WHAT I SOW, DON’T GROW - Overcoming Germination Difficulties!


We are often amazed at how some growers experience a poor germination rate on a variety of seeds while others would have a fantastic germination rate on the very same batch of seeds.  Often seeds will have a successful germination rate just to find that seedlings struggle and look unhealthy. Ultimately, a continuous effort of patience, perseverance is required as well as doing some research.

Obviously, the seed sowing environment has a lot to do with seed starting difficulties.  Poor-quality seeds will affect the gemination ratio, and this is something we all know, but if you have good quality seeds and you still have germination challenges, don’t lose heart.  Most of the time we do not afford the seeds enough time to germinate.  Patience is golden, they say!  Growing instructions usually indicate an average time based on the perfect growing conditions.  Temperature, moisture and seed starting medium all play a significant role.  Seed germination in a less than ideal growing environment will require additional time to germinate.  You could pre-sprout your seeds to provide quicker germination, as this provides the ideal moisture, air, and temperature.  You can do this by placing your seeds in a damp paper towel before they are planted in the growing medium.

Older seeds might not germinate at all and if they germinate, they might not have the vigour to produce the healthy plants you want.  It is therefore imperative that seeds are stored at the correct conditions.  Most seeds can last several years if stored away from heat, moisture, and light.  Test your stored seeds to test their viability.  If you have little success, then purchase fresh seeds and replace your inventory.  See our blog posts on saving a variety of seeds.

Often the moisture levels are not ideal.  Seeds require the absolute correct moisture levels to germinate or can rot when the growing media is too wet and if too dry, moisture cannot penetrate the seed coating and the seed will fail to sprout.  It is a good idea to moisten your seed starting mix prior to filling your seedling containers. The growing media must be damp and not dripping wet. A soil moisture meter will greatly assist in maintaining suitable moisture levels.

A propagator will assist in keeping moisture levels consistent and create the perfect germination environment.  Use a spray bottle to mist the soil surface it if becomes dry to the touch.  As soon as the seeds sprout, remove the humidity dome and move the seeds into light, either artificial lighting or natural light. 

The most important and often overlooked obstacle we notice is that seeds are planted too deep.  All seeds contain their own nutrients to assist them through the germination and sprouting phase.  Planted too deep they will deplete their nutrients and die before reaching the surface.  Even if the sprout manages to break through the surface, it can be weakened due to the struggle.  It is important to note that people then assume that the seeds they bought are of poor quality.  A general rule of thumb is planting the seed at a depth of twice its size. 

Equally important to moisture, and often overlooked, is soil temperature.  Seeds that are sown in soil that is too cold will remain dormant and can even rot.  Again, heat will kill the seed if it is too hot. Cool season plant seeds germinate between 16 – 21 degrees Celsius and warm season plant seeds germinate between 24 to 30 degrees Celsius.  Heated seedling mats aid in heating the soil effectively for warmer season plants.  In summer, cooler season plants will germinate after a process of stratification (cold treatment).  However, growing these into mature plants will be quite challenging as it is almost impossible to mimic the cooler seasons’  temperatures at home.  Growing warmer season plants in cooler temperatures will be less challenging when using a controlled growing environment.

Lastly, we all know that good air supply and circulation is imperative for seedlings to thrive - It really is a no-brainer.  However, often neglected, is providing additional nutrients for each stage. As mentioned before, seeds contain enough nutrients to sustain itself through the germination process.  However, as soon as the seedlings begin to form its first true leaves, additional nutrients should be added.

Take heart, patience and perseverance is what will get you there and always remember what Farrah Gray, used to say: “Inside every seed is the potential for an incredible harvest.”

About the Author

Michele Fourie is the Seeds for Africa General Manager. Michele loves growing beautiful flowers, chilli plants and is passionate about exceptional customer. service. Michele is also a fundi in the kitchen. Check out her blog post on making your own sweet pickled piquant cherry peppers at this link.