How to Care for Plant Seedlings

Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) seedlings

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When you start seeds indoors, the tender seedlings are dependent on you for all their needs and this includes getting fed. Some gardeners think their seedlings will grow faster if they give them fertilizer right away. Those tender, tiny plants you started from seed may look helpless, but they don't need anything other than water, warmth, and light, for their first few weeks. They are capable of feeding themselves, up to a point.

When to Start Feeding

When your seedlings develop their first set of true leaves, it's time to give them some fertilizer.

When seedlings first poke out of the ground, they are still feeding off the food stored in the seed. The first couple of leaves that form are not leaves at all. They are called cotyledons or seed leaves. They are part of the seed or embryo of the plant. Cotyledons contain the remainder of the stored food reserves of the seed and keep the seedling fed until the true leaves sprout and the plant can begin photosynthesis. Usually, the cotyledons disappear shortly after the true leaves appear and begin photosynthesizing. It is at this point that the seedling could use a little boost of fertilizer.

Adding Fertilizer

Before you reach for the plant food, make sure you haven't used a potting soil that already has fertilizer in it. Some do, some don't. If the potting mix has fertilizer in it, you shouldn't need to add more.

For the future, since your seedlings can initially feed themselves, you don't need a potting mix with fertilizer for starting seed. Using a mix without fertilizer is cheaper, but more importantly, you can control how much and what type of food they get.

Seedlings tend to need a fertilizer high in phosphorous, like a 1-2-1, N-P-K ratio. A liquid or water-soluble fertilizer will be the easiest and quickest way for the seedlings to access nutrients. You have a choice of organic or synthetic fertilizer, so read the label carefully and make sure you get what you are looking for.

  • Synthetic fertilizer: If you are using synthetic fertilizer, feed your seedlings weekly, but it's wise to dilute the label's recommendation by at least half. Tender seedlings can be easily burned by too much fertilizer. Young seedlings can get away with 1/4 of what the label recommends for full-grown plants.
  • Organic fertilizer: Luckily there are more and more liquid organic fertilizers available, although they can still be hard to locate. A mix of fish emulsion and kelp will also give your seedlings all the nutrients they need to get started. As with synthetic fertilizer, you can give your seedlings a dose of organic food weekly. Unless it is labeled specifically for seedlings, dilute it by half the label's recommendation. It's better to give them a little food regularly than to risk burning those tender, little roots with too much.
  • Another option is to mix a granular organic fertilizer into the potting soil. Many gardeners will do this when their seedlings are ready to be moved from their starter cell packs to larger pots. However, granular fertilizer can take a while to release nutrients and take effect, so adding it when you are starting your seeds is a better option. Try to add it to the lower layer of potting mix and not let it come in direct contact with the seed. Even organic fertilizers can burn if you use too much.

Knowing When Your Seedlings Have Had Enough

How much to feed seedlings will take some experimentation. Keep an eye on how well your seedlings are filling out. Too much fertilizer can cause a flush of tender, lanky growth, which is not what you want. Ease back on the fertilizer. At this point in the seedling's development, you are more interested in growing a healthy root system, than sending up a lot of green leaves. Each plant will react differently, but you should get a feel for how much food it takes to keep your seedlings robust, while they build up the strength to be moved outdoors, into the garden.