seeds break dormancy.


Directly related to temperature and light is the moisture content of your seed starting process. Most seeds need a generous amount of water to germinate. In general, keep the soil moist when planting new seeds. Large particles in your soil will reduce moisture relative to the seed itself, so take this into account when germinating seeds (especially in well-mulched raised beds). Consider whether or not your seeds prefer more or less moisture. Reduce watering if you find that your soil doesn't need to be as moist and you are still within the germination period for certain seeds. For example, instead of saturating, try using a spray bottle to spray the soil's surface.

In some cases, you may not be watering enough. Certain seedlings require a lot of moisture to allow the seed coat to yield to the dicots it contains. Constant drying out of your seed mix could be related to media, ambient temperature and humidity, or watering frequency. All seeds need adequate moisture to germinate. Some need more than you think. Soybeans, for example, need a soil moisture content of at least 25% for seedlings to sprout. Measure the moisture content in the soil with a soil meter. If you find that you have constant problems with humidity and moisture, a grow tent can help as it gives you the opportunity to create optimal conditions for germination.

soil or germination medium

The type of medium you use directly affects the amount of oxygen getting to your vegetable seeds. If the growing medium contains too much clay, it may not get enough oxygen and water to form seeds. If you find that there is no drainage in the media, change the soil and start over. Usually, such sanitation is possible with fast seed germination, and not so easy with slow seed germination. Seed germination also depends on how deep you plant the seeds in the growing medium. Planting depths are generally written on seed packets, so follow the guidelines there to determine how deep to plant in your growing medium. Some seeds don't need much more than being spread on the surface of the earth.

You may be left with a starting mix that just isn't good enough to germinate your seeds. Until you plant and wait, nothing happens and it's too late to make any changes. Some research from reputable sources on how to germinate seeds will help. Some do best when germinated in a plastic bag with a folded towel soaked in water. Chia seeds enjoy clay as a starting medium. In this case, too much organic matter will prevent chia sprouts. By paying attention to the needs of your seeds and giving them a paper towel or clay to germinate, you'll have young seedlings in no time.

Timed coordination

Even if you start seeds indoors, you will delay seeds if you plant them at the wrong time. So much goes into one season that helps these seeds grow. Light, temperature and humidity change indoors and outdoors as the seasons change. If you plant before the last frost, a drastic change in temperature can kill seeds. One way to increase your ability to successfully produce seedling is to plant at the right time. Check seed packs and reputable sources for the right timings.

Also, your HVAC system has different habits in different seasons. Maybe you put your seed pack next to the HVAC drain before budding and they got too dry and hot to survive. The same goes for your seed trays. You may have neglected them on a window that has become too cold due to temperature changes. Regular watering is important, especially during times of the year when day and night temperatures vary widely. But too much water causes seeds to rot before they can sprout. Organization tools like a calendar or a spreadsheet that lets you know when it's time to water are very helpful.

Seed-related germination problems

Sprouted Tomato SeedsThree freshly sprouted tomatoes. Source: kaibara87

Sometimes the conditions under which the seed is planted are not the only culprits for improper seed starting. The quality, type and growth needs of the seed also have an influence.

cold stratification

Cold stratification is required for seeds that require cold hours to start. Many seeds that require a cold strat are wildflowers. For example, spurge seeds in autumn overwinter and sprout again in spring. If you accidentally planted seeds that need chill ahead of time, try again one of two ways. Sow outdoors first in autumn to allow the natural process of cold stratification to take place. Alternatively, you can place the seeds in the freezer for a while and then continue growing indoors before transplanting into your garden. Some need two weeks of cold, others two months. Consult your local agricultural advisory office or reputable gardening source to learn what cold spell is required.


Maybe you've had nasturtiums that you just can't get going. They've tried year after year, changing soil mixes and tinkering with the conditions. What you might be missing is a mechanical process called scarification. By scratching the seed coat with either an Exacto knife or sandpaper, you break open the seed and speed up the germination process. There are good lists of specific plants that need scarifying at local advice offices and among reputable online sources. If your larger seeds aren't germinating, check to see if they need a disc or two to germinate.

Seed-borne disease

If you saw a packet of seeds that you couldn't find anywhere else online, ordered them and they never germinated into seedlings, it's possible the seeds are diseased. Seed-borne diseases result from improper seed storage and improper seed storage environments. Sometimes when storing tomato seeds in the fermentation process, white mold can form. Sometimes the distributor isn't reliable and you get moisture readings in transit that encourage infections that could be spread to your garden. Most high-quality seeds and their distributors have no disease problems. Use online reviews to determine whether or not a purchase is a good idea for smaller businesses. Be wary of imported seeds, especially seeds from China, as they may not be what you ordered.

seed storage

If you have old seeds, check if they are past their shelf life before planting them. Seeds that are too old should be replaced with more seeds instead of being planted. Some seeds have a two-year shelf life, while other seeds have a five-year shelf life. Seed packets have an expiration date that will tell you if planting is a good idea. Some seeds have a shelf life of just a few weeks. If you don't have the information handy, do some research to find out.

Seed can also be stored incorrectly. Certain plants do not like storing seeds in cold temperatures or sometimes even at room temperature. You can obtain the ideal storage temperature from a seed package. Another problem with seed storage is ambient humidity. Higher humidity encourages mold that could damage seeds, or fungal growth that could be transferred to your garden when you plant seedlings. In this case, the plant may have sprouted, but a disease is present that eliminates seedlings. How you store seeds affects germination.

germination rate and time

Some plants produce tiny seeds that have a very low germination rate. Other plants are easy and notorious for being 100% sprout (sunflowers, anyone?). Before planning your garden, think about the germination rate. Sow those with a lower rate at a higher frequency per hole. Those with a higher rate can usually go straight to the garden. There are also times when seeds take a long time to germinate. Many herbs take months before they can be transplanted into a garden. Check germination rates and times before giving up.

External germination problems

cress germination stagesCress seeds in different germination stages. Source: Aaronalison

And then there are your favorite friends in the garden who love snacks. Let's talk about her and some other annoying friends.

Hungry wildlife and pests

Some plants are desirable for deer, birds, squirrels, and mice, among others. Even if you radiate a sow, you might find that they mistake the sprouts or the seeds themselves for a buffet. If you want to propagate seeds, protect each seed or sprout with a barrier. This can be chicken wire around the garden bed or a shade cloth to keep out pests that might come in from above.

Another external but underground problem that could arise is maggots and worms that like to chew on the roots of new shoots. Treat the soil with nematodes in a timely manner to reduce the threat. Alternatively, you can plant these types of plants in containers where maggots and other larvae cannot get them.


When you plant seeds in used soil, whether outdoors or indoors, you know you can deal with soil-borne diseases. This includes damping off, which is caused by a form of soil-borne fungi. Affected seedlings grow on scrawny stems and do not root deep enough, often breaking off at the bottom and dying. Another thing to watch out for is bacterial infections, which present themselves similarly to attenuation. Just like damping off, they attack after the seed has germinated, which at first seems like things are going well, but then your seedlings die in a few weeks. Soil testing by your local counseling office can determine if bacterial and fungal infections are present in a garden bed. Check for damping-off before planting, especially during cool, wet seasons.

frequently asked Questions

spinach seedlingNothing is quite as rewarding as seeing your seeds finally sprout. Source: Myrialejean

Q: What do I do if my seeds don't germinate?

A: Take a deep breath and assess the situation. Determine if the terms need to be changed or if you need to try again next season. Gardening is a learning process.

Q: How do you force seeds to germinate?

A: Cold stratification, scarification, or exposure to high heat and humidity is sometimes required. Do a little research to determine what is best for each seed type.

Q: Why are my seeds taking so long to germinate?

A: It depends. It could be a timing issue. You may be working with seeds that take a long time to germinate, or you could be growing seeds with low germination rates. It could also be the conditions under which seeding begins.

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