If you see the soil or seed starting mix turning green in your garden or greenhouse, you are not alone. Many gardeners have this same problem, either on their garden soil or indoors when starting seeds.
So, why is your garden soil turning green? A green layer on top of soil is often caused by algae, which thrives in warm, wet, bright environments with moist, humid air. Soil that gets lots of sun and stays wet due to over watering is more likely to get algae. Algae are also notorious for taking up residence inside of greenhouses, where high humidity encourages rapid growth.
Of course, there are ways to get rid of algae and prevent it in the future without killing your plants in the process.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at algae and where it thrives. We’ll also mention how to can control it going forward.
Why Is My Garden Soil Turning Green?
Most likely, a green layer growing on top of your soil is caused by algae. This green soil layer is often slimy and slippery at first.
Later on, a layer of algae will turn black as it dries out. According to Clemson University, this layer of black algae crust can prevent water from getting into the soil.
Although algae looks like green fungus on soil, it is actually not a mold or fungus, but something different.
What Is Algae?
Algae is a broad term for an entire group of organisms which share some similarities with plants. The group of algae includes single-celled micro-algae all the way up to giant kelp and seaweeds.
Just like plants, algae use photosynthesis to turn light into energy, and thus they contain chlorophyll. This gives most algae a green color, although there are also brown and red algae.
Although algae are similar to plants, they do not have roots, stems, or leaves as plants do.
For more information, check out this article on algae from Wikipedia.
Where Does Algae Thrive?
Most algae are aquatic, meaning that they live in either freshwater or saltwater. The algae you see in your garden will thrive in moist and humid environments, such as in a greenhouse or on wet soil.
If there is little or no wind or air currents, then the environment will tend to stay moist. This explains why you will see algae more often in a greenhouse or indoors.
Algae have the potential to thrive in anything that holds a lot of water. This includes moisture-absorbing materials that are often found in potting soil, such as:
- peat moss (sphagnum)
- perlite (perlite turning green is more likely if you are over watering)
This explains why you sometimes see the little white balls of perlite turning green after over watering your houseplants! The perlite holds onto water, creating a moist environment where the algae can thrive.
Algae grow best in areas with plenty of light. This explains why they tend to do well in greenhouses.
This is also why many gardeners see algae (or “green mold”) on potting soil when starting seeds indoors under grow lights. Of course, algae are perfectly happy to grow on the surface of your garden soil, as long as it stays wet and gets plenty of sunlight.
The optimal temperature for algae to grow is 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 30 degrees Celsius). If your greenhouse stays this warm overnight, then you just might be sending algae an invitation to set up a colony.
For more information, check out this article from Science Direct on the effect of temperature and light on algae.
The ideal pH for algae varies, depending on the type. For example:
- Freshwater algae prefer a pH around 7.0 (neutral)
- Marine (ocean) algae usually like a pH of around 8.2 (slightly alkaline)
- Spirulina (sometimes eaten by humans!) prefers a pH closer to 10 (somewhat alkaline)
For more information, check out this article on algae pH from Algae Research and Supply.
Unfortunately, the ideal pH for most plants is 6.0 to 6.8 (slightly acidic to neutral). That means that freshwater bacteria will feel right at home on the soil in your garden or greenhouse.
The bad news is that you probably won’t be able to alter pH to kill algae without also hurting some of your plants. Don’t worry though – there are ways to address the problem (more detail on this later).
How Does Algae Spread?
Small algae reproduce by cell division. Some larger algae use spores to reproduce.
Given enough time, moisture, and light, algae can spread over the entire top layer of soil on a tray used to start seedlings. Algae can make soil green and prevent water from getting through to the soil.
For more information, check out this article about algae reproduction from Brittanica.com.
Algae are also notorious for growing on the clear plastic walls of some greenhouses. This location helps algae to get plenty of sunlight and grow without competition from other plants.
However, since algae have no roots, it is easy enough to wash off with a strong spray from a hose. You can also scrub algae off with a sponge and soapy water.
Will Algae Kill My Plants?
Algae will not work directly to kill your plants, since it is not a parasite or a disease to your plants. However, algae can indirectly harm or kill your plants in a couple of ways.
First of all, algae can compete with your plants for moisture and nutrients in the soil. Over time, algae can form a hard, black crust on the soil.
Eventually, this crust will make it difficult for water to penetrate to the soil and to a plant’s roots. This is true even if you irrigate carefully – you may see the water “settle” on top of crusty green or black algae before flowing away.
On the other extreme, if algae form a thick layer on your soil, it may retain too much moisture, leading to mold or disease for your plants.
How To Get Rid Of Algae
Although algae do not always spell the end for your plants, you may still want to get rid of it, just to be safe. You might also want to remove algae for aesthetic purposes.
Either way, here are some ways to get rid of algae in your garden or greenhouse if it has already moved in.
Dry Out The Algae
Since algae thrives in moist conditions, the best course of action to get rid of algae is to dry it out a bit. One way to do this is to improve soil drainage.
If your garden soil drains poorly, it is more likely to stay wet for a longer time, inviting algae growth. You can improve soil drainage by mixing compost into your soil.
Compost adds nutrients for plants and also provides organic material to attract earthworms and beneficial bacteria.
For more information, check out my article on improving soil drainage.
There may be areas of your garden that stay wet for a long time after a rainstorm. If so, consider taking steps to improve drainage by digging trenches and installing pipes to divert water away from these problem areas.
Also, get into the habit of watering your garden in the morning, not the evening. When you water too late in the day, the soil stays wet overnight.
If soil stays wet for longer periods, there is a higher chance that algae, mold, and moss will grow in your garden or greenhouse.
It is also worth considering the possibility that you are over watering your plants. This will also keep the soil too wet and promote algae growth.
For more information, check out my article on over watering your plants.
If you are starting seeds indoors to prepare for the spring, consider changing your watering method. Instead of watering from overhead, water seed trays from the bottom instead.
This method keeps seeds moist while allowing the surface of the soil to dry out, preventing algae growth.
To water from below, all you need are some holes in the bottom of your seed tray. Simply submerge the tray into water deep enough to provide water to the soil, but not deep enough to cover the top of the soil.
If you need to, you can poke holes in the bottom of your seed tray using a metal point (such as a shish kabob skewer – heating it up first will help). Just be careful not to poke or burn yourself!
You also have the option to use a spray bottle to keep your houseplants watered (or to keep the soil wet enough for seed germination and seedling growth).
Decrease Light Levels
Algae have been called “nature’s solar panels”, because they derive energy from sunlight. If you want to inhibit algae growth, just decrease the light levels wherever you find algae growing.
This may be easier said than done, since your other plants may also suffer from a lack of sunlight. However, if your grow lights are on for 16 hours a day to start your seeds, you may be able to tone down the light a bit to discourage algae growth.
For more information, check out this article on algae from Michigan State University.
How To Prevent Algae
Once you get rid of algae on your garden soil or in your greenhouse, you will want to take steps to avoid it in the future. Here are some ways to prevent algae growth.
Use Potting Mix To Start Seedlings
If you are going to start plants from seed indoors, be sure to use potting mix from the store, instead of compost or garden soil (“dirt”) from your yard. Otherwise, you may bring in algae or spores from outside.
You need to be especially careful when growing in a greenhouse, since algae spores on dust or dirt can be blown in by the wind. if you see algae on soil, try to dry it out or cover it to prevent it from spreading (more on this later).
For more information, check out this article from ProMix on controlling algae on growing media.
If you have had problems with algae in soil in the past, it may make sense to use a humidity dome to isolate your seedlings and keep algae out. For more information, check out my article on humidity domes.
Avoid Peat Moss, Perlite, & Vermiculite
As mentioned earlier, these materials retain lots of water. This means that any growing medium that contains peat moss, perlite, or vermiculite will stay moist and will encourage the growth of algae.
For more information, check out my article on perlite versus vermiculite.
Avoid Over Watering Your Plants
Make sure to let the top of the soil dry out before watering your plants. Otherwise, a top layer of soil that is constantly moist is inviting algae to grow.
If your soil drains poorly, consider elevating it (such as with a mound or berm). You could also use a raised bed, grow bag, or other containers to improve soil drainage by elevation.
Use A Fan For Growing Indoors
Air flow dries out the top of soil to prevent algae growth, so consider using a fan to keep algae at bay if you are starting seeds indoors.
A fan might also help to prevent algae in soil in a greenhouse (or on the plastic or glass walls).
What Is The Difference Between Algae & Moss?
Algae form a thin layer on top of soil and grow in warm, moist, bright conditions. Algae can also grow on water, especially if there are high levels of nitrogen or phosphorus present.
Moss, on the other hand, forms a thick mat (often called a carpet) on soil or rocks and grows in moist, dark conditions. However, moss does not grow on water like algae does.
For more information, check out my article on moss.
Now you should have a much better idea of what algae is, where it thrives, and how to control it in your garden or greenhouse.
I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone else who can use the information.