Don't think they are going to make it

tranger2February 28, 2010

My first attempt at spinach and broccoli seedlings failed. They are now laying over and look like they are taking their last breaths. Will try again later. First, I have to get to wal-mart as I saw they had broccoli plants for sale. Oh well, will try again....

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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Did you lose your seedlings to 'damping off'?

    Bookmark   February 28, 2010 at 9:36PM
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Used the 72 count tray from Wal Mart where you soak the disk and it swells up. Soaked them good, then poured off excess water. Later put seeds in.

Been keeping them in the utility room at around 65 degrees under my 14 inch plant light from Lowes. Last two days I've put them on the front porch in the real sun. They looked bad yesterday and today they are laying over and the stems look like they are about half as thick as they once were.

I had to look up damping off. I understand it is where they don't get good circulation. I've moved these plants and watched them like a brand new puppy. Assuming they are going down, I watered them tonight. I've had other plants wilt and with water they came right back, even though I don't think this is the problem.
I'm just glad walmart has broccoli plants, I saw them today.

Any special tricks to broccoli? Do you think I can plant them this week or weekend?

    Bookmark   February 28, 2010 at 11:24PM
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It's not too late for broccoli for most of Oklahoma. You don't say what zone you are in. I planted mine last Sunday on a warm bench and they came up Friday and Saturday. As I have mentioned before broccoli cannot take as much abuse as its cousin cabbage. It can't get as cold or as dry or as root bound and still produce. I usually plant mine a week earlier than I did this year and grow them for six weeks, putting them into the ground after April 1st. I know that broccoli plants are available big enough to plant across much of Oklahoma right now, but in the past when I planted purchased plants they almost always buttonheaded on me. If they weren't rootbound in the pots, they were exposed to too cold temps. By experimentation I learned to grow them myself and put them into the ground later then recommended--and I get dinner plate size heads, providing I plant short DTM varieties. I usually rip my plants out after the big harvest Memorial Day weekend.

Now concerning what went wrong with yours, I wonder if you overwatered them. Or perhaps gave them too strong sun at too early a stage in their tender lives. Either of these conditions will ruin them. I wait until mine are 4 weeks old to begin hardening them off. Then into the ground at six weeks, sometimes seven, depending on weather. I give them a drink of compost "tea" on transplanting to get them started. Good luck.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 1:24AM
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Did you just set them outside in direct sun and leave them? When you harden plants off, I like to put them in a shaded location first and then gradually introduce them to sun and just an hour at first and increase the length over the days. If it was too much sun though you would get some burned (white) looking leaves. Whatever, you just ease then into the great outdoors at first.

Just a thought.


    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 6:27AM
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They were starting to die before I put them in the sun. And it was kind of a shady day with very little direct sunlight.

Can I pull the seedlings out of the little pots and reuse the pots or will they have some sort of bacteria? or something that will kill any future attempts?

The seedlings are about the size of what you would see on the salad bar, very small and delicate.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 9:01AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


I'm going to write a very long and detailed response and it includes everything I wish I had known about growing from seeds indoors back when I first started doing it. In the coming weeks, as folks experience damping off, I'll refer them back to this detailed answer and won't have to type it all over again.

DAMPING OFF: First, to address the issue of damping off. Your description of the stems looking about half the size of what they once were is consistent with damping off. It is a fungal disease (actually, there are several different fungal diseases all classified as damping off) and once plants are infected with it, death is all but certain. Even if you miraculously nurse any of the seedlings back to health, both they and their peat pellet are infected with the fungal disease and they can die next week or next month or whatever. I seldom have damping off issues (because I've learned how to mostly avoid it) but when I do, I toss all the soil-less seed-starting mix and clean the flat with a water/bleach mix that is 90% water and 10% bleach. If you have handled the peat pellets or flats with gardening gloves, bleach them too. If you used a clear germination dome, bleach it.

WHY DAMPING OFF OCCURS: To avoid repeating this experience, you have to understand what caused it, and the easy explanation is that damping off most often occurs when you keep your sterile, seed-less starting mix too damp and especially if you use peat pellets. I have found that what you "need" in order to "create" damping off is: a starter flat with a clear germination dome + peat pellets + seeds + water. Sadly, these are also what most people use to start seeds. What an odd paradox it is.

PEAT PELLETS VS. A SOIL-LESS MIX: Peat pellets are horrible in the hands of inexperienced persons and the way we use them in this country is all wrong. We 'let' beginners use peat pellets when it ought to be the other way around. You shouldn't use peat pellets until you're an experienced seed-starter.

UNFAIR TO SEED-STARTING NEWBIES: Most people who are starting seeds indoors for the first time in their lives buy the little Jiffy seed-starting flats with the clear dome and, of course, the compressed peat pellets. The problem with the pellets is that they are very dry and it takes a LOT of water to get them to plump up. You plump up the pellets, immediately sow your seeds, put the germination dome on top, and start waiting and watching for sprouts. And, because you want to be a successful gardener, you keep those pellets watered really well, so they stay wet---usually way too wet. Unfortunately, the spores that cause damping off are waiting and watching too, and the perpetually soggy pellets are an ideal environment for them.

Peat pellets, which also tend to be a bit too acidic, hold water a long time and that leads to the fungal diseases. If you ever let them get too dry, it is hard to rewet them again so you have to totally soak them again and that also leads to damping off and the death of your seedlings. Combine that with the fact that most seed-starting newbies overwater their seedlings and peat pellets are an invitation to disaster.

USE A STERILE SOIL-LESS MIX INSTEAD: If I were a seed-starting newbie, I'd avoid peat pellets at all cost. Instead, purchase a bag of seed-starting mix and use it. Professionals and serious hobby gardeners prefer Pro-Mix or Metro Mix or something similar, which you purchase in big bales at a high price. For regular home gardeners, you can buy Jiffy-Mix in stores like Wal-Mart or Lowe's or Home Depot for a couple of bucks. Jiffy Mix is a combination of spaghum peat moss and vermiculite in about a 50-50 mix. It usually has a little lime added for pH (because peat tends to be acidic and acidity encourages damping off) and an organic wetting agent (something similar to soap).

HOW TO USE A STERILE SEED-LESS SEED-STARTING MIX: Clean your starter flats with a water (90%)/bleach (10%) solution. If using plastic-six packs or 72-cell inserts, clean them the same way and do the same with a germination dome.

Open your bag of seed-starting mix and add water to the bag itself. Wearing latex gloves to protect your hands from the risk of infection, mix together the mix and water until the mix is nice and moist. Don't add too much water or your mix will be too wet and you'll be on the road to growing fungal diseases in your flats. Once the mix is nice and moist, add it to your sterile flats and follow the directions on the back of the Jiffy Mix bag to start your seeds.

Avoid overwatering like the plague. If you overwater, the odds of having damping off skyrocket even if you do everything else "right".

If you use a germination dome, and I don't/won't but you can if you choose, be sure to remove it the very minute the first sprouts break through the soil. If you leave it on after that point, your seedlings will be much more likely to contract damping off. Don't leave it on until after 'all' the seedlings have sprouted.


Dorothy already told you what you need to know about starting broccoli. I started my seeds about the same time Dorothy did and I have no intention of putting my plants in the ground for at least another 3 or 4 weeks. Planting broccoli too early is an invitation to disaster with our March weather.

What you need to understand about broccoli and all our cool-season plants is that they are biennials, meaning they make vegetative growth the first season, then they go dormant, and they after they start growing again in their second season, they form seed. We refer to this as bolting. Bolting ends your chance of getting an edible crop.

Normally, with broccoli, the plants never make it to that second season because we harvest their flower heads before they bloom. However, if certain weather conditions occur after broccoli plants are transplanted into the ground, then the growth of the broccoli plants stall and this is, essentially, dormancy for them. When they start regrowing, they are ready to set seed...and they often do it quickly, long before the heads are large enough to harvest.

When you purchase broccoli plants at the store, they often are fairly large and are close to being large enough to bolt if exposed to cold weather for a period of time. You buy the plants, take them home, transplant them into the ground, then a 'late' cold spell hits in late March or in early April, the plants go dormant if they're over about 4" or 5" tall, and when the weather warms up after the cold spell passes, your plants 'think' it is their second year and begin the process of regrowing and going to seed. You won't know for a few weeks that they're going to bolt, but they almost always do.

Dorothy mentioned buttonheads. Buttonheads are little broccoli heads the size of about a quarter or half-dollar. They form if your plants are subjected to prolonged cold once the plants are actively growing. You'll know you have buttonheads if the broccoli heads get to that size and stop growing. Know why they stop? Because internally they are getting ready to bolt and go to seed. If you harvest buttonheads at the buttonhead size, you can eat them....but the harvest will be miniscule in comparison to what it should be. If you don't harvest them, you'll have lovely yellow flowers that will set seed.

So, all of the above is just my way of explaining why buying transplants is have no idea if they've been exposed to temperatures below 40 for about two weeks or not....which can lead to dormancy/bolting, or if they've been exposed to overnight lows in the 20s for a few nights, which can lead to root damage, slow growth and poor crops.

For the above reasons, I don't buy broccoli transplants.

Because cold weather hurts them so badly, I tend to start my own broccoli from seed sown in late February and transplant them outside in late March or early April. Technically, my last freeze date here in southern OK is March 27th, so I could set out broccoli plants two weeks before that....technically. In the real world here in southern Oklahoma where I live, if I put out broccoli plants in mid-March, then 9 years out of 10, I won't get a crop. If I wait until late March/early April, I'll get a crop probably 7 or 8 years out of 10.

Last year it stayed cold here forever and I don't remember when I put the plants into the ground, but it was late, late, late and I had one of the best crops ever, but only because May and June were cooler and wetter than usual. Normally, if I planted broccoli as late as I did last year, the small heads would be hit by hot weather and would bolt before they were large enough to harvest.

If I were you, and I lived in OKC, I'd start broccoli seedings again,but using Jiffy Mix, and I'd be extremely careful to avoid overwatering.

And, here's a bonus tip: In late winter and early spring, all the little wild creatures from insects to caterpillars to field mice to squirrels to birds to rabbits to deer are HUNGRY for something green. Often, the first crop (other than onions) you put in the ground is a feast for the wild things. If you'd rather grow broccoli and spinach for yourself than for them, the set out 3 or 4 plants a week before you plant the rest. Wait to see if the wild things devour them. If you lose those 3 or 4 plants that first week, consider that a clue! Figure out how to do whatever you must do to protect the rest of the seedlings before you set them out. You might want to put a 2' tall poultry netting fence around your broccoli bed, using survyor's stakes for poles. You might want to cover the plants with floating row cover staked down tightly to the ground with fabric cloth staples (U-shaped wire staples you push into the ground). Planting a test crop early won't guarantee that your later planting won't be devoured by wild life, but it helps let you know if they're lurking around looking for a free meal.

I'd just direct-sow spinach seed into the ground now. The kind of cold we're having now won't bother it.

I know my response here is long, but this is not the last time this question will come up this year, so I figured I'd write a thorough answer this time and then refer future damping-off questions back to this thread.

Remember I said above that we use peat pellets backwards in this country? I believe that is true. Beginners use them, and beginners have all kinds of trouble due to their inexperience with seed-starting. Once you are experienced in starting from seed, and know exactly how moist to keep the pellets without keeping them too wet, I think they're fine for starting seeds. Some years I use tons of them....ordering them in lots of 1,000 from Harris Seeds. I haven't used them in those quantities the last couple of years though. When I use peat pellets, I wet them down heavily so they plump up to their full height. Then I place them outdoors on the sunny part of the concrete patio that is attached to our detached garage/barn. I leave them out there for 3 or 4 or 5 days so the sun and wind mostly dry them out....not to where they are totally dry but to where they are just a little moist. Then and only then do I plant into them, moisten them lightly to help ensure good 'soil' contact between the pellet and seed, and put them on the light shelf, domeless. I seldom have any damping off at all, and a I do keep that room at 65 degrees or cooler, with a ceiling fan running all day long and lights on about 12-14 hours a day, or maybe 16 hours a day at times.

I hope you'll try broccoli seeds again instead of buying plants. The only time I'd purchase and use broccoli transplants would be if I was at the store when the truck arrived carrying the seedlings and I could buy them that day, take them home and make sure they were not exposed to temperatures cold enough to eventually induce bolting. Even then, there's a risk since you aren't positive of the seedlings age, but it is a smaller risk.

Our local stores have had broccoli plants on their garden center shelves outdoors for a month now and those plants are about 60-70% likely to bolt in another few weeks, and I say that knowing what our nighttime lows have been like while those plants have been sitting out there, and knowing what our nighttime lows will be like this week and for the next couple of weeks.

It is HARD to walk by rows of lovely 3" or 4" or 5" tall broccoli plants at the store when my plants at home are one-fourth or one-fifth that size, but I know in my heart that when it comes to cool-season transplants and our erratic late winter weather, bigger/older plants are more prone to failure than smaller/younger ones.


    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 10:55AM
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I never use domes either although on a very cold night during germination I will throw a sheet over the germination bench. The bars above the bench hold it a foot at least above the flats. My bench is on a glassed porch and the temps get down to 45 some nights even with a heater. The germination bench has a soil cable that warms it and the sheet keeps that heat where I want it.

And I too advise planting spinach in the ground within the next two weeks, along with lettuce, carrots, radishes and beets.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 11:25AM
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WoW! Thanks Dawn. By the way, do you have any stock tips?

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 5:13PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

No stock tips. lol

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 5:42PM
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