A Gardener’s Diary: How to avoid damping-off

Vernon gardening writer and enthusiast explains what to do to save your plants from damping-off and some preventative tips.

For those who missed the Enderby and Cherryville seed sales, there is one more chance: Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Schubert Centre, it’s the SENS Seed Swap and Sale, with free admission; bring envelopes for your free seeds. At 7:30 p.m., Jana McNab will talk about permaculture; and at 7:45 p.m., Dave Doncaster will discuss genetically modified foods and your health.

I haven’t been able to work outside much with the rain and cold weather we’re having lately. I managed to get the leaves out of my little greenhouse as the plants in there were starting to grow. I put the trays outside on the patio and I was pleasantly surprised to see that this year, even the plants in the smallest pots survived. The trays were sitting on a bed of leaves and covered with them. I had about 15 bags of leaves all around the greenhouse to protect a bit more. It worked. Now I will be using these leaves in my compost and also making leaf mold. Some of them are quite wet and will go in the compost with the first mowing. The dried ones I will shred. An old lawn mower makes a very good shredder not only for leaves but for all the stuff from your garden as long as it is not too big. It doesn’t work very well with corn stalks and roots.

Leaves in a bin will not break down in the course of one winter into the fine black leaf mold found on forest floors. Such black mold is the result of several years’ decomposition. But if shredded, the leaves will break down enough to make excellent mulch. The ability of such leaf mold to hold moisture is five to 10 times that of ordinary topsoil.  Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as does manure. Leaves are most valuable for the large amounts of fibrous organic matter that they supply. They aerate heavy clay soils, and, in sandy soils, soak up water and check evaporation. It is best to work the leaves in the soil in the fall as they have time to break down before the planting season. Plants which require acid soil will welcome a mulch of acid leaves such as oak leaves or pine needles. Good for strawberries year round, pine needles can be a fire hazard when dry.

My little tomato seedlings are up. I have started a lot of them because I am using some old seeds and want to check the longevity of them. Between peppers and tomatoes, I have put in 707 seeds. I truly hope that some of them don’t make it, as I will running short of shelves and pots.

One of the most discouraging things is when those nice little seedlings that you have been waiting for so patiently and are so proud of suddenly drop on their side. They’ve probably been struck by damping-off. This disease is caused by any of several soil-dwelling fungi that attack germinating seeds before they emerge from the soil or shortly after. Damping-off can be prevented by providing seed flats with proper drainage and using a sterile growing medium. Keep the medium on the dry side and space plants so that air can circulate among them and remove any excess moisture. Your seedlings should also be under bright light.

I was reading that a sprinkle of cinnamon powder on the soil when you start your seeds might help stop damping-off. Cinnamon is a natural fungicide. Chamomile tea is often used after damping-off has begun. It may not kill the causal organisms, but can inhibit reproduction and reduce their spread.