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Alaska gardeners have lots of questions about seeds and seedlings

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: April 9, 2020
  • Published April 9, 2020

Seed questions are peaking, if I may use that phrase given the seriousness of what we are experiencing. It is good that so many have been able to get their hands on seeds, that nurseries are still open and that the gardening spirit thrives.

The number one set of questions revolves around spindly seedlings. These are almost always caused by inadequate light. The solution is to either move your seedlings to better light or give them better light where they are using supplemental lighting.

Warm temperatures can contribute to gangly plants, too, so keep an eye out. Most seedlings don’t do well when it gets into the 80s, which it can up by a south-facing window.

Of course, a fair number of folks want to know what happens if seeds don’t germinate at all? To these I note that it is always tricky to know if you’ve waited long enough to really know. Seed packets should have the time it takes for the variety to germinate, but if not, ask the internet. (“Google is the gardener’s best tool …”). Once you know, add a few days, just because your conditions are perhaps not ideal.

Assuming things don’t come up, replant the extra seeds you should have left. It is always a good idea to keep some seeds when planting, just in case this happens. This time, make sure the soil is pre-moistened before you plant, kept just slightly moist once seeds are planted to the depth suggested on the package, and provide adequate light.

Sometimes, of course, the seed is just bad. Nothing you can do about that!

Seedlings that germinate but then die off do so, in most cases, because the soil is too wet and specialized pathogens move in and do their thing. If you cover germinating containers, provide some air or remove the covers altogether if the soil remains wet. Don’t water so much. Provide moving air with a small fan. Try germinating larger seeds between paper towels and then planting them.

Seeds contain food for the seedling as well as microbes to help generate that food into useable form. It is a great idea to add mycorrhizal fungi to seed soil and, if possible, sprinkle some on seeds or roll them in mycorrhizal fungi. Use an endomycorrhizal mix. Roll nitrogen fixing bacteria onto legume seeds. Do not add fertilizer.

When should you divide seedlings? It’s always best to try and plant seedlings so they don’t have to be divided, even if they will need transplanting. If you can’t, plant as few as you can in individual containers or in rows if you use flats. Then you can simply cut the extras out with a scissors when they are big enough (after choosing the best between them).

If you have to plant seeds in mass, thin by carefully removing individual seedling. Use tweezers or chop sticks, not your hands. Be gentle and only “handle” by the leaves, not the stems as these will be extremely fragile. Get as much soil with individual roots as possible when replanting. Replant into a pre-made receiving hole in damp soil. (Use a pencil). Sprinkle some endomycorrhizal fungi in the hole before dropping the seedling into it. Again, no fertilizers are needed at this time.

When you divide seedlings, you will need to also make new labels for the new containers.

Many annuals do better if their growing tips are pinched. If the plant has directly opposite leaves -- as opposed to alternating opposite leaves -- pinching will cause two new growing tips to replace the one lost. Let these grow two sets of leaves or so and pinch again. You can see how this makes the plant bushy.

Finally, I know there is a greater-than-normal urge to get outside and into the yard. You really have to hold off until things finish thawing and dry out. All that important fungal network that keeps our trees healthy and our lawns fed and about which you read so much about these days is extremely fragile. Compressed soil is not what they like. Walking around in a wet yard compresses its soil. Work on your seedlings instead.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: As of this writing, trails are open. All manner of online stuff is planned, including an online nursery. More info at

Flowers to start: Asters, nicotiana, cleome, ice plant, zinnia, salpiglossis, schizanthus, nigella, phlox, nemesia, marigold, nasturtiums

Vegetables to start: Broccoli, cauliflower

Geese, seagulls, thrushes: This is the week! Welcome back to Alaska for the season!

Bears: They are up, grumpy and hungry. Your bird feeders should be put securely away along with seed.