Causes of Poor Transplant Growth

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

Poor growth, yellow plants, or stunted plants are often due to issues with the greenhouse media. Greenhouse media manufacturers have good quality control measures in place but things can go wrong on occasion – inadequate mixing, critical components missing or in the wrong proportions (i.e. wetting agents, fertilizers, lime), or defective, poor quality components. Media can also be affected by poor storage and handling. Most commonly this occurs when it is stored outside and bales or bags get wet. In addition, media has a certain shelf life – old media often dries out and is hard to get rewetted.

When growers start filling trays, any media that does not handle well should be viewed as suspect and should not be used. Contact your supplier and have them inspect and run tests on the suspect media. Avoid using overly dry or caked media, media that is hard to loosen, media with a bad smell, water logged media or media that is hard to wet.

Most media (but not all) will come with a starter lime and fertilizer charge. The fertilizer is designed to give about 4 week of nutrients. If the fertilizer is missing or improperly mixed or in the wrong proportion, seeds will germinate but seedlings will not grow much and will remain stunted. In this case, liquid fertilizer applications will need to start early.

Peat based media are acidic in nature and we generally can grow at lower pHs than soil. Plants will perform well from 5.4 to 6.4. Lime is added to peat based media and reacts over time after first wetting so pH will rise over time. Above 6.4 we often see iron deficiencies in transplants. This also occurs if irrigation water is alkaline (has high carbonates) causing pH to rise too high over time.

In high pH situations, to get transplant growth back to normal, use an acidifying fertilizer (high ammonium content) for liquid feeds. Use of iron products, such as chelated iron, as a foliar application on transplants can help them to green up prior to the pH drop with the acid fertilizer. In severe cases with very high media pH, use of iron sulfate solutions may be needed to more rapidly drop the pH. Acid additions to greenhouse irrigation water may also be considered for where water is alkaline.

If lime is missing or inadequate, and pH is below 5.2, plants may have magnesium deficiencies or may have iron or manganese toxicities. This also occurs in media that has been saturated for long periods of time. To correct this situation apply a liquid lime solution to the media and water it in well.

Media that does not wet properly may not have enough wetting agent or the wetting agent may have deteriorated. They will be difficult to water and will not hold water well thus stressing plants. Application of additional greenhouse grade wetting agent may be needed.

If the fertilizer charge is too high, or if too high of concentration of liquid fertilizer feed is used, or if incorporated slow release fertilizer “dumps” nutrients, high salt concentrations can build up and stunt or damage plants. Leaf edge burn, “plant burn”, or plant desiccation will be the symptoms. Test the media for electrical conductivity (EC) to see if salt levels are high. The acceptable EC will depend on the type of test used (saturated paste, pour through, 1:1, 1:2) so the interpretation from the lab will be important. If salts are high, then leaching the media with water will be required.

Poor transplant growth or transplant injury can also be caused by:

  • Heater exhaust in the house caused by cracked heat exchanger, inadequate venting, use of non-vented heaters
  • Phytotoxicity from applied pesticides
  • Use of paints, solvents, wood treatments, or other volatiles inside the greenhouse
  • Use of herbicides in the greenhouse or near greenhouse vents
  • Low temperatures due to inadequate heater capacity or heater malfunction or excessively high temperatures due to inadequate exhaust fan capacity or fan malfunction