Your Seed Starting Soil Should Not Have Twigs

Posted on Jun 21 2011 - 2:26am by Mike Lieberman

Isn’t it mad frustrating and annoying when you start your seeds and they don’t sprout? Generally seeds will take somewhere between 7-14 days to sprout, depending on the seed. Once it hits that 14 day mark with no sprouts, start getting concerned.

About six-weeks ago, I started some lemon balm seeds on my balcony garden. They were planted in four parts of the container. I planned on thinning them out when they grew their true leaves so only the strongest stood. Six-weeks later and still nothing.

I shouldn’t say nothing, but very little. There are some small sprouts that appear to be attempting to forcing their way through. Not much though.

They have been watered regularly and get at least four hours of direct sunlight a day. I am going to say that the problem is with the soil that I’m using. It’s something that I’ve been suspect of for a while, but this solidifies it for me.

When taking a closer look at the soil, it has lots of twigs and bigger pieces. That’s not a great growing medium for containers. I’m going to toss the soil into the compost and get some new soil. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to make my own potting soil like I did in Brooklyn. Damned soil.

What are some other reasons that seeds won’t sprout?


  • cindy

    Check the light requirements — some seeds like lettuce need daylight to germinate, so they should just be sprinkled on top of the soil rather than buried. Don’t know about lemon balm seed — it grows as an invasive around here so I’ve spent a lot more time ripping it up than planting it!

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thanks will look into.

  • Thefrugalgrower

    I planted some genovese basil about a month and a half ago. The sprouts came up about a month ago, but they still don’t have their first leaves. I don’t know what’s up with that. It’s like their being stubborn.

  • Thefrugalgrower

    (that should read they’re not their)

  • Cynthia Smith

    I had trouble with seed starting for years….even gave up entirely for a few years and bought seedlings. But buying seedlings can be expensive and limiting. So for the last three years I’ve run many experiments. The first thing I did was liberate myself from what the “experts” have to say. Urban gardeners have individual problems and conditions and we are not commercial growers constrained by industry standards. That being said, I have found that under the particular conditions I have,  planting seeds into straight compost in my small greenhouse or cold frames works the best. I was told that I would have trouble with damping off, but so far nothing like that. I started all my old seeds this year….some under lights indoors in planting mix, some outside in compost, and the compost produced the most and healthiest seedlings hands down.

    Liberate and experiment!!

  • Cherise

    I planted 4 types of carrots early in the spring in 4 different boxes, immediately after mixing the planting box soil. The seeds sprouted ok but slow. Then I planted two more times in succession. Nothing either time. Same boxes, different section. I planted a fourth time but, before sprinkling the seeds I mussed up the soil so it was not matted down from the rain and watering. This planting is doing better than even the first. I believe the first planting took because it was freshly raked soil but cooler weather made them slow, planting two and three did not spout because the soil was matted and likely because we had a lot of rain for about 3 weeks, the 4th planting had fresh raked soil and the perfect amount of water. Next planting in two weeks. Hoping for the same.

  • Cherise

    Funny, I didn’t realize until this year that lemon balm was invasive! Just ripped out a huge area where it went crazy after being there 3 years. I was sad to see it go because of the lovely smell but maybe I should plant it in a container to keep it under control. Do you know if it will winter over in a container? Zone 6. Also, what do you do with it? Tea?

  • CJ

    Could your seeds have been old?
    I got some soil that came in a 5 gallon bucket that I just turned into a planter, but after several weeks I got nothing to grow.  So I started digging around in the soil and found tons of pebbles and sticks. It was like someone went to their back yard, dug up some dirt and put it in a bucket.  Last time I take the ‘easy’ way.

  • Michael Martz

    Toss a handful of worms in the planter and let them work the soil for a few months, then plant. The planter I built last month had worms working that soil for almost a year before I decided to use it and my carrots, radishes and pepper plant are all flourishing.

  • Mike Lieberman

    My basil is having some problems too. Small sprouts, but nothing yet. Might not be warm enough yet?

    Don’t worry I won’t call the grammar police.

  • Mike Lieberman

    I hear that and am all for it. That’s why I started to this site to get people to stop relying on the experts and to just do it. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mike Lieberman

    Nice. Way to stick with it.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Hahah. The easy way never works. If it was easy, then it would just be the way.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Nice. Thanks for the tip.

  • Summer Hodgman

    I love lemon balm – when I had a yard, I let it grow and spread everywhere.  On my patio, it’s relegated to one big pot that produces just enough for me to have a cup of tea every day:D

    My two cents?  Lemon balm is part of the mint family, and I though that the best and only reliable way to grow mint was from cuttings.  So much hybridization over the years has led to unreliable growth and flavor from plants started with seeds.  Of course, I don’t know if this is true of lemon balm, just of the mint family in general.  Maybe you could hit up the local FreeCycle list and see who has some that’s one the verge of taking over the city:D

  • Vicki Schoenwald

    I have been told by several master gardeners from my farmers market that quite a bit of soil you buy in stores is contaminated with the Monsanto crap and their poisons.  The companies that buy compost components for their soil comes from unsavory places and you are not sure at all where this stuff comes from.  Even the expensive Miracle grow soil is crap.  I had nothing but problems with seeds this year, some of it is our weather is terrible, cold wet, damp hot, winter, summer, but I have noticed the soil in bags is very crappy, period.  As a last resort, I bought some dollar store seedling dirt and I kid you not, my seedlings came up and grew and are doing very well. There was no sticks, or mulch in this dirt, just soft medium for seeds.  I have worm castings that I am using this year, and I
    ammended my soil and everything is doing very well for the crappy weather we have had.  I had to cover everything with greenhouse plastic to protect it from the weather, but it proved successful along with milk jugs filled with water to provide external heat.  I am leaving those in place for a while until our weather improves.
    I wish I had a place to do my own soil but I don’t, very limited space, so I refresh my containers with compost from a rancher, and then add worm castings.  I am hoping to sometime add a compost tumbler, that would help.
    I also might add that I feel with all of the earthquakes, Japan nuke problems, and the volcanoes, I feel it has altered the weather? Just my opinion, as I see many changes in my part of the country.

  • Mike Lieberman

    I want to harvest my own lemon balm tea everyday! That’s not fair! 😉

    Never knew that about mint. Thanks for the education.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the all info. Yea I def stay away from the Mircale Gro garbage. Refuse to support that company.

    Sounds like you are doing pretty good for yourself with what you have. Great work.

  • Rebecca

    Are you in LA? First off, I found a patch of feral lemon balm in Topanga, by a creek. Second, I have a crazy plant and can send a cutting if you want. 

  • Mike Lieberman

    Yes I am and want kind of crazy plant is this?

  • Rebecca

    Hmm. I don’t remember writing crazy. I might have been typing something else and heard somebody say the word crazy and typed that instead (it’s not just me that happens to, right?). I have a big lemon balm though. Plenty of cuttings to take if you want some. 

    Or, the feral one is in Topanga downstream from the nursery. You have to walk off the trail through the grass for a while. But it’s there and it’s beautiful :). 

  • Mike Lieberman

    Hahha. I won’t hold it against you 😉

    Email me and let’s see if we can arrange something to pick up the lemon balm. Thanks!

  • Jennifer

    I’ve generally had pretty good success with sprouting seeds, but there are a couple types of plants that I just have no luck with: spinach and beets.  I also had bad luck with catnip last year, but this year I did ok.  I also had bad luck with some flower bulbs…  a couple tulips came up, but none of the daffodils did.  Later, when I went to reuse those pots for other plants, I dug up the dried-up shells of some of the bulbs.  I guess maybe they didn’t get enough water during the winter.  I think probably a lot of difficulty with starting seeds comes down to too much or too little water – the seeds either rot or start to sprout then dry out.

  • aka Bloody Frida

    Hey Mike – the reason is probably nitrogen – the twigs are using it to break itself down and stealing it from the seeds who need it to sprout.  Or something like that!!  That’s why one shouldn’t put unaged mulch around any plants. 

  • Mike Lieberman

    Makes sense. You’ll figga it all out. All good 😉

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thanks. I’ll pretend like I know what you are talking about 😉

  • Kkaattrriinnaa

    add bloodmeal to the mix and in a few days it will perk up, nitrogen just like someone else said and i also add a small amount of veg fert at the same time and water in good for first few days, i did this withmost of my garden this  year as it is the forth year to garden in some of the same spots and i couldnt change places to garden so i amended the soul with those things and leaves and straw and everything has taken off like crazy ACCEPT my greep bell pepers , does anyone have any tips for them??

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the tips.

  • Martin Pescador

    Lemon Balm needs light to germinate, they won’t germinate when covered.


  • Mike Lieberman

    So I should lay it on top of the soil?

  • Cassandra Beer

    It will do great in a container. If there’s another huge ice storm or something, just put a phone book or something under it and throw some plastic over the top. I’m in Z6 also and have never had problems in containers. And, I’ve never done anything to protect mine either.

    It’s great for teas, stuffings, herbed butters… astringents, bug deterrents, potpourris, compresses… The list just goes on and on. Look around online- it’s one of the most widely used perennial herbs.

  • Martin Pescador

    Yes, and press them into the surface.

  • Tilapia Farmer

    I use metro mix seed starting mix from the local garden center.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thank you sir.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Thank you sir.

  • Guest

    I would start the seeds in small containers, that way you can maximize your premium soil. You can cut off the tops of water bottles for instance.

    Then transfer to a medium sized container, then finally a larger container. I always like to get my plants a bit root bound before transferring. I’m not sure if that’s detrimental but I have a pretty good success rate.

    I have been recycling my potting soil as it can get expensive. So far I haven’t notice any detrimental affects like transferring diseases, etc. Some plants seem to prefer the 2nd hand stuff.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Nice. How much space do you have for all this?

  • Guest

    I just use my backyard

    I save all the small nursery containers for reuse. When I don’t use the containers, I stack them so they don’t take up much space and store them in a 5 gallon bucket.

    I would start the seeds indoor near a sunny window. Indoors the temperatures don’t fluctuate much. Only thing is you can get fungus gnats indoors which isn’t great.

    Sometimes I germinate the seeds first in wet paper towel inside a clear ziplock bag. Once it has sprouted I transfer it carefully to the surface of soil in a starter planter.  This only holds like 1-2 cubic inches of soil. You can cover it additionally with 1/4″ more soil.  Then take some clear plastic food wrap and lay it gently over. You can give them extra attention near a window.

    Like I mentioned elsewhere, you can use egg carts to start seeds in. Paper cartons you can cut up and plant right into the soil. The paper will decompose.  4 Plastic egg cartons you can use a spoon to lift the soil/seedling into its next container.

    Sometimes the reason a seedling is weak is because the seed itself wasn’t made well by the mother plant. Genetically the seedling could be strong so I like to give them a chance.

  • Mike Lieberman

    Nice. Thanks!

  • Zenbohemian

    Pepper seeds like the soil around 75* to germinate well. Try starting them indoors on top of the fridge, near a radiator, or like I do, on top of my cable box (it’s always on and warm).

  • Saray

    My husband bought me two huge bags of organic soil from Home Depot. First time trying this. It does have a lot of twigs and stuff but the soil itself looks so rich and moist. Anyway, I planted mustards, different types of lettuce, zuchini, peppers, collards, lemon tree seeds, papaya seeds and beets. I know crazy mix of things! I’m learning now I may have planted things that aren’t supposed to grow in my zone or season. Anyhow, all the seeds have sprouted and so fast and so strong, within days the mustards are 2″-3″ long already. I’m so happy, they sprouted right through twigs and everything. I got sooo many seedlings. I hoping to not loose any due to weather, I’m in the Florida keys and its hot in the next three months and rainy a lot…