Gardening Advice

What Is Eating Your Seedlings?

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Growing your own veggies seems like a great idea, at least until you plant the fragile and hard-grown seedlings into the backyard garden. Still vulnerable, the small plants can be easily affected both by weather conditions and invisible culprits day or night. The latter can be quite sneaky, too, feeding on leaves and stems, sabotaging your work in the process.

So do not hesitate to play a detective for a few days to understand what exactly is happening in your garden. You don’t actually have to catch the intruders in the act to identify them. The damage they leave behind can tell you enough. So take your flashlight and gloves, and start the investigation!

Table of Contents

How to determine what’s eating the seedlings?

  1. Check the leaves – The size of the damage can tell you a lot about the intruder. Keep in mind, though, that a single check may not be enough in this case. If you want to be absolutely sure, it is best to examine your seedings several days in a row. Pay most attention to the leaves and whether the damage is occurring during the day or night, whether is done over a single night or it takes longer.
  2. Assess the damage – Small holes in the leaves that continue to grow are a sign that you are dealing with caterpillars, earwigs, grasshoppers or other types of insects. Slugs can cause similar damage, as they devour leaves gradually. However, if you notice that big chunks or entire leaves are disappearing within a single night, then an animal is most likely responsible.

Which animals feed on plants?

Immersion Imagery /

There aren’t that many possibilities when it comes to animals eating seedlings. You’ve probably already encountered some of them and know what a pest they can be.


You may find them cute and fuzzy, but these little rascals can be a real nightmare to deal with. Mainly because they are not easy to detect because nighttime is feeding time, they eat a lot, therefore they could cause a lot of damage to your garden and they will stick around once they find a place they like.

In order to make sure that there is a possum attacking your plants, check if:

  • Whole leaves or entire plants are ripped from the ground.
  • There is visible nibbling on some of the leaves.
  • Only certain types of plants are affected (possums like to eat tomatoes, broccoli, peas, parsley).
  • There are droppings nearby that resemble those of a dog.
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Rats & mice

Although it is common knowledge that rats and mice prefer seeds, your young and juicy seedlings can also look appealing to them. The most important thing for rodents is food, so they will stick around the place they can get it fast and risk-free. Pretty soon they may decide to look for it inside your home, so do not underestimate the presence of rodents in your backyard.

It may be hard to distinguish whether a possum or rat/mice is feeding on your seedlings, but the signs of rodent intruder usually are:

  • Mainly stems, roots and bulbs are affected, as well as fruits closeby.
  • Clear signs of nibbling or scratching on the stem.


Despite keeping your garden pest-free, birds can cause damage, too. They are fond of young plants and consider them a tasty snack. Birds are usually only interested in the leaves, but when the seedlings are not planted deep enough, it is possible to see whole plants pulled from the ground. If you have doubts that birds are causing troubles in your garden, check if:

  • The seedlings’ leaves are ripped.
  • Only the young and vulnerable seedlings are affected and nothing else.
  • There are bird droppings near the “crime scene”.
  • There are signs of birds nesting close to your garden.

The good news is that birds are normally interested only in the young and tender plants. What your seedlings need is enough time to develop and mature a little bit, then the birds will leave them alone.

Snails & slugs

These little guys can be really persistent and they like to get their snack when it’s dark outside. They love moisture, so the chances of snails attaching your seedlings increase significantly when it rains. So, here are some of the common signs of a snail or slug presence:

  • Strangely shaped leaf holes away from the leaf’s edge.
  • Shiny dry trails on the leaves.
  • Gradual but persistent damage to the seedlings during the night.

Since nighttime is when they are active, you can do a little investigation in your backyard then. Check not only the seedlings but also the rest of your garden, as snails can hide under larger leaves, bushes, rocks, mulch, etc. These areas serve as shelter for other pests like earwigs, so make sure they stay clean.

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Which insects might be eating your seedlings?

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Let’s look at the other group of possible suspects. It’s true that animals may cause serious damage overnight, but insects can be just as destructive. They just need more time. That’s one of the reasons why their attacks may go unnoticed for some time, leading to a serious garden infestation later on.

So, don’t dismiss the few small holes you saw this morning on some of the leaves. Instead, try to identify who is responsible. And here’s who you should look for!


Caterpillars are without a doubt a common garden pest and depending on the season, you can have different types of these visitors. Regardless, you can be sure in one thing – they are all hungry and ready to devour your growing veggie plants.

From lily caterpillars to the cabbage white caterpillar, it’s good to know your enemy as these leaf-eating insects leave their own trails behind. Like:

  • Consistently growing holes all over the plants’ leaves.
  • Possible discolouration here or there.
  • Very small green- or blue-coloured dropping.

Of course, the most telling sign is the caterpillar itself. It’s impossible to miss it, once you start examining the seedlings’ leaves. These hungry leaf-eaters appear as if out of nowhere. In fact, they are planted by moths or butterflies, so it’s good to check for signs of eggs on the inner side of the leaves.


Earwigs can survive on almost anything and transplants are also part of their diet. The good news, however, is that not all kinds of earwigs you encounter in the garden are there to attack your veggies. Most Australian species can even rid your garden from caterpillars and various insect pests.

The European earwig, on the other hand, is the one to look out for. Introduced to Australia, these specific plant-eating insects are known for their shiny fully black or dark brown bodies and long yellow legs. One of the most distinguishable traits is the missing yellow triangle on the body, just behind the head, which is present in other native species.

The earwig leaves specifics marks in the form of:

  • Destroyed leaf tips or full removal of the top of the plants.
  • Uneven holes on the inner leaves.
  • Only nocturnal attacks on the seedlings.
  • Holes in fruits and flower plants, too.


Weevils and African black beetle are among the most common soil beetle pests in Australia. You can easily distinguish one from the other, though, as the weevils have a long snout.

While the adult beetles of both species prefer to nibble on fresh green leaves, the larvae, also known as “white grubs”, are drawn to the plant’s roots. Since the latter remain hidden in the soil, they can cause a lot of damage even kill the vulnerable seedlings before revealing themselves. Look for the following:

  • Slow growth of the plants and signs of wilting.
  • Visible yellowing of the foliage.
  • Mainly destroyed edges of the leaves.
  • Damages of the root system of the plants.
  • Severe attack on potato plants, especially the stems and tubers (typical for African black beetle).
These are some of the most common pests known to attack seedlings in particular. There might be others, of course. As you can see a lot of the damages they cause are similar, making it hard to determine exactly what you are up against. If attacks continue, it is better to seek help whether from a gardening specialist or another more experienced gardener.

How to protect the young plants?

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Considering the number of threats, securing the transplants’ safe growth may seem like a tough job. Even so, there are a lot of things you can try.

Remove pests as you see them

This one works just for insects, of course. It may sound tedious, but we can assure you that hand picking is effective. Just arm yourself with patience and keep a close eye not just on both sides of the leaves, but also on the stems and soil around the plants.

Some pests know how to stay hidden. Green caterpillars have the best camouflage, but they are still fairly easy to spot. Beetles, however, tend to fall to the ground and stay hidden, which is why you have to be extra careful and look all the way to the soil.

Collect snails, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs and beetles (preferably with gloves!) and then put them in a bucket with salty or soapy water. This will make them stop eating your seedlings for good. If you don’t feel like killing them, then you can release them in the wild, but this needs to be as far away from urban areas as possible.

Use repellents, baits and traps

If you go to the store you will definitely find all kinds of pest control products for the garden. Some of them can simply repel, while others directly kill the intruders. Whichever you decide to use, make sure you read the label carefully first. While the majority of products will not affect the plants, the chemicals could be toxic for your pets and yourself, too. So, proceed with caution.

Repellents are easy to apply, as they usually come in a spray bottle. Many gardeners prefer to make their own eco-friendly version, including ingredients like white vinegar, dishwashing liquid, garlic, etc. They can help keep pests like caterpillars, snails and others off the plants and in some cases even kill them. Adding popular repelling plants can also help. You just have to learn what’s deterring each specific pest. Possums, for instance, can’t tolerate spiny grevilleas, mint, and geraniums.

Just like the repellents, any bait you decide to use needs to be to the pest’s liking and also non-toxic for other species. Read and follow instructions every time, as some products need to be reapplied to give results. Such is the case with rodent baits, which have to be ingested over the course of several days until it can affect the rat or mice.

As for traps, they require a bit more time and patience but can be an effective pest control method. Usually, they need to be located as close to the affected plants as possible so they can trap the culprits. There are a lot of ideas out there, but you can give a try to some of the easy ideas below:

Some useful sources:

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Cover the plants

This is one of the best ways to hide your seedlings from the hungry pests while protecting them from harsh weather conditions. That’s very important because young plants are easily susceptible to the natural elements.

All-purpose row covers will be enough to protect your seedlings. Made from polypropylene, this garden fabric is very thin, allowing enough light and air to penetrate to the plants. At the same time, the garden fabric provides shelter from the wind, keeps pests out and even helps the plants mature faster.

Installing row covers is not that difficult, too. Most people prefer to use PVC hoops, but pipes or anything else that you can easily bend will do for the structure. You can also build a frame using wood or metal, as well as buy a whole kit with all necessary if you don’t feel like investing time in a DIY project.

In order to block the pests from getting to the seedlings, make sure the fabric is firmly attached to the ground.

Install sprinklers and lights

This one is mainly for the animals which dare to trespass on your property. Possums and rodents in particular, which like sneaking into gardens and houses at night looking for free snacks.

Triggered by the motion, the sprinklers and lights will alert the intruders that they are not welcome. While light may only startle them, the water will certainly get them moving out of your property and away from your plants.

Let natural predators do the dirty work

You have one strong ally in the fight against the pests that you can use any time. Birds like kookaburras and starlings, for example, like to feed on snails and slugs. Various others prefer caterpillars or beetles. Find out which are the natural predators of the pest you are trying to eradicate and what you can do to attract the helpers to your garden. Be careful, though, as we mentioned before birds can also attack tender seedlings.

Transfer the seedlings into a garden bed

Many gardeners think of raised garden beds as a more suitable environment for young plants because the constriction provides a barrier, it makes supervising easier and the limited space allows for more effective pest control.

This doesn’t mean, though, that pests won’t find a way to sneak in there. Especially weevils. Although it may be a bit easier to control the plants in the garden beds, continue to examine them regularly for signs of infestation and turn the soil once in a while. This will expose grubs or beetles, which you can then collect or leave for birds to feed on.

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Are any of these pests tormenting your seedlings? Did you see others? What effective pest control methods do you use? Share with us in the comments below!

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Adele neill
Adele neill
2 years ago

Hi love the advice. I have started growing my own dahlia seedling. They were growing great until I planted them in the garden. Have lost all 25 only two left one eaten over night. Thought it was ant and spray every day. Got rid of ant but must have earwigs I think. So sad I have lost so many seedling. I have just started new lots of seedlings again doing great in seedling trays.

Iris Thomas
Iris Thomas
1 year ago

The raccoon mentioned above is one of what is digging up my plants at night, the same as the chipmunks, skunks, rodents, and other animals introduced. They might be the ones that are digging up your plants too.

Iris Thomas
Iris Thomas
1 year ago

Two strands of electric fence about 6 inches apart keep raccoons and rabbits off my bowler hat and watermelon.

KR Jordan
KR Jordan
1 year ago

I am trying to track down the cause of finding whole leaves of my brussel sprout plant, with stem attached on the ground in the morning.

8 months ago

I’m doing terrace gardening. my garden young shoots will be cutten in night. can I know how to control

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