I may have killed my seedlings
I am throwing myself at the mercy of the gardening group. I'm a bit of a trial and error gardener, and I need to get more scientific to be sure. But until now, it has worked ok. However, I think I may've ruined my seedlings and I don't know if they can be saved.
Here's the situation: I live in NW WA just below the border w/Canada. I started some cukes and cherry tomatoes from seed in the last week of March. They are in those little cardboard pots, and were on a tray on my windowsill, which got a good amount of sun on sunny days. Everything was looking nice. Tomato plants were quite thin but maybe 3 or 4 inches tall. The cukes were probably 5" tall. And for some reason, because everyone else was putting in their gardens around the end of April (earth day), I did mine that weekend too. Everything is in pots on a patio with western exposure. But since we had that nice, sunny weekend (ok, it only got to 60 but that is the warmest so far this year), we've only had a couple more nice sunny days. The other days have been rainy or overcast, daytime highs in the mid 50s, lows probably in the high 40s.
The seedlings look pathetic. They are shrinking, not growing. Droopy, although they've had water. The green leaves are developing whitish brown patches. The plants were transplanted, with their cardboard mini pots, into large pots filled with a combination of potting soil and compost with some gravel at the bottom.
Did I kill the garden by planting too early? Do I need to scrap the whole thing and just buy starts from the nursery? Should I have kept everything indoors longer?
I heartily second the advice that you rescue those things from their peat-pot prisons. Although in this case, it may make it easy for you to dig them up and bring them back inside for a while, if you decide to do that. White/brown dead-looking spots are sunburn, which can take a while to develop after the bright sun exposure. There is some technical explanation about how window light is less strong, so the chloroplasts spread out instead of stacking up into grana, but in a nutshell, it's sunburn. It's normal for seedlings to be droopy and sad-looking when they're cold. If you've got a clear storage bin, you can use it upside down to cover the plants. It will protect them from wind a little bit, and make it a teeny bit warmer. My experience is that plants are stunted by cold weather, and so planting early doesn't make for earlier harvest. My plants will be outside just during the day when temps are in the 60's. Even then they'll sulk. When temps start getting into the 70's, I'll leave them out overnight, but I won't plant them in case bad weather comes through.
The best thing you can do now is nothing. No weird chemicals, no extra fertilizer. Water them when they get really dry. Those dry periods are important for helping the roots suck up oxygen, and the plants won't do well if you water too much. For what it's worth, I think they've got a decent chance of survival. Plants aren't dead until they're dry and brown all over.
Thanks for the words of advice! Regarding digging them up and bringing them back inside, I thought of it. I also thought about using some clear plastic jugs or something to cover them up and provide a little warmth. But in these parts, I can't wait for 70 degree days. I may not get those consistently until July or even August. The first year I planted here (in pots) I tried regular tomatoes, and they didn't even turn from green before the season was over. But I've had good luck with the cherries.
I'm curious whether folks would recommend pulling the little pots back indoors, or making mini greenhouses for them outside.
I guess the ideal thing would be to bring them in at night and have them outside under your little jugs during the day. I think that'll give you the best chance of getting them to ripen before frost. If you don't want to go through that much effort, though, you might just drag the pots inside if you get any really nasty nights.
It does sound like damping off, in addition it may have just been too early. Tomatoes and cukes like really warm nights with the lowest temps being in the high 50sF to really thrive. In the temps you describe they'll go into a holding pattern and not do much until the temps rise into the range they like. As long as they don't get frosted they'll hold.
Did you break up the cardboard pots when you planted them? Another issue is they may be root-bound. I know those pots and the peat pots are supposed to disintegrate on their own but my experience is most times they don't and need to be torn or broken up before transplanting to the plant's final spot.
If the potting soil you used came with a time released fertilizer in it (like Miracle-Gro), it's possible that adding compost to it has over-fertilized the starts, causing them to grow weak and flabby and fertilizer burned. I've found it's good to lighten potting soil with a little peat moss for planting but add no fertilizers if the potting soil already has fertilizer in it. Two months later I begin fertilizing with compost tea 2-3 times a month.
Try cutting back on the water. They may be getting too much, especially in pots. If they've been getting rained on and it's overcast with cool temps, and you're watering as well, there's a chance that while the surface soil may look and feel dry, down in the pot it's wet. Dig your finger down into the soil at least an inch and a little more and if the soil is cool and damp down there hold off on the watering. If it feels dry, then they need a drink. Work with them a little and you may be able to save them.
If all fails, cukes sprout and grow rapidly so you still have time to reseed them. Do it right in the pot you want to be their final home, no need for transplanting. Make sure the soil is plenty damp. If you want one plant in the pot, plant 2-3 seeds to guarantee germination, cover the top with plastic wrap to maintain humidity. As soon as you see sprouts remove the plastic wrap. Test the soil with your finger regularly to keep it damp but not wet. When the sprouts have their first set of real leaves, choose the one that's the strongest and healthiest looking and snip off the other one or two.
Tomatoes take longer to start and grow to transplant size so you may have to get starts from a nursery for those if your current transplants fail.
I've had more success growing veg in pots doing things that were counter to the way I was taught. I've stopped using clay and stoneware pots unless they've been glazed with a shiny finish and gone almost completely to plastic and resin. Water evaporates too quickly from unglazed clay. Instead of lining the bottom of pots with gravel or shards for drainage, try lining them with a couple of layers of newspaper. The paper stops the soil from washing out the drainage holes, allows excess moisture to seep out slowly instead of all the water draining out too quickly, allowing the plants to have time for a good drink and cutting down a little on the amount you have to water. In addition, place a layer of mulch in the tops of the pots. It also slows down evaporation in hot weather.
Several years ago I did a test with zucchini, slicing cucumber and Picklebush cucumber where I used both direct seeding and transplants, grown under better conditions than OP, on the same day. The soil had been warmed with clear plastic sheeting before planting. After planting the plants were covered with spun-bonded fabric on hoops, which was kept in place until the first buds appeared for female blossoms. Within two weeks the direct-seeded plants had caught up with the transplants. In another week the direct-seeded plants were ahead of the transplants.
re: Eldon Kreider
That is absolutely true when planting into a garden bed, where the soil has been warmed and row cover is used to protect seeds, seedlings, and transplants both from adverse weather conditions and bugs. The transplants will go through shock which will take awhile to recover from while the direct planted seeds never face that.
I deduced from the OP's post that she is limited to container growing and a shorter and probably cooler, wetter growing season since she's located in Washington state, just below the Canadian border. She can direct seed cucumbers, which germinate and grow quickly, in her pots and have plenty of time for the plants to set and mature fruit. Tomatoes, the other crop she mentioned, might be at a disadvantage since they prefer longer, drier, sunnier growing conditions. WA state summers aren't ideal tomato summers. The tomatoes could be direct seeded into their final containers and started earlier indoors but space and sunlight may preclude that and limit the OP to smaller pots and transplanting. In this case, it might be better to go with good healthy tomato transplants from a nursery. Alternatively, if the OP's got her heart set on starting her own seeds indoors, she could go with a set-up like this if she wishes to make that kind of investment. http://eatingfloyd.blogspot.com/2011/...
Tomatoes love calcium as well. A simple way to add calcium to tomatoes in pots is to mix a double handful of dry milk into each pot's soil when transplanting. Later on down the line, add about a cup of dry milk to a gallon of compost tea.