Protecting Seeds From Damping Off

On this Friday the 13th it seems appropriate to discuss a gruesome disease that can affect your precious tiny seedlings after you have so carefully nurtured them.  Once they have it, it is fatal, so prevention is really the only “cure.”  And as I have mentioned in a few prior posts, some seeds are more prone to it than others so it helps to know this in advance.

First of all, damping off is caused by any number of different fungi.  You’ve heard of lots of them and they are the usual culprits behind disease in the garden: alternaria, botrytis, fusarium–and there are lots more!

How do these fungi (or funguses if you prefer) get onto your seeds? Any number of ways. They can be blown there by the wind. They can be carried there in your water. They can be on the seeds themselves. They can be in your potting mix.  If you’re re-using trays, pots or tools, they can be on those implements.  In other words, the fungal spores are pretty much everywhere and very hard to avoid.

They do like certain conditions–cool and damp–better than others.  And of course certain folks will recommend using a fan for circulation around your seedlings. I’ve tried that. I can’t say I think it makes much difference in terms of damping off, but it does help strengthen the seedlings before you harden them off, so if a fan works for you, by all means, try setting one up near your seed starting place.

Some folks will water with different mixes–I’ve read about watering with water infused with garlic or with chamomile tea.  Again, if it makes you feel better, go right ahead.  For me, trying to keep the potting medium evenly moist and not overly wet, and trying to water from the bottom when possible, particularly when the seeds are young, seems to work as well as anything.

There is a product sold particularly for this purpose called No Damp Off. It claims to be an organic sphagnum moss from Wisconsin. I actually do own a bag and for very susceptible seeds, I will lightly top dress with this product. I think the bag I have has lasted me over 20 years (since I try to use non-renewable resources very sparingly!) I can recommend it, with the limitation that I wouldn’t plant directly into it myself.

If you start reading articles for the greenhouse and nursery trade, you’ll see all sorts of technical publications that talk about soil drenches for seedlings.  I’ve attached one from the University of Massachusetts here. But stop just a moment and think about this.  Why are you growing seeds? Surely it isn’t to drench them with commercial fungicides before they even hit your garden, is it? (Maybe it is. If so, you can skip the rest of my post).

That’s not why I grow them. I grow them to get something better than or different from what’s out there in the trade. I grow seeds because I want to choose the varieties that I want to eat. And I grow them because I want to control the process from beginning to end–what goes on those seeds.  And ideally that does not include chemicals or fungicides at any part of the growing process.

So if I lose my seeds to damping off, I may have to go buy some plants at the garden center–plants that in all likelihood will have been treated, unless I can find some that say “organically grown.”

But with any luck, I won’t lose my tender little seeds.  And I’ll have the pleasure of knowing I have grown my own plants organically.

And Still More About Seed Starting!

Wouldn’t you think I had said it all by now? I’ve been talking about seeds and seed starting for over a week now, right?

In my post Friday, however, I touched on things like not setting yourself up for failure and about reading the seed packets.  Remember, I’ve been doing this stuff in earnest for 25 years (and as a dabbler since I could walk probably so we’re talking 5 decades of experience).  Anyone who owns 2 books about seed starting (I mean, does anyone even own books anymore and not just use the internet?) has to be pretty hard-core!

That doesn’t mean that seed starting is always hard.  But it does mean that in certain cases–I mentioned a couple last week–you might need to do certain things for your seeds to help them. That’s what this post is about.

The first thing you always want to know is whether you have to cover the seeds or whether they need light to germinate.  Most seeds are fine being covered and being in the dark.  I start most of my seeds in those little coir wafers I mentioned. I just drop them into the holes in the little discs, put them in my dark furnace room where it’s warm, and check them every few days to see if they’ve sprouted.

I do put the discs (which you have to wet so that they expand) into little trays and I cover the trays.  I have re-usable trays for this purpose that I’ve used for decades.

Now clearly if the seeds need light to germinate, I can’t do that. I will go through all the same steps (coir disc in the tray with the plastic cover to retain moisture) but I’ll put the tray in a sunny south window, again checking every few days for germination.

But what happens if your seed package says “needs a period of cold to germinate.”  In that case, you have a couple of options.  Since it’s usually perennials or cold-hardy annuals that have these instructions, you can do whatever you would normally do to start them and then set them in a protected cold place, checking them as you would do any other seeds.  The instructions will often tell you how long the cold period will be, but it is quite often a significant period of cold–a month or more, because what you are trying to do is to simulate the cold dormancy of winter that the seed would have gone through if it remained on the plant out-of-doors.

Be careful if you are using your refrigerator for this cold place.  And extra refrigerator is a great place to do this so long as it doesn’t have fruits or vegetables in it.  Some fruits and vegetables can give off compounds that can interfere with plants, particularly bulbs. But you don’t want to take the risk that an apple or an onion is going to undo all your hard work in chilling your seeds.  Better to find a protected place–even under a flower pot outside–than to risk using your current fridge.

This period of cold is called stratification, or cold stratifying in case you run across those “technical” terms.

But I see I’ve gone on for quite some time so we’ll continue again on Friday about how to protect seeds from that most dreaded of diseases, damping off!


More About Seed Starting

I’ve spent the last week or so talking about seed catalogs and buying seeds.  But what should you do once you’ve got the seeds? How do you go about starting the little things?

Well, if you’ve looked at the catalogs–or even in the stores–you’ve seen that there are a whole lot of things that are often sold with the seeds.  Are any of them necessary?

I would tell you that the only thing necessary is a sterile potting soil without fertilizer. If you can find that, you don’t need to buy anything special. But since that seems to be impossible to find these days, that’s why I buy seed starting soil.  If I can find it, and quite often I can, I buy organic seed starting soil, because for the most part I am growing edibles so I want them grown in organic soil.

If you want to buy one of those fancy tray systems with the wicking mats and the heat mats for your seeds, by all means, go right ahead.  Anything you can do to give your seeds an advantage is fine by me.  If you want the little peat pots, okay–but try to find something a little more sustainable. I was so thrilled a few years when I found little round discs made of coir (the coconut fiber).  Peat comes from non-renewable resources and is acidic. Coir is neutral.  It’s up to you.

In any event, here’s what you need to ask when starting any seeds:

  • Do they need light to germinate?
    Do they need heat (or cold) to germinate?
  • How long will they take to germinate?
  • Are there any other special conditions I need to know about?

All of the information you need to know should be on the seed package.

One thing to pay attention to, particularly if you’re growing edibles. It may say something like “harvest in 28 days” or “harvest in 68 days.”  That harvest is days from germination, not days from planting.  It doesn’t really specify that.

I also doesn’t really tell you that if you’re starting seeds inside (like with tomatoes or peppers) versus what we call “direct sow” (in other words, planting them in the ground–how novel!), it’s really going to take longer, I find, for harvest to occur.  Some things you just can’t speed up. Nature has its own timetable.

In other words, don’t plant the tomato seeds in February in Maine and expect to harvest tomatoes in June. It will not happen. There’s not enough light, heat and sun on the planet or in an electric plug to make that happen!

Finally a word about when to start those seeds. Don’t start them too early. With the exception of peppers, (and parsley, if you’re starting that from seed) most seeds will come up in about a week or so.  Then you’ll have tender little seedlings to nurse along until you can plant them in the garden.

So if you know your last frost date is in May, don’t start tender things in February.  By the time you get them outside, you’ll have bean-pole looking things that are all scraggly and mal-nourished. Don’t set yourself up for failure.



Buying Seeds From Garden Catalogs–Your Head Will Be Spinning From All The Choices

Even small garden catalogs offer a dizzying array of choices when it comes to seeds. In fact, that can be part of the problem sometimes–how does one ever choose? There are catalogs dedicated to the solanaceae family (in other words, primarily tomatoes and peppers).  There are catalogs dedicated to organic seeds and to “natural” seeds and to heirloom seeds and to saved seeds.

And then there are just seed catalogs in general.  Territorial is one of the ones that comes to mind. If you want to read a good seed catalog that has a bit of everything–non-organic seeds, some organic seeds, grafted plants, regular plants and lots of equipment this is the catalog for you.

What I particularly like about Territorial is the depth of their instructions. I am sure folks will have a fit because the catalog is not all organic and what that means is that some of their seeds are GMO and some of their seeds come from the huge agri-businesses.  Okay.  I get it.  Am I telling you to buy all your seeds from Territorial? I am not.  I am telling you that I like the format of the catalog.

You can get almost the same information from Johnny Selected Seeds.  Their seeds are mostly organic, heirloom and non-GMO. They do sell hybrid seeds, if you care about that sort of thing.  There is a page on their web site explaining the differences among the different types of seeds that they sell.

As between Johnny’s and Territorial, I find the seed starting information slightly better at Territorial.  And let’s face it, when you are beginning with something as small as a seed, where something can go wrong so easily, it’s nice to have as  much information as possible.  I won’t copy and paste the info in here, because all of it is copyrighted, but I suggest you look at Johnny’s and Territorial both for something you’d actually like to grow.

Or take something that is a wee bit challenging to grow like hollyhock or marigold.  Marigold is prone to damping off.  Hollyhock needs light to germinate. Territorial is very good about giving tips on how to sow.  Hollyhock also has some pretty specific temperature requirements.  Johnny’s is a little vague on these to say the least.

Now a very serious seed starter is going to do some more research or is going to get a book on seed starting. I’ve actually got 2, from back in my 10 tray seed starting days.  But you shouldn’t have to do that.  The seed packet and the catalog should give you all the information you need.  So that’s why for me, Territorial is a huge winner!



Buying Seeds From Garden Catalogs–Or Even If You Do Everything Right, Things Can Still Die And It Won’t Be Your Fault

So I’ve already talked about some of my favorite garden catalogs like Baker Creek and linked to Margaret Roach’s blog with the list of all the organic seed companies. What I want to talk about now is why you might want to buy seeds from a catalog instead of from the local rack in your grocer/hardware store/big box stores.

Seeds are everywhere and they have been for quite some time. For those of us that have been avid seed starters, there’s nothing better than poring over huge selections of seeds, both in person at the garden center and in all the lovely catalogs that come to the house.

As a general rule, however, unless it’s a real impulse purchase, I only buy seeds through the mail.  Why?  For the most part, I think that the conditions where they have been stored, and the conditions where they are kept are more tightly controlled.  And that gives me a better chance of success with those seeds.

Because let’s face it, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with seeds.  They need to be kept evenly most but not overly wet–a difficult thing to achieve. And even if you do achieve that, there is always that nasty fungal disease, damping off, to contend with. It’s not your fault–it just happens.  Certain seeds are more prone to it than others and there are certain things you can do to try to avoid it but after I lost 9 out of 10 trays of seedlings one season to it I dramatically cut back my seed starting, re-educated myself about seeds (never mid about heartbreak!) and learned that some things just aren’t your fault.

Maybe that’s the biggest lesson a mature gardener can learn–even if you do everything right, stuff still happens.

It doesn’t just happen with seeds, although at the most elemental level, it starts there.  It can happen with plants, it can happen with trees and shrubs–basically it happens all through the gardening process.  And inexperienced gardeners always blame themselves.  This is so very wrong.

Just because a plant dies–or a seed fails to grow–it’s not always your fault.  Sometimes it is. Sometimes you didn’t water enough, or you watered too much.  But barring those two basic things (and failing to notice some disease or pest destroying the plant) very little else is your fault.

So if a seed fails to sprout, what did you do wrong? How is that your fault?  Most likely it isn’t. Most likely the seed wasn’t stored at the right temperature or harvested properly or perhaps you buried it too deeply but it can often overcome that.

No, if a seed doesn’t come up, more likely that not, that fault is the seed company’s.  So choose your seeds wisely.  They’re not that expensive.

And if you do buy them in a store, try to avoid a rack that’s in front of a drafty door or a sunny window or any extremes in temperature that might cause the seeds to bake or freeze when they’re not supposed to.  Seeds aren’t fool-proof.

But the good news is that for a couple of dollars, when seeds grow, you can harvest enough to feed you, your family, and your whole neighborhood. You will probably even have enough to give away to a food bank.

So by all means, grow seeds! It’s definitely worth it!




Garden Catalogs

A Sampling of garden catalogs


Chances are if you’ve bought anything even vaguely garden related by mail, you receive at least some catalogs in the mail.  I can remember a time when these catalogs began to arrive right around the new year.  Now, like everything else, they begin to arrive around Halloween.  That’s fine by me. I set them aside in a stack to look at in the darkest days of winter–in other words, right about now.

I confess that I don’t keep all the catalogs I get–I’d be “snowed under” with paper.  And I also confess, that probably like most gardeners, I page through, fold down pages and dream about  the things in these catalogs but I cannot possibly order 1/10th of what is in them. For one thing, I am not indescribably wealthy, even in years when I have a lot of lectures.

For a second, after twenty plus years of living on the same piece of land, I am running out of room to put all of the things I would like to grow.  Yes, there are always containers, and yes, nature always give me “opportunities” in the way of dead plants but there are still fewer places to put plants now than there were when I moved here.

And I have different priorities than I did 20 or more years ago too. While I still garden organically as I did back then, and I still garden for wildlife, as I did back then, there are  other things to consider: I now consider things like native plants, which are more likely to adapt to the crazy weather patterns that we experience.  I also consider plants that require less “input” from me the gardener as I age. While there’s no such thing as a “no maintenance” plant (that would be a silk plant), there are those that require less work.

For example, while I love my hydrangeas, they are not native, they require an awful lot of water in dry summers and they have to be pruned, pretty severely, every spring.  For someone with severe arthritis, that’s quite a chore some springs.  So I don’t seek them out anymore. I will still enjoy those that I have, however–you won’t find me ripping them out just yet.

But that’s what I scour the catalogs for–lovely natives that might be workhorses like my hydrangeas someday.


Baker Creek Catalogs

I also look for interesting seeds.  When it comes to that, my favorite catalog is Baker Creek and it has been for decades.  Now that they’ve bought a seed house here in Connecticut (Comstock, Ferre & Company) I love them even more.

But there are other great heirloom seed companies as well.  Seed Savers Exchange is celebrating its 40th  year this year.  And Margaret Roach has an excellent summary of organic seed companies on her blog, A Way to Garden, which can be found here.

And finally, a shout out to Renee’s Garden, who is always generous to a fault with garden writers. She supplies seeds to us to test in our own gardens every year.  Sadly the last two years my readers will remember my battles with the critters (the critters won!) so I didn’t have much of a harvest from the seeds that the company provided.  But that is my own fault and not theirs, surely!  Check out some of their wonderful offerings (and remember, I have been compensated in free seeds by them).

Whether you’re starting seeds or looking for shrubs, the catalogs are a great reference.  I generally buy my seeds from the catalogs as well because I can be certain that I will get what I want (and shipping is not prohibitive.) I’ll talk about buying plants from catalogs on Monday.



Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Seed Starting

I have been a seed starter from way back–probably from childhood. So this was a bit of a wake up call for me. I’ll tell you how it came about (and how I’ve changed it, obviously)

I was reading an article in my local paper about how March gives gardeners the gift of time (I presumed the writer meant that gardeners still had the luxury of planning the garden). The article asked a series of questions that “the gardener” was supposed to ponder. One of the most shocking questions–and I hope it was asked tongue in cheek–was something like, “Do I really need that big vegetable garden that’s not sustainable because it uses all that water, or should I just sneak over and steal a few tomatoes from my neighbor?”

One thing the writer has correct is that vegetable gardens, even if they are using drip irrigation fed by a rain barrel, are not the most xeric gardens out there. They can’t be. You need water to grow good vegetables.

And of course last year I had the well-publicized battle with the deer.

So that got me thinking (not about stealing my neighbors’ veggies, I hope you understand!). But it did get me thinking about whether there were ways to do what I was doing any better. Or perhaps I should just get my tomatoes from the abundance of Farmer’s Markets in my town. Is that more sustainable and would I regret that?

I do have a week or two left to decide. I could also try to come up with Plan C, which I haven’t yet thought of.

You all will obviously see the results–or not–here this summer.

We Bloggers Are Making Seeds Sexy!

Bloggers–and I don’t just mean garden bloggers here–but food bloggers too, I think, are responsible for a revolution that is happening in the food world.

A recent article in The New York Times talked about a conference at a Westchester New York conference center called Stone Barns.

Chefs were talking not only about Farm to Table, a movement that has gone mainstream, but about getting back to the beginnings of the “farm” sources–back to the very seeds that the farmers use to grow the produce for their tables.

This is a bit revolutionary, and I think blogs–both gardening blogs and food blogs–are directly to be credited for this. With so much emphasis on specific named varieties of vegetables and on heirloom varieties in particular, it only stands to reason that chefs would seek out more knowledge about these vegetables and their sources–the seeds from which these vegetables are grown

So food and garden bloggers, give yourselves a round of applause–you have influenced a movement!

Organic Seed–Not Hard To Find, Nor In Short Supply

On Monday I talked about what I perceived as a deliberately obscure piece in the New York Times recently by Margaret Roach about her reasons for choosing organic seeds because they required fewer “inputs.” Maybe it’s just me but if you don’t find the choice of the word “inputs” deliberately obscure….

In any event, I said that I didn’t deliberately seek out “organic” seeds. Interestingly enough, I discovered, in researching this issue, that most, if not all of the seed companies that I deal with do offer organic seeds either exclusively or as an option. And remember, even Burpee offers a limited selection of organic seed choices (actually their selection of organic seeds is quite large–it’s just “limited” when you consider the offering of its entire catalog).

Certain companies are exclusively organic and I have ordered from those companies in the past and still do order on occasion. It’s just that I don’t need a lot of seeds every year so it’s always a challenge to not spend a fortune in postage by ordering from every catalog I’d like to patronize. Two that stand out–from opposite coasts–are
High Mowing Seeds and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (whose fruit and vegetable seeds are certified organic).

One of my all-time favorite seed catalogs–and one that I do order from just about every year–is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (and so sorry–Wordpress’s linking feature stopped working after the links above. It’s “”) Not only do they have a huge selection of heirlooms–larger than any catalog I’ve ever seen–but I love their philosophy, which you can read about at their web site or in the beginning of every catalog. I own their book and subscribe to their heirloom growers magazine as well. But the catalog is a visual treat–you’ve likely never seen such a large selection of unusual vegetables in your life! I’ve been a Baker Creek customer for well over a decade.

While their seed is not “certified” organic, they are untreated and free of pesticides.

I’m an even bigger fan now that Baker Creek’s owners have purchased one of my local seed sources, Comstock, Ferre and Co. While their catalog isn’t quite as large as the Baker Creek catalog, it is local–and best of all, I can actually visit the store!

Many of my other favorite catalogs have organic sections as well. One in particular is Renee’s Garden. Renee’s Garden is extremely generous to garden writers (including me) and she always makes a variety of seeds available every year for garden writers to trial. I’ve taken advantage of this program for several years and I am extremely grateful to the company for its support.

Renees Garden has a good selection of vegetables and herbs that are certified organic, including 7 types of tomatoes, 3 types of peppers, 6 types of lettuce–you get the idea. It’s certainly not a small selection. An organic gardener could easily choose all organic vegetables from this catalog alone.

And there are more catalogs offering organic seed as well including the Cook’s Garden, Seed Savers Exchange, and Territorial Seed, which has 27 pages of organic vegetables.

Once again, I do apoligize for not offering links–I tried to link up to these sites on 2 different computers for more than a week but WordPress apparently had other ideas. They’ve changed so much about uploading lately that I may have to change blog sites to continue blogging.

But that isn’t your issue–it’s mine. Just forgive the glitches you see on the blog.

Just know that organic seed is not hard to find, nor is it in short supply. Do not be frightened of–or believe–everything you read.

The Politics of Backyard Vegetables

I’m going to take a break from the glories of spring here for a minute (since nature seems to be doing its best to skip spring anyway and to jump straight into summer this year without passing “Go” and collecting its $200) to talk about a hot button topic that I touched on last month in seed starting but I really didn’t have time to cover fully.

Lots of other bloggers are covering this topic and even food writers and bloggers are beginning to get into the discussion as they wonder “where is my food coming from?”

Many of us have decided to grow our own vegetables to be free of the worries of pesticide contamination and the dangers that come when food is imported–as a commodity–from other countries. Just last week it was reported that 17 food-borne illnesses were attributable to imported foods, 11 to fish and 6 to spices.  There’s a great reason to grow your own herbs!

If, however, you are buying many of the commercially popular seeds ( the “name brands” ) of vegetables, you may be unwittingly getting seeds that may be contaminated with GMOs or genetically modified organisms.   Why is this?  Because all of the seeds for all of the patented varieties of many of our best known vegetables are sold by a company called Seminis.  And who owns Seminis?  Monsanto, king of the GMO seed.

In many cases, you might not care–after all, Monsanto has been arguing for years that there has never been a case of anything attributable to GMO food.

If you, like me, however, are growing your own backyard food to avoid just such issues of “what if,” though,  here’s how you can avoid those vegetables.  Go to the Seminis web site.  There you will find a link to all the vegetable seeds they sell to every seed supplier on just about every continent.  Click on the vegetable you are trying to research.  For me, it’s all about the tomato–that’s my holy grail.

There you will find a list of 29 different tomatoes that Seminis supplies to the world–including such favorites as Better Boy, Roma VF, Patio, and Jetsetter.  Want cucumbers? Salad Bush and Marketmore 76 are theirs. Peppers? California Wonder, Chocolate Beauty and Cubanelle are among the names they own in sweet peppers. In hot peppers, they own Mucho Nacho, Caribbean,  Garden Salsa and Hungarian Hot Wax.  And the list goes on.

If you’d prefer not to go through this tedious inquiry, you can of course buy from companies that sell only non-GMO seeds.  There are several including one right here in Connecticut–our own Comstock, Ferre & Co.   It is owned by the same owners who own Baker Creek Heirloom seeds.  They put out a fabulous catalog (as well as a great heirloom magazine and they have written a wonderful book on growing a raising heirloom vegetables as well).

And no, I get nothing from talking about this wonderful company–I’ve just been a happy customer for years.