Maintaining Seedlings | How to Care for Starts & Seedlings

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Maintaining your seedlings
As your seedling emerges from the soil, most growers breath a big sigh of relief. Close your eyes and you can almost see the plant grow and flourish into it's full beauty, producing an enviable profusion of flowers or vegetables. As you open your eyes, you will immediately begin a new set of worries, over-nurturing the newborn indoors for a short time while the outdoor weather catches up with your dreams.

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Thin Seedlings as needed
Plants in your garden do not like to be crowded. Ditto with your seedlings, who need all the sun and nutrients that they can get.You may want to leave a few extras for a while as mortality rate of seedlings can be high.

Give them plenty of light
As soon as the newborn seedling begins to emerge, it seeks light. Your newborn needs as much and as direct a light source as possible. Placing it by a window with a southern exposure is the first step. But this alone may not prove to be enough for the seedling to grow healthy and strong. First, the sun is not up as long in the spring as it is in the summer. Second, there are many rainy spring days with little or no direct sun. You should also acquire an artificial Grow Light and place the seedlings under it on cloudy days and at night.

Keep the seedlings moist
Provide water to your seedling every couple of days. Do not soak the soil each night. Overly wet soil encourages the development of damping off disease. Let the soil dry out a little on the top, then water thoroughly. Watering from the bottom is preferred. If you have a seed tray, add water to the bottom of the tray . The soil will absorb it through the bottom holes in your container...your container does have holes in the bottom, doesn't it!?!

Feed the seedlings
The seedling does not need a lot of extra nutrients in it's first few days of life. Your soil starting mix usually comes with a balanced formula of nutrients that the seedlings need. After several days, adding a little liquid fertilizer to the water is helpful, but you do not need to give it full strength.

If the roots begin to come out the bottom of the pot, it is time to plant your seedling outdoors, weather permitting. If it is still too cool, keep the bottom of the tray moist, or put some extra soil in the bottom of the tray. Or, transplant seedlings to a larger pot. Most plants do not like to be root bound.

Guard against Leggy Plants
Seedlings are leggy when their main stem or stalk grows tall and thin and can hardly support the leaf structure. It is caused by insufficient sunlight and a sheltered environment. Indoors, they do not experience the effect of wind, and do not need to develop structure to defend against it. Most seedlings do not even experience a slight breeze. When transplanted outdoors, "leggy" plants can be damaged or broken by the wind.

Tip: Take your hand,or a couple sheets of newspaper and fan the plants a few times a day. You can even lightly brush the tops of the plants, brushing back and forth in varying directions. You may notice the plants seem to slow down for a period. What they are really doing is building a stronger stem or stalk.

Protect Against Damping Off Disease
Those of us who have grown seedling indoors for any number of years know what "Damping Off" disease. This is a white mold that forms in the top of the soil. Damping Off disease flourishes in cold, wet damp weather along with little sunshine. It quickly spreads across the soil and wilts the seedling. Take it's habitat away, and the disease can not survive. Plants on the other hand, love just the opposite conditions. The more you make conditions ideal for your plants, the more likely you will avoid Damping Off Disease and other mold and fungal problems.

If you do experience problems, do not give up hope. Here are some things you can do to minimize or eliminate disease problems:

  • First, get the plant in direct sunlight if at all possible.
  • Stop watering until the surface is very dry.
  • Water only from the bottom.
  • Scrape as much of the mold off the soil as possible.
  • Stir the top of the soil without disturbing the roots. It will also speed drying.
  • Add some soil, although this may or may not produce results.
  • Increase room air circulation. You can gently blow air on your plant trays with a small fan.

Avoid sowing your seeds in the basement and leaving them there for a couple of days. While the trays are conveniently out of the way, this is a perfect breeding ground for Damping Off Disease.

What eaxctly is Damping Off Disease?
Somewhere lurking in the air in your house is the fungus spores of the most dreaded of plant disease for those of us who start plants indoors for transplanting outdoors later in the season.

Damping off Disease is very common plant disease problem. We fear it, because it is fatal to our young seedlings, and is quite harmful to our soaring spring spirits. To lose seedlings so early in the new gardening year is just heartbreaking, especially if it is a special seed. It leads to replanting, and gets our young gardening season off to a late start.

If you grow indoor transplants early in the spring, you likely have experienced it at some point. We usually think of Damping Off Disease as an indoor plant problem. But, it also occurs outdoors, too. We are less likely to recognize it outdoors, as the loss of plants in the spring can be attributed to a number of things.

Now for the good news.... Damping Off Disease as a threat to your seedlings can be minimized. We have lots of tips and ideas to help fight off this enemy of the state.

Causes of Disease
Damping Off disease thrives in cool or cold, dark or cloudy, wet or damp conditions. The disease is airborne, and can spread very quickly from one seed tray to another.

The fungal spores take root in your soil and quickly spreads across the seed tray, jumping to other trays with ease. It is fatal to young seedlings, nipping them off at the soil level.

As with other plants diseases, prevention is the best means of treatment. Follow the do's and don't's listed below. If Damping Off disease does take hold in your seed trays, act immediately. Remove diseased sections to minimize the spread. If it has affected a significant number of plants, replant in new soil and clean containers. Do not reuse the soil. Either use new containers, or sterilize the ones you were using. We recommend new containers.

Controlling the Disease
Controlling the disease is a matter of removing the environment that Damping Off disease thrives in. Here are the basic do's and don'ts:

Do buy sterilized seed starting soil.
Do use clean, sterilized containers.
Do use clean, sterilized containers.
Do provide plenty of air circulation.
Do use a small fan and direct a gentle breeze across the room. The important word here is "gentle"
Do thin seedlings to increase air circulation.
Do provide as much sunlight as possible.
Do let the surface of the soil dry out between watering. Watering from the bottom is preferred.
Do stir the top of the soil around the seedlings.
Don't leave your seedling trays in the basement. Basements are perfect breeding grounds.
Don't overwater plants.
Don't use fertilizer on your new seedlings.
Don't use tray covers. While it is a popular practice to use them, they increase the humidity level and encourage disease growth.
Did you know? Nitrogen in your fertilizer can promote rapid growth of Damping Off Disease.

Other Tips and Suggestions:
It is believed that soaking seeds in a small amount of water and a clove of crushed garlic will prevent the disease.

Some people suggest misting the plant with Chamomile tea as a preventative.

Some people suggest fireplace ash on the top of the soil.

Cinnamon also acts as a fungicide.

Sphagnum moss spread thinly on the surface of the soil.

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