Damping off and taking the plunge

In my never-ending quest for a crop of homegrown tomatoes, I decided this year to do everything imaginable to avoid the various fungal diseases that have plagued my plants in the past.

In order to be sure that the plants weren’t diseased from the get-go, I started with seeds.  In order to minimize the possibility that the seed-starting medium was contaminated, I used peat pellets that are supposedly sterile.  Out in the barrels, in order to ensure that the soil from last year wasn’t the problem, we started with all new soil.  In order to prevent any potential left-over germs in the wood of the barrels from migrating to the plants, we lined the barrels with black plastic before adding the soil.  The only other possible contaminants would be the water, the air, and the sunlight, and there’s not much I can do about any of those!

So in mid-March I started my seeds in the little peat pellets, and about a dozen of the little guys actually sprouted (yay!) and were looking great (yay!), so I was very, very happy.  The tender young fellows began to outgrow their peat pellets, and I transplanted them to 3″ peat pots filled with good quality enhanced potting soil.  Later, I moved the little gems out to my trusty mini “greenhouse,” so they could acclimate to the life outdoors before actually being planted in the barrels.

And then, one by one, it looked as if some very mean person had taken tweezers and pinched them right at the soil line.  The pinched area grew longer – maybe up to half an inch – and my precious plants keeled over like drunken sailors!  Then, gradually, they began to die.  I had no idea what was going on til I read this today on the Dave’s Garden Weekly Newsletter:

“My seeds sprouted but then the plants fell over and died”
This complaint demonstrates the oft-heard term in seed starting called “damping off” or “dampening off”. Your baby plants come up and all is well. Then, a few days later, the stem gets a pinched appearance right at the soil line, the seedling flops over, and the whole thing soon withers and dies.

“Damping off can be a problem for even the most experienced seed starters. Usually, it is caused by planting seeds in soil that is not sterile. I know a lot of gardeners don’t care for the peat or coir (coconut fiber) pellets sold for seed starting, but I do use them purely because of this. Peat and coir are sterile growing mediums. As a result, I rarely have a problem with damping off. Even the best potting soils are not considered suitable for seed starting, as they can contain a lot of other semi-questionable ingredients.

“This type of early root rot can also occur if you’re re-using seed starting trays that may have been infected with some type of disease. The bacteria enter the soil and subsequently kill the plants. Either wash your trays with a mild bleach and water solution before re-using them, or buy new trays each time.

“Lastly, don’t let your seedlings sit in water for extended periods of time. Keep them moist, but not sopping.”

Okay, so I didn’t think to bleach my trays from last year, and maybe I was a bit over-zealous with the watering can.  However, in the past two days I have taken two monumental steps to remedy the situation.

1.  On Saturday, April 17 – sadly before I received the Dave’s Garden Weekly Newsletter – I planted another round of seeds in peat pellets.  And no, the tray had not been bleached.  I also noticed this evening that the pellets are really soggy, so I took off the plastic cover to let them dry out a bit.

2.  Today, April 19, I took the plunge and planted the six still-living tomato plants out in the barrels, gave them a good watering, and asked God to have mercy on them.

Now it’s just a matter of watching and praying.  Oh, that vegetables were as easy to grow as marigolds.  My flower seedlings are looking great – so far.


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