Seedlings have 'club' foot and first leaves that are extremely curled under

Asked March 21, 2020, 1:45 PM EDT

I have seedlings, including tomato and peppers that don't grow beyond their first leaves and when examining roots, they don't have any--just a white "club." I've grown my own seedlings for the last 30 years and never had this problem. None survived. It actually looks similar to what happened to the leaves of my very healthy 6 week old tomatoes that I set outside to harden off last spring and the leaves started to turn under in the same way, especially the top leaves. Based on internet pictures, I presumed those plants were damaged from spray drift from nearby farms. With regard to the seedlings grown under lights: changes I made this year were using Natural and Organic Seed Starting Jiffy Mix. (unable to find the seed starting mix I usually use). I did not sterilize this mix but did sterilize all used plastic cell containers. When the first seedlings started to fail I suspected the mix might hold too much water and I added some perlite to some of the mix and vermiculate to another batch. These seedlings also failed (picture is of seedling from this group). I suspected that perhaps some were damaged by a heating pad but I keep a thermometer on it and it doesn't rise above the high 80's and I take then off when they emerge. However other seedlings weren't given the heat and suffered in the same way--particularly foxglove seedlings that grew secondary leaves and looked very healthy until transplanting into the Jiffy mix (they were started in some leftover mix from last year) and they began to curl under in the same way. (Even when I transplanted then into a new starting mix they didn't improve). Two weeks later they are not totally dead but on their way.... Thanks for any insight you might have into this problem

Berrien County Michigan

3 Responses

Thanks for your question. Your thorough description is very helpful. Some starting mixes are easier to work with than others. Usually this entails getting the right amount of water to the seedling. Too much or too little can lead to problems similar to this. Timing of watering can also lead to problems. A different mix may require more or less frequent waterings than another. Another consideration is the water itself. A change in your water source (e.g. well to city water, hard to soft water), could pose problems with pH or salts. I did notice that at least two of the seedlings seem to have a stuck seed coat which could suggest very dry air or lackof moisture. Did you notice any pattern to the damage (i.e. worse on one side of the flat than another)? Any drafts? Any damping off? Where are you measuring the temperature (in the soil, air, or contact with mat)? Can you think of any other changes (light, location, etc.) that could affect the seedling growth?
If you could answer these questions and send some more pictures (especially of a pulled seedling, and a whole flat) maybe we can pin this problem down. I look forward to your response.

Yes, I think part of the issue was that the mix held too much water. Even the 2nd brand did and I had to add a lot of perlite to it. At least broccoli and lettuce from that batch are just now emerging and look far. No change in water--well water--unless it has been contaminated by farm chemicals. But I did consider that and bought a gallon of 'baby' water to use. (BTW, do you know where I can get my water tested? I've been worried about that for a while because I drink it!).

It worried me that the seedlings did the same exact thing that my 6" tomato plants from last spring did once they were very likely exposed to chemicals. They had a good root system and were not water-logged.

I'm wondering if the seed starter mix could have been contaminated; however, I'm not seeing anything online about that as a problem. The problem with the seed coat in the picture was because I took them out of the clear plastic germination box--I was wondering if the seed mix was too wet. It only takes overnight in the box and they always fall off due to the humidity.

The only 'pattern' I noticed was that they ALL had the same symptoms, even the coles and lettuce which last year popped up within 2-3 days. Curled under leaves and that white knob where a root would be. (The foxgloves which were grown in the other starter mix all had a good root system when I transplanted them but slowly died/are dying in the Jiffy).

No drafts--started in kitchen under grow lights as I've been doing for about 25 years. Maybe I'd better go back to buying 3 cubic foot bags of peat and perlite and making my own mix.

I measure soil temperature with a Termapen (also great for measuring spring soil temps to determine when to plant). No damping off at all. I'm sending another picture of the last one I threw out. Over the last 2 weeks I've thrown away the equivalent of hundreds of plants--many expensive seeds of the 50 or so varieties of heirloom tomatoes I grow.

Attached is another picture showing the white knob and no roots. They ALL had this feature no matter the crop. S0, I would think that would rule out heat because none of the coles, basil, lettuce, chard, etc were given heat. I guess that leaves mix too wet, contamination, disease in the mix, or my well water, right?

Thanks for giving this so much attention. I appreciate it.

Thank you for the additional information.

Many herbicides break down with time, UV, microorganisms and soil contact, but checking your water periodically is not a bad idea. You can find information on well testing here:

Looking at the seedling, unless it was broken off, the radicle and roots seem to be totally missing. This would indicate an insect pest and is consistent with fungus gnat larvae. Have you seen any adults? Check out the following links: