Need help! Sprouted seeds dying after 2-3 days

RyanMarkzJuly 16, 2014

Bear with me...this is a long post, but I felt like it was necessary to go into detail in order to get the best possible advice from you all :)

Okay, let me start off by saying that I am completely new to gardening (other than research I've done online over the last couple of weeks). Now that that's out of the way, I'll begin by explaining my situation and then I will describe my setup, environment, etc. to help you experts narrow down the possible causes of my problem :)

1 week ago today inside of my apartment using my 72-slot 'germination station' tray, I planted 2 slots of some sweet basil seeds and 2 slots of tomato seeds. 3 or 4 basil sprouts appeared out of the soil in 2-3 days, and 2 or 3 tomato sprouts showed after 4-5 days.

Let's start with the basil:
Everything looked fine until the next morning when I saw some movement in my peripheral vision. I looked closer and saw what looked to be some kind of millipede-looking insect about the size of an earwig crawling around my soil. It dug down into the surface and when it came back up again, it went straight for the tip of one of the basil sprouts and tugged at it before digging back down into the soil never to be seen again. I thought to myself, "Well, I've read that some of these insects can be good for the no big deal." I went to work and when I came home about 8-9 hours later, the length of that sprout that the bug went after was noticeably cut down in size. The next morning, it looked like it had begun to shrivel up and 1 of the other sprouts had disappeared as well. The basil sprouts in the adjacent pod looked to be okay though. This continued until all of my basil sprouts had either disappeared or shriveled up.

When I realized that all my basil was dead or going to be dead, I just decided to start digging down into the soil with a tiny stick to see if there was anything interesting going on. When I pulled the lower soil up to the top, I noticed a few very tiny yellowish-white bugs crawling (not flying) around. They looked kind of like fleas in shape I suppose.

Now let's talk about the tomato:
when my tomato seeds sprouted, they popped up in that hook/loop shape that I expect to see. They remained like this for 2-3 days, and yesterday afternoon one of the 'loops' had begun to straighten and they looked like this (notice the one on the right):

When I woke up this morning, my tomato sprout looked like this (again, notice the one on the right):

I haven't attempted to dig up the tomato seedlings' soil yet, but when I get home later this evening I will probably do it if the sprouts look like they're going to die.

Now, let me describe my methods so there are no assumptions here.
- I have read about 'damping off' being a common cause of new seedlings dying, so I was extremely cautious about overwatering (conceivably to the point of underwatering).
- I used miracle gro seed starting mix from Home Depot
- The soil was fairly moist already, so after the initial watering and planting of the seeds I only gave the soil a single small squirt from a squirt bottle each morning.
- I used a 'germination station' which has 72 'slots' for you to put your soil/medium into, and a lid for you to place on top to help keep the moisture inside during germination. I used 4 of these slots (2 for basil and 2 for tomato).
- Immediately after I saw sprouts, I removed the lid from the germination tray and began using my T5 Fluorescent grow light for ~15 hours per day, which I hung about 4-5 inches above the seed-starting tray
- The temperature of my apartment remains between 76F-80F
- After about 3 days, I noticed the soil seemed to be drying out more between waterings, so each morning I gave each pod a few squirts rather than the single squirt I was initially giving when the soil was still very moist
- I only watered once per day using tap water. I do not have a water softener.

I'm wondering if the bugs I saw in my basil sprout (including the millipede-like insect) may be attacking the roots of my plants. If this is the case, did they come with the soil? Should I ask for a refund?

I don't think this is 'damping off' disease since I definitely did not overwater, there are no fungus gnats, and the sprouts seem to be sort of shriveling up rather than falling over at the soil surface level.

I'm not sure what I could be doing wrong, and I don't want to try again until I have some idea of what went wrong so I don't repeat the mistake. I'm hoping that I can possibly get more clues (and pictures) by looking at the roots once I dig them up later today. I appreciate any advice you all can give me. Thanks in advance.

- Ryan

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


Welcome to the forum. I should tell you that I am not an expert on growing veggies so I may not be able to assist you very much, but I'm sure other members on this forum can help. Please take my advice with that in mind.

Regarding the bugs eating your basil, this sounds like they might, possibly, have been in the soil mix when you bought it. If you still have some of the unused soil you might want to take a close look and see if you can find more of these bugs in the unused bagged soil. If you see them there, then you have your answer. Since these plants are growing indoors I think we can rule out any garden/outdoor causes.

"Damping Off" disease is a biological/fungal issue, quite common with waterlogged soils, poor air circulation, or garden soils used in containers. It has nothing to do with insects.

I might suggest you try a second batch of seeds. If you do this, I would wash the germination trays with a weak bleach solution or some other disinfectant to remove any possibility of contamination from them. Then I would try using a different soil, perhaps a small bag of Miracle Gro or Schultz germination soil. Then retry your seeds and see what happens.

Hope this helps. Keep us posted.


    Bookmark   July 16, 2014 at 6:17PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
drew51 SE MI Z5b/6a

It does sound like damping off to me too. I would do as suggested and add a thin layer of perlite, sand, or DE to the top of the soil. This will prevent fungal spores from reaching the plant.

    Bookmark   July 17, 2014 at 7:34AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks for your advice, yard_guy! I dumped out the plants that had died, and only found a single tiny winged insect (but it did not fly) which proceeded to crawl around the edge of my tray. I will try disinfecting and then possibly trying one of the soils you mentioned. Do you think I should give the same soil another shot? I'm wondering if it would even be worth it, considering all of my plants (in 4 different slots) died. I'd hate to let an entire bag of soil go to waste, but I guess it's essentially already a waste if it is contaminated :( Do you know if hardware stores would give refunds for selling bad soil?

    Bookmark   July 17, 2014 at 2:32PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


I think starting over is a good idea. With the plastic trays disinfected you should be good to start over.

Your original note stated you were using Miracle-Gro Seed Starting Potting Mix from Home Depot, so that should be a good soil to use. I assume the link at the bottom is what you are using? If so I think that is a good soil to work with.

Before you try again, I'd dip a few handfuls of that soil out onto a worktable or bench under bright lighting and have a look for any other insects. If you see other insects like the one you described then I would not use the soil. If you see no other insects after a close examination then the whole thing may have just been a fluke.

I no longer use MG bagged soils but when I did use it I never found any contaminated with insects. I have purchased various types of wood mulch over the years and found insects in the mulch on several occasions.

BTW, there is a forum here on GW called "Growing from Seed". You might try reading some posts there for better info than I can provide. They also have a good FAQ section for new gardeners so that might also help. You can find lots of info there on seed starting mixes, damping off disease, and other similar topics.

Good luck and keep us posted.


Here is a link that might be useful: MG Seed Starting mix

    Bookmark   July 17, 2014 at 7:16PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Hey, Thanks again, TYG!

I just finished digging through the bag of soil under my grow light (Yes, the soil is the same as the one you linked :)), and I did see two of the tiny insects I saw before, but no millipedes. I was going to record a quick video so everyone could see the bugs, but they quickly buried themselves into the soil before I could get a good picture. Should I be very concerned about these tiny insects or could they be helpful ones in the soil? Judging from their behavior, they look like they prefer to be deep in the soil rather than at the surface.

I went ahead and disinfected my tray and flats with diluted bleach as you suggested and I think I'm going to give this soil one more shot. If they die again, I'll probably just attribute it to bad luck with getting a bad batch of soil and try getting a different bag. If that fails, then I'll know I'm doing something wrong ;) I'll post again with progress (and with pictures :))

Thanks again for your advice!

- Ryan

    Bookmark   July 18, 2014 at 9:41PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


I'm not sure what those insects are but I'd probably not be comfortable with insects of any kind living in my seed starting soil mix.

I normally grow trees in containers outdoors, with the containers sitting on the ground 24/7. Sometimes when watering or fertilizing I see ants or worms in or near the drainage holes of those containers. Not a big deal for me since these trees are outdoors with growing in non-sterile soil, but you are starting seeds indoors with pre-made, bagged, MG seedling soil, so you shouldn't have any issues with insects.

I have heard of people sterilizing soil in their kitchen oven to eliminate weed seeds and insects from regular garden soils, but I've never tried to do this myself. A Google search should give you details on how that can be done if you are interested.

The washing of the plastic seeding trays will help reduce the chance of damping off disease, but you also need to be careful to not keep the soil waterlogged. Also keeping space between containers and providing good air circulation also are good ideas. Wet soil and poor air movement greatly increase the risk of damping off. Using regular, unsterilized garden soil is a high risk for damping off, but bagged potting soil should help reduce that risk considerably.

Keep us posted.


    Bookmark   July 19, 2014 at 7:48AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks again TYG :)

I planted new seeds (basil, tomato, and jalapeño) Friday night. When I came home about an hour ago, the basil had sprouted:

I removed the plastic lid and I'm running a small fan to gently blow and circulate air onto the flats. I also began using the grow light. No sign of the tomato or jalapeño yet, but I'm not feeling too hopeful after seeing the sprout in the bottom right of that picture...

Upon further examination, it looks like there is some brown discoloration near the soil surface level, as well as some sort of cotton-like webbing attached to the stem. I took a close-up here:

I noticed also in the other two flats (the tomato and jalapeño) that they also have a bit of webbing on the surface of the soil even though there are no visible sprouts.

My friend's mom, who has some gardening experience, suggested that it might be spider mites. If this is the case, I'm not sure what more could be done on my end other than just trying a new bag of soil and starting over. I'm not about to start using pesticides or insecticides on my plants. Frustrated :( Any ideas? Are these seeds doomed before they even have a chance? :(

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 6:55PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
drew51 SE MI Z5b/6a

Looks like mold to me. Seems it's too wet. I don't like those small seeding trays. I would use something a little bigger. Soil used must not be sterile, or your house is filled with mold spores.
Spider mites would not bother with anything that small.
It still may be OK, but that sucks mold or algae already.
Try adding 1 part hydrogen peroxide to 9 parts water.
Seedling needs to be moist, not wet and not dry.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 7:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Hey Ryan,

When I grow trees from seed I don't usually have problems like these. Long ago when I started seeds in regular garden soil I had all kinds of damping off problems. Once I realized that seeds germinate better in soil-less mixes and have less chance of soil pathogens I gave up on garden soil. Since then I've had very few problems germinating seed.

OK, we KNOW that contamination is not coming from the plastic seed trays since you washed and disinfected them between planting cycles. Your trays should be fine.

Occasionally some seeds might have some tiny, invisible fungi on them that can quickly grow in a wet environment. As a precaution, you might want to consider a brief (5 or 10 minute) soaking in 50/50 mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide just before planting. This should kill fungi on the outside of the seed coats, just in case there is any. That would eliminate the possibility that the seed coats are infected.

I guess at this point Id be tempted to toss away the MG soil you have and try something else. I usually start my seeds in a loose mix of fine pine bark and perlite with good results but there are many different seed starting soils on the market, including one by Schultz that I've heard good things about. I'll add a link.

Hope this helps.


Here is a link that might be useful: Seedling soil

    Bookmark   July 21, 2014 at 7:49PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Need help identifying a few plants from a photo
Can someone please identify the plants used in this...
Merci Ava Maria
Help! My slash pine seedlings in containers are turning yellowish
I have several hundred slash pine seedlings I put in...
George Spector
Hello! Houzz's new format has presented some challenges,...
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)
Dealing with Water-Retentive Soils
Dealing with Water-Retentive Soilscolor>size> A...
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)
RE: Introductory post-C.S-W.M&RXXI 1-27-15
Hi everyone, In my very 1st post, I described how by...
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™