No first leaves emerging

shadiahMay 9, 2012

This is my first year starting seeds indoors (and indeed my first post here on GardenWeb!) and while I had intended to buy grow lights, my dad suggested using some halogen lights he had left over from another project. Since my dad is usually right, I decided to save a few bucks and take him up on his offer. Unfortunately, my tomato seedlings (and many of my other seedlings) have not managed to grow beyond the seedling (cotyledon) stage. We realized that halogens are lacking in blue light that plants need to grow, so we added a couple of compact florescent bulbs until I could get some grow lights. The grow lights have been in place for a couple of weeks now and my Beaverlodge plums are finally starting to grow their first true leaves (just barely!) but my others (Stupice, Yellow Pear, Japanese Black Trifel) still look like they have for the last month or so.

So my question is, will they bounce back? Given our short growing season here in the NW, I've only got a three more weeks or so before I've got to get them in the ground. Will they be ready? I had a few succumb to damping off, one or two have a tiny bit of yellowing, but otherwise the stems and leaves seem okay.

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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Hi, Shadiah. Welcome to GW.

How many hours a day are the lights on? Are the plants in the house or in a cooler area like a basement or garage?

What are the plants growing in? How do you water them (top or bottom), and how often?

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 1:11AM
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- 14-16 hours, though sometimes it's as little as 12 and a few days as many as 18.

- The plants are in the bathroom. The grow light is 150 watts and initially scorched a few of my basil plants (which ARE bouncing back just lovely) so in addition to moving the light up, I've got the bathroom fan on all day to keep it from getting too warm. I've got another group of seedlings (a variety of plants that includes a few toms - stupice and yellow pear) on top of the fridge, which is also plenty warm enough (though not as hot as the bathroom). While the pole beans and zucchini took right off before I even got the grow light on them (the zucchini actually started putting out blossoms with just the CF bulb!), all of the other plants including the toms are still in the cotyledon stage.

-- They're in toilet paper tube-pots filled with a 1:1 mix of a woody planting compost/mulch and perlite. I figured the compost had plenty of nutrition so I haven't bothered to fertilize. But given that there's been a months worth of watering, I've also been wondering if they might need a boost. All of the fertilizer I've got at the moment -- aside from seaweed extract -- is granule stuff that doesn't dissolve in water. I'm ordering some fish hydrolysate (I'm housebound and without my gofer dad at the moment) but was thinking about mixing some blackstrap molasses and the seaweed in some water in the meantime.

-- I've generally been giving them a nice deep soak once a day or every other day depending on how damp or dry the medium. My dad has been spritzing obsessively the stuff in the kitchen (which is harder for me to reach) rather than soaking, and I've found that did not really penetrate as well (not to mention missed my greens in the back) so now that I'm in complete charge of watering they're all getting the water can. I do try to avoid the top of the seedling when watering, focusing on the side/base of it instead.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 1:46AM
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Still working on salvaging my first ever tomato seedlings and wondered if I might ask if I've got the grow light at the correct distance. It's at roughly 10-11 inches or so away from the plants. Initially they were 4-5 inches away but ended up frying the basil so we moved them up.

I've made a frame/enclosure of sorts out of an old box and aluminum foil to hopefully reflect some more light. I also gave them a tsp of blackstrap molasses diluted in a quart of water, along with a few grains of Epsom Salt and a few grains of my granule all-purpose fertilizer (I'm hoping I didn't over-do it in my desperation to "fix" them). It's only been a day or two so I'm probably being impatient to see some change. :-)

    Bookmark   May 11, 2012 at 11:39PM
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I wish I could be of help but I don't have a clue about using a grow light. I just put my plants outside as it gets warm here fairly early in the year (Atlanta). But wanted to help bounce you back to the top hoping someone will help you out.....good luck and don't give up.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 12:41AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Hi, shadiah. I didn't see your response until now.

I start seedlings with fluorescents and know zilch about halogens. Sorry. 8-(

Have you checked to make sure the mix at the bottoms of the TP tubes is getting adequately wet with your watering method? (I would also worry a bit about the cardboard wicking moisture out of the mix.) I notice my seedlings really put on a growth spurt the day after I water -- even when I was certain they didn't really need water yet.

I use the type of set-up where there's a bottom tray, then a tray with an open grid fits inside that. On top of the grid is either a molded piece with various cells (which I fill with starter mix or peat pellets), or a bunch of peat pellets without the plastic cells, or -- if I'm not doing a whole tray full -- small yogurt cups full of mix. I lift out the grid with the plants above it, add two 20 oz. Pepsi bottles of water to the bottom tray, and put the grid-with-plants back in to soak it up. After a while I remove the grid-with-plants, discard any water in the bottom tray, and set the grid-with-plants back in the bottom tray. That way the seedlings get as much water as the roots can soak up, but don't sit in water. The general technique is known as "watering from the bottom." The only time I water "from the top" is when the mix at the top dries out -- generally just a few cells, and usually near the corners.

The other possibility could be the mix you're using. Perhaps it doesn't drain well. I haven't heard of anyone using a mix that's mostly compost -- but I'm not an expert by any means.

So if you want to experiment, you could pot up some of the tomatoes into larger containers (I use disposable plastic drink cups which I buy at WM, snipping drain holes in the bottom edge with kitchen scissors). But instead of your compost-y stuff, use a standard potting mix (not "soil" -- there should never be actual dirt when you're growing in containers); it's apparently best to stay away from the "Moisture Control" mixes as they cause problems. Or try various combinations of standard potting mix and your compost-y stuff. Or throw in some peat moss, perlite, bark fines ... whatever catches your fancy.

That's all I can think of. If the experts show up, disregard everything I said!

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 2:58AM
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Thanks Sneaky and Missing...,

It's kind of sounding like the issue may actually not have to do with the lack of light but watering and/or soil medium. Because of my past issues with over watering (not to mention living in a very damp climate), I chose to mix a medium that would be less water retentive - a combination of pine bark, compost, and perlite (based on what I had on hand - not ideal circumstances). While some plants have loved this (beans, squash, zinnias, kale), others -- including the tomatoes -- don't seem to be doing as well in it.

When I checked the bottom of the "pots", the soil feels damp and there are fine, whispy strands of roots (even a tiny few poking through the cardboard despite the fact that they seem so fine I can't imagine them being strong enough to bust through!). Yet there are only three or four of these hair-like roots per plant and they seem too fragile to pot up -- but then again, I'm used to getting strong, sturdy plants from the nursery so what do I know?! ;-)

I do notice upon reading You Grow Girl's post on toilet roll seed starting that I should have potted up after a few weeks. Perhaps that's what is needed.

While both the plants my dad was watering by spritzing obsessively and the plants I watered by drenching once a day or so have remained at pretty much the same growth stage, his plants are definitely more yellow than mine. And the few that have succumb to damping off have been on the edges where they are more prone to drying out. Now that I've been watering all of them (along with feeding them a little), there are more definitive signs of first leaves emerging.

At any rate, most of the plants are going to be handed over tomorrow to my massage therapist/friend who is going to set them out on her south-facing fire escape to see if that helps them, especially as the weather is supposed to be sunny and warm for the next several days. If they do manage to grow into real plants, she's going to be planting them in her community garden plot. I'll suggest potting up to her.

But the question is, can they grow into strong enough plants to plant in the ground in 2-3 weeks?

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 6:28AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

But the question is, can they grow into strong enough plants to plant in the ground in 2-3 weeks?

Some people on this forum do put very small tomatoes in the ground. 2 or 3 weeks from now should be large enough.

But your friend needs to harden off the seedlings before putting them out for the whole day, or they'll sunburn. Plants can recover from sunburn (ask me how I know); it just takes time and a bit of coddling.

Here's an article about the hardening-off process:
[Thanks to whoever posted it a couple of weeks back: jean001a or bets, I think.]

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 12:26PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Agree that they need to be properly hardened off before going outside like that.

Next year you might want to try a more traditional approach to starting seeds. One without all the unusual variables included this year. I think you'll find it much easier and much more successful. The FAQ here on How to grow tomatoes from seed is a good place to start. And the Growing from Seed forum here at GW is full of helpful info too.


Here is a link that might be useful: How to grow tomatoes from seed FAQ

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 12:39PM
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Thanks Missing and Dave!

They have been getting a bit of hardening off (maybe too much?) as on warmer days when it wasn't too windy (though there is always some amount of breeze) we've been putting the plants out on my balcony for a few hours at a time. Most of that time has been out of direct sunlight, though they have gotten the odd hour or two of sunlight as the days have gotten longer. I put them out on the balcony this morning around 4ish when I (finally!) got to bed, which meant they got direct morning sunlight until about 10am. Has this been too much stress or would that leave them prepared for all day in the sunlight?(She is going to be bringing them in at night.)

After reading the hardening-off link, I was wondering when the right time is to back off from watering as much -- as the author suggests in the hardening off process. The mix my plants are in runs toward the dryer side (which sounds like it could be the problem) and I've been thinking of putting them into some potting soil that will keep them even more moist.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 8:52PM
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Oh and if my plants aren't hardened up enough yet to set out in direct sunlight all day, I'm assuming my friend will need to put them under lights when inside? Are compact florescent lights good enough or do I need to give her my grow lights?

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 9:10PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

You've done the early part of hardening them off already! Midday sun is probably too strong for them at this point, but otherwise they could certainly be outside in shade or partial shade all day. [Now mind you, there's shade and shade. Bright shade is great, dappled shade is okay -- but if they're in deep shade, they'll probably become leggy.]

If they're outside all day, they shouldn't need any artificial light.

The important thing at this point is to introduce them to unshaded midday sun gradually. And keep in mind that the more sun they get, the sooner they'll need to be watered.

I've never read anything before this about holding off on water as part of the hardening-off process. And my attitude about my plants is ... well, I'll surely give them some stress of that type without having to plan it!

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 10:08PM
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lol - I almost always end up stressing them w/too much love! Though the other day after turning on the grow lights and going back to sleep, by the time I woke up they were were pretty close to bone dry.

Typing w/dirty hands as I'm repotting as much as I can before my friend gets here (checking to see if she got the email about the need for party cups). While the Beaverlodge and Japanese Trifele toms didn't seem to be too rooty, now that I'm getting a look at the Yellow Pear and Stupice, they're definitely needing a pot up! So, hopefully that's going to be the solution. :-D

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 10:40PM
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