So you’ve heard a couple of horror stories already that might give you pause about seed starting: getting the seeds mixed up and of course, having a huge blight wipe out a crop. The first is relatively minor and the second is a huge disappointment that everyone from home growers to commercial farmers and agribusinesses face. Is that any reason to be daunted? Not really.
Most gardeners admit that they’ve killed an awful lot of plants. In fact, one speaker I recently heard described his credentials as “I’ve killed more plants than anyone in the room.” Cute. Trial and error is, however, one of the best ways to learn and seeds are very inexpensive teachers. Success with seeds can give confidence to try other things.
But seedlings, precisely because they are so small, can have a couple of problems that larger plants might not have.
As you might suspect, the problems all revolve around water (provided you’re read the instructions for whether the seeds need light for germination). Too little water and the seeds die–and this is critical because if the seeds dry out just a little bit, their tiny stems close up and they cannot be revived.
At the same time, if the seeds get too wet, they are prone to a fungal disease known as “damping off.” All the books say that there will be a ring around the stem where the fungus has invaded. Mine usually succumb when the stem is too small to even see a ring around the stem. The stem just blackens at the soil level and the plant keels over–voila, no more seedling.
So what do you do? There are several things other than just giving up and buying plants at the local garden center. First, one of the reasons that so many “seed starting systems” exist is to try to help growers have success. If you’re starting something that is particularly tricky and prone to damping off, you may want to use one of these systems, which usually consists of tubes of soil-less mix on a wicking mat over a reservoir of water that you refill–and then that whole thing is covered with a humidity dome. They’re not terribly expensive. A beginner’s kit from Gardener’s Supply is about $30 (plus shipping.)
But, for example, marigolds are horribly prone to damping off. Who knew? But that’s why they rarely give them to kids anymore–or they give them to kids in such vast quantities that they rarely fail. If you wanted to start those, you might do so in one of those kits.
Next, as I’ve suggested, you just start mass quantities of the seed to allow room for failure. As I often do when planting beans out-of-doors, I put 4 seeds in every hole, chanting the Native American saying, “One for the Rook and one for the Crow, One to die and one to grow.” It pretty much covers all the bases. (And I still had to plant my heirloom bean crop 3 times last year, so that tells you that seeds are a pretty tricky proposition sometimes).
Finally, sphagnum moss contains a natural substance that helps to retard damping off. Once again, sphagnum is not a renewable resource so I only use it sparingly and when I must to control this fungus. But if I’m planting something that I know is particularly susceptible, I sprinkle a fine layer of the moss on top of the seedlings (or place the seeds on top of the moss if they need light for germination) and I rarely lose a seed this way.