When I planted part of my new garden a few weeks ago (zone 9a!), the seeds set directly into the garden included zucchini and cucumber seeds. The cucumbers all came up, but no zucchini plants appeared.
I checked the zucchini seed packet — it was stamped for use in 2019, which is plenty recent, and it was stored in the same container, in the fridge, with the other seed packets. The zucchini seeds should have been ok.
There was no sign of critter activity above ground. No holes had been dug, no remnants of the seeds were visible nearby. When I dug down to look for the seeds, they were just gone.
I suspected a critter, but the below-ground kind, something similar to a cutworm.
To verify this idea, and to thwart a future loss, I planted the next set of zucchini seeds inside collars that I made by cutting up a saved paper cup.
I pressed the collars into the garden soil and planted a couple of seeds in each one. The good news is that the collars worked. We now have little zucchini plants.
If your garden experiences a similar seed failure, consider using the paper collar method of protecting seeds and seedlings. First, though, consider some of the many other reasons that the seeds might not be sending up little plants.
The actual seeds
Seeds need certain conditions for them to stay “viable”. If the seeds are old or were held in poor conditions for too long, they may have lost their ability to grow. Ask these questions:
- How old are the seeds? Seeds for some crops are only “good” for two-to-three years. If the seeds are older, they might not be able to grow.
- Have the seeds been kept in cool, dry conditions? If seeds have been exposed to warm, humid air for long (like being left in a hot car for a few hours sometime last summer), then they might not be able to grow.
- If the seeds are from older packets, not newly purchased this year, have they been stored properly? Vegetable seeds keep their ability to grow longest when they have been stored in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer.
Planting and care of the seeds
Planting depth, soil moisture, and soil temperature are three factors that can have a huge effect on whether seeds will unfold into little plants that are able to push up to the soil surface.
- One big reason for seeds to not come up is that they have been planted too deep. Think back to the day of planting. Does the planting depth match what is recommended on the seed packet, or did the seeds get pushed, or slip down, more deeply into the soil? Seeds that are too deep may unfold down under the ground, but they might not be able to push up through all that soil to the surface.
- Was the soil kept evenly moist? If the garden soil dries out, seeds will not come up. If the soil dries out after the seeds begin to unfold, the little plants will die before you ever see them. Soil that is too wet is just as bad as soil that is too dry. Seeds and their unfolding little plants can drown and/or rot in soaking-wet soil.
- Was the soil warm enough? Some seeds need warmer soil than other seeds. If you are still waiting to see your okra plants, for example, be prepared to wait a while longer. Okra seeds unfold faster in warmer soils.
- Have you waited long enough? Some seeds take longer than others to come up, even with the right warmth and water conditions. For example, parsley seeds can take a couple of weeks (or three, or four) to unfold their inner plants.
A gardener can have done everything right, using excellent seeds and providing perfect care to the garden, and still not see the expected little plants emerging from the soil. After thinking back carefully to consider where else in the steps something could have gone wrong, the gardener may then need (like me) to consider critters as a possible cause.
A wide range of critters dig up and eat seeds, both the newly planted seeds and the seeds that have begun to unfold into little plants.
The helpful thing about most critters is that they tend to leave signs, or clues, about who they are.
- Some birds will scratch up seeds to eat, and crows, in particular, will pull tiny plants (especially corn) out of the ground. You may see tossed-aside leaves that are their left-overs.
- Small mammals, like chipmunks, rats, and squirrels sometimes dig up seeds and seedlings to eat. They may leave holes in the ground, or dirt may be kicked up around the planting area. Sometimes, too, they leave footprints.
- Rabbits and deer may bite off the tops of the plants, leaving a shortened stem standing in the garden.
- Underground pests, like cutworms, can destroy seedlings, and other similar larvae can eat the softened seeds. The damage from these may be harder to spot.
Paper collars when there are no cups
When I have planted corn inside collars, the birds have left it alone. Corn was the first crop that I protected in this way.
In a small garden, using paper collars to defend your seeds and seedlings is not too much work. Finding enough material to use is the biggest challenge. Right now, we are short on saved paper cups.
However, my Louisiana sister told me this morning that she has used paper-towel tubes and toilet-paper tubes, cut to shorter lengths, to protect seedlings in her garden.
I am pretty sure I can find some cardboard tubes to cut into shorter lengths (an inch-and-a-half or two inches), which is good, because I have more seeds and little plants to set into the garden this weekend.
I hope you are all keeping safe and well and enjoying your gardens, no matter how small.