Friday, April 15, 2011 at 8:03AM
Being mid-April (tax day to be exact), there's a bunch of little plants being brought into the world in our basement every day for the garden and the CSA. Although, for the most part things have been going well in the seedling category, this year has had it's challenges. For the first time I can remember, our seedlings have been experiencing the phenomenon know as "dampening off " (and in some pretty large numbers).
Dampening off, for the uninitiated in gardening, is typically caused by a soil borne fungus (can be bacterial as well). This particular disease will typically attack the little seedling at it's most vulnerable stage - the moment it breaks the surface of the soil. At that point the seedling has used almost all the energy reserves in the seed but has also not started producing it's own food via photosynthesis... and that's where the fungus comes in. It works it's way into the tender newly formed stem right at the soil line where oxygen is plentiful and the humidity is near 100%. The action by the fungus basically girdles the plant resulting in the inability of the plant to move energy from the newly emerged leaves down to the roots... the poor thing starves and then, rather unceremoniously - the top falls off. (remember dandelions and the whole "mama had a baby and his head popped off" chant - basically - pop!)
There's a second version of dampening off that we have also been experiencing... it's call pre-emergent dampening off. This form is painful in a different way. Instead of having the joy of seeing new little seedlings stomped out as their heads fall off - this kind just results in soil... sitting there... with nothing green every emerging. In this scenario of dampening off either as the seed puts out it's initial root or, in some cases, as the seed taks in moisture - the fungus in the soil gets a hold of the embryonic seedling and ends the growth process before it ever shows sings of starting. This can look like absolutely horrible germination rates... but an inspection of the seeds that never emerged will often show they are "rotten" - a clear indicator of pre-emergent dampening off.
So - what's the deal this year - why all the issues? Well, we went through the typical "blame game". Had to be the source of the seeds, they WERE delivered on a 5 degree day in January... except it was all the seeds from several different sources and deliveries... so pretty unlikely. The growing conditions are the exact same ones we have used for years and years, that's not it. Maybe it was the new plastic trays and cells we are using... maybe there's something in them... unlikely... but it's always someone else's fault, right... you are never responsible for your own screw ups... SUE - who can I SUE!? Mental anguish - plant-a-cide - Murder in the Greens Degree!
So yesterday as I was sterilizing the soil mixing bucket and getting ready to start over I had one of those "uhh ohh" moments. I recalled back in early March when I was mixing up the original batch of potting soil I had taken a small little pot of what I THOUGHT was unused soil and tossed it into the mixture... and then as I was mixing things up - I remembered finding an old acorn I had tried to germinate last year. An old acorn in about 2 cups of potting soil that didn't germinate that filled all the soil with some nasty fungus or bacteria... soil that I then tossed into all my nice sterile soil... mixed well and then planted doomed seeds in. UGH! Nice job Andy - saving five cents - killing many dollars of seeds... penny wise, pound foolish.
At this point we have a bunch of new, clean and hopefully REALLY sterile potting soil filled flats in the basement going with a bunch of new seeds... time will tell if we fixed the issue. If this batch of seeds doesn't emerge - then we have some issues for the 2011 season... as of right now - fingers are crossed and we are hopeful the issue has been fixed and green life will return to our plantings!
The tomatoes, peppers and most of the eggplants are doing fine and made it through the emergence stage and are growing stronger every day. The issues with dampening off tend to be more obvious with brassicas and greens... early season crops... but that's ok - if we don't get our broccoli, cabbage and others in this spring - we will mid summer for a Fall harvest (which is usually a better crop anyhow).