Help - my friend's indoor herbs are dying

cleo88(6 / MA)April 23, 2009


My friend has a special place under her kitchen cabinets to grow plants - the light has an aquarium tube in it. She is trying to grow various herbs - chives, dill, oregano, cilantro and basil - and she meets death at every turn.

First she sowed seeds, which germinated, then died. Then, she bought beautiful little plants and put them in the same pots - now those plants are dying. I just saw their current state - they look very floppy, turning pale, shrinking. They do not look diseased in any way - no spots, no fuzz on plants or dirt. They were potted in potting soil, nothing special.

The only things I could think of were a) she's watering too much, b) she isn't leaving the light on enought, or c) there is something wrong with the aquarium bulbs. She says she is leaving the bulbs on "all day", and that she waters only when the top looks dry.

I don't have a picture handy, but I will try to get one. Without a picture, is anyone willing to guess what is going on? She is so sad.

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How big are the pots. The plants may be so root bound that they are receiving no nutrients. Sometimes the center of pots will become so dry that without something to break the surface tension of the soil the water just runs off. The pot appears moist but the moisture is only in the outer portion of the soil. Report back on the size of the pots and ask if she has fertilzed her plants.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2009 at 11:11PM
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cleo88(6 / MA)

Hi maifleur,
The pots are 8-10" high and about 6" diameter, sort of a standard larger terracotta pot - they seem big for herbs, to me. After the germination-and-die experience, she bought plants that were in 4" containers and transplanted them to these terracotta pots. The plants were not root-bound when she bought them, and within a week or so they started to suffer, so given that, it's hard to imagine that being root-bound is the problem.

In fact, the way that they look to me, it does not look like they are too dry - there is nothing brittle or hay-colored about them. They sorta look like they have lost their spine.

She has not given them any fertilizer.

Should she replace the potting soil with something better? I was about to purchase some Coast Of Maine organic potting soil for my tomatoes - would that be better than the run of the mill potting soil she was using?

Or does this sound like a light issue? Or too much water?

I will try to get pictures.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2009 at 8:28AM
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ksrogers(EasternMass Z6)

Seed starting soil is needed. Its also sterile and has no insects or diseases that can kill young seedlings. Suspect that they are being over watered, and lack sufficient light. If you do see yellowing leaves thats a sure sign of too wet soil. Potting soil might be fine for well established plants for outside, but you may also have very tiny fungus gnats in it that could infest every single plant indoors or out. The use of yellow sticky traps placed horizontally near the pots, as well as some careful observation is necessary. Do not use fertilizers for these young seedlings. Seed starting medium is made of things like shreaded coconut husks (coir) and a little perlite. I start seeds for many herbs and flowers indoors. Right now, I have over 150 plants growing from seeds, and have neary no losses once they are ready to be translanted outside. The fastest germination I had was with Brussels Sprout seeds. They took only two days to sprout and were over an inch tall in 3 days! Right now, all my petunias, oregano, impatiens, peppers, tomatoes, watermelon, and cantaloupe seeds are doing great under plant lights. I have the lights on a timer for about 18-20 hours per day. Plants do need a small amout of darkness time, but because plant lights are only low power substitutes for sun, they do need to be very close to the seedlings, like about 2-3 inches. My plant shelves are metal with 2'x4' shelves and use two 4 foot shop light fixtures with two lamps each fixture per shelf. They are attached with chains and are raised when the plant growth starts to touch them. In a tray of 32 pots of 2"x2" each will have single plant once they are at 2 inches tall. Natural Beginnings is a seed starting medium from Gardens Alive. Even though their prices are a bit high, I always prefer to use some of that medium with added Jiffy mix, a similar product, and any other sterile seed starting medium. These are all actually 'soilless'. Dill can reach a few feet tall and doesn't do as well indoors. The pots need drainage holes in the bottoms. All my seed staring has been very successful for well over 40 years now, and I will be picking peppers and tomatoes in early July, while everyone else still has only a few blossoms showing. I also use heat mats under my trays, and ove each with clear plastic dome lids. The lids get removed once the leaves touch them, then I also unplug the heat mats. If the mats are left on, they tend to dry the soil out very fast, so I shut them off and just grow by the room temperature after that. Before being planted outside, each tray is moved to my small glass greenhouse outside for about a week to 10 days, where the direct sun will 'harden them off'. This reduces translant stresses and gives the plants a lot of strength beforehand.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2009 at 12:09PM
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Can your friend put the pots outside to see if they will perk up. Since she purchased plants I see no reason to use the seed starter soil as the plants are probably needing food. At this point have her use a container mix with fertilizer or use a weak house plant food and put outside in shade to see if they perk up. You can purchase it together to save money. I plant a few things in pots to satisfy hubby so I use the leftovers as mulch or incorporate in my garden. I am not familiar with the organic soil you mentioned so I could not advise.

Having seen these shelves in some houses most do not receive much air circulation and the lighting is poor. Looks really cute and works well for some house plants.

The pots are a good size for now but the annuals will do better outside in larger pots or in ground. Cilantro will need to be reseeded every couple of weeks so is not very good for pots.

Have her back off the watering a bit, put plant outside in shade, catch rainwater to which she should put just a small drop of liquid dish soap and water with that then use a diluted liquid fertilizer. Hopefully this will help the plants this year. If they do past to the great compost heap in the sky she has time to replace the plants. Dill, cilantro and basil can be direct seeded to the ground.

The growing area inside should be washed with bleach and water including the light fixture. This winter she can try again with a growlight type of light rather than the aquarium light which probably does not give off enough of the correct wavelength.

I have seen minature african violets, babytears, with decorative moss used very successfully in this type of kitchen garden. There are also a few orchids that will grow but most the bloom stem would be too high.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2009 at 12:36AM
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You might have bacteria or fungus in the pot or soil, particularly if the plant is "wilting" quickly. Every time you reuse a pot, you have to sterilize it. To do so with clay, wash the pot out by submersing it in a 1 part bleach to 10 parts water solution & scrub both inside & out. Rinse well. Then, put the pots in the oven to dry at 250 for about 20-30 minutes (they get hot!!!). Sometimes cheap clay pots will get brittle & break more easily after this treatment, in which case, just go buy new pots...

Plastic pots can be washed in the bleach solution & air dried.

Plants should be sized up only one pot size when transplanting-- i.e. go from a 4" to a 6" pot first, not a 10" one-- unless you are putting several plants in one pot. However potting several new plants together creates the risk of mass failure if one plant is sick or you over-water, the soil or pot is dirty, etc., or ironically/conversely, you use too small of a pot....

For starting seeds or transplanting new plants, try a soiless potting medium-- there are organic ones out there-- this helps with moisture retention as well as drainage & allows new roots to expand quickly to establish the plant.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2009 at 11:00PM
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