5 Reasons Why Seeds Don’t Germinate (And What You Can Do About It)

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You know that feeling you get when you do all the things you’re supposed to do, but then what you expect to happen…doesn’t happen?

I’m thinking about the garden here.

Spring finally comes after a long winter, and you’re anxious to get out to plant the garden. You’re looking forward to fresh veggies, and you can almost taste them as you’re putting seed in the ground. You plant. You water. You wait. And then…

Nothing happens!

Or maybe you get a few plants that actually pop up, but it’s nowhere near how many you planted.

Argh!

If can be one of the most frustrating things to experience as a gardener. I mean, seeds are just supposed to work, right?

If you’ve ever experienced this frustration, you’re certainly not alone. It happens to all of us. And no matter how frustrating it can be, there’s usually a good reason why seeds don’t germinate. Identifying the cause will allow you to take the necessary steps to correct the issue and have a more successful planting experience.

So what causes seeds to fail to germinate? And what can you do about it?

I’m glad you asked!

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Bad Seed

This might seem too obvious.

But not every seed that you buy is guaranteed to produce a plant. You can assume an average 50% – 80% germinate rate as a rule of thumb, depending on the plant variety.

That means that only 50% – 80% of the seeds in your packet are likely to germinate.

Most seed companies will try to overcome these percentages by providing more seeds in a packet in order to comply with the germination standards established in the Federal Seed Act.  We’ve had years where we had relatively high germination rates with most of our seeds, and we’ve had years where they were lower.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Only buy your seed from a reputable re-seller (we use Johnny’s Seeds).
  • Plant extra seeds in your row to ensure good germination, then thin when necessary. Not the most efficient use of seed but effective.

Temperature

Soil temperature plays an important role in germination. Seeds need just the right conditions to thrive. Too hot and they may not do anything. Too cold and they may rot in the ground (especially if the soil is wet).

For instance, corn won’t germinate well in temperatures below 50 degrees. Cilantro won’t germinate evenly in soil temps above 65 degrees. Spinach does well in temps from 55 to 75 degrees, but time to emergence will vary significantly depending on what end of the temp range you plant in.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Read up on the best time to plant the varieties your interested in for your region. The local university extension center is a great resource for this information. Cornell University also has a great online vegetable guide that I use all the time.
  • Pay attention to the high and low temperature before planting. Just because temps might reach 60 degrees midday doesn’t mean the soil has warmed up yet if lows are still getting into the 40s.
  • Check out the various soil temperature probes available on the market. There are many on Amazon. We haven’t used a temp probe yet, but many people swear by them.
  • Start your seed indoors. See how easy that is to do here: Starting Seeds Without a Greenhouse

Pests

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve planted a row of beans with all the birds in the neighborhood watching with patient interest. I learned early on that if you make it easy for them to find your seed, they’ll snatch it right out of the ground as soon as you leave the garden.

Unfortunately birds aren’t the only pests you need to watch out for. Wireworms and various kinds of beetles will feed on your seed if they’re present. Grubs, cutworms and other insect larvae will target your seedling at or below the soils surface once it sprouts.

Your seed may actually have done what it was supposed to do. But as soon as it pokes its tender little body through the soil it becomes a target for a whole lot of hungry things looking for a snack.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Practicing good crop rotation will go a long way in limiting pests.
  • Get a soil test and apply the recommended soil amendments. Good soil health and proper pH level will give your seedling the best chance at survival.
  • Planting your seeds at proper depth and gently firming (not compacting) the ground over it will usually prevent the birds from stealing your seed.
  • Good tillage of the top couple inches of soil will expose most grubs or cutworms. Let the birds eat those instead of your seeds. Also keeping your seedbed clear of spent plants and other debris in the fall will eliminate hiding places for pests to over winter in.

Planting Seeds Too Deep

Each seed variety has different needs from the soil and from sunlight.

Some seeds, like carrots or clover, need direct sunlight in order to germinate. So you would plant these seeds very shallowly, only lightly covering the seed so that it doesn’t blow away. Other seeds like beans and corn need to be planted deeper in the soil and rely on soil temperature rather than ambient light to germinate.

I have lost a fair amount of well intended squash and cucumber plants because I was careless with how deep I planted them. Frustrating!

Here’s what you can do:

  • A good rule of thumb to follow is to plant your seed at a depth that is twice its diameter.
  • As you plan your garden during the winter months, familiarize yourself with the germination needs of each plant variety you plan to direct sow. Make note of optimum planting depths and use this as a guide for spring planting.

Too Much Water

Did you know that over watering is one of the leading reasons why seeds don’t germinate?

There’s a balance in everything we do, and watering seeds is no exception. Giving your freshly planted seed access to consistent moisture is essential to good germination. If your soil is too dry it won’t encourage your seed to sprout. If your soil is waterlogged your seed might rot.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Make sure you plant your seeds in well worked, loose soil that drains well. If you’re working with soil that has heavy amounts of clay in it, amend with sand and compost.
  • If watering with a sprinkler, set it on a timer. A good rule of thumb is to water for about 15 minutes early morning or in the evening.

All gardeners struggle with germination from time to time. It’s just part of the deal. But knowing how to prevent some of the most common reasons for germination failure will set you up for higher success and better planting.

Happy planting!

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