Jakewins on data, food and technology.

First Blood

First Blood

My attempt at not repeating last years seedling mistakes have failed. Hundreds of tomatoes will never see the light of day, they drowned alone in the dark while I was drinking wine a hundred miles away.

The past three weekends I’ve been out of town. I’ll be gone for a week at the end of this month and for two weeks at the end of the next. Keeping seedlings alive is hard enough as it is - so I try not to be hard on myself when my neglect leads to mass death.

However, after leaving a nice batch of Roma Tomatoes like this two weekends ago:

Look at them!

It was heartbreaking to find all of them dead or dying when I came home just three days later:


What happened?

While I’m not entirely sure exactly what went wrong, I can think of three possible culripts:

Water does not drain the way you think it does

It is intuitive to think that water gets pulled down by gravity, and that watering plants is a race against the universe to put water back at the top of the pot, where the plants roots can get to it.

However, there is another force - Capillary Action - which works the other direction. Capillary action is the “wicking” effect that makes oil move up along a wick in an oil lamp. The same thing happens in a flower pot, pulling water up into your pot. Gravity and capillary action work against each other, eventually finding a balance where the force pulling the water up into the pot overcomes gravity, leaving water “hanging” in your pot.

Interestingly, this is why you shouldn’t put gravel or similar material at the bottom of pots to “help them drain” - this just moves the layer of “hanging” water up, suffocating your roots.

So, when I left my beautiful seedlings, I put a good bit of water into the container the pots are sitting in. Unfortunately, it turned out that the capillary force of my soil is amazing, and it pulled water all the way up to the top of the pot. When I got home, the plants were soaking wet - and soaking wet soil leaves no space for oxygen, killing the cells in my plant roots.

If I were to guess, I’d say this is the main cause of my trouble. And it leaves a big issue - what the heck should I do when I leave for a week? Tips welcome!

Transplanting is a deadly business

I planted 48 cells of seedlings, about four seeds per cell, for a total of ~200 tomato seeds this year (which, side note, means I’ve already beat last years murder-record by double the corpse count). I did that because I knew a lot of them would die when I transplanted them to larger pots. However, I still got excited when the first true leaves appeared, and transplanted when only a few of the seedlings had true leaves - the vast majority still only had their cotyledon leaves.

Here’s a seedling I transplanted, the true leaves are the textured inner pair of leaves - ready for transplant!

True leaves

Unfortunately, her sibling here was nowhere near prepared for the move, but I got too excited. This one only has it’s cotyledons, the leaves the plant “comes out the seed” with.


I think this played a role in their death - small seedlings with poorly established root systems are, according to books, much more sensitive to transplanting.

I need to learn patience.

Tomatoes need sun.. so much sun

I’ve had a light on my seedlings ever since they came out of the soil. However, the light’s been quite far away and is not very strong (800 lumen ‘sunlight’ LED). I think this might’ve further lessened their chances of survival.

Next steps

I’d very much love to grow a meal with plants I’ve grown from seed. However, I’m of course not going to let the whole tomato sauce go to waste if I can’t grow enough seedlings. So, I’ve planted another 150 seeds, this time using three different seed starting methods (more on that later). If this also fails, I will admit (temporary) defeat and buy seedlings at Lowe’s :)