For those who like to start their own seeds, either for vegetable or flower gardens, there are two little words that can bring about feelings of dread and despair: ''damping off.''
Even if you've never heard the words before, if you've tried to start seeds indoors prior to putting them outside for summer, you likely have encountered the fungal disease that claims the life of tender young plants before they even have a chance.
After meticulously preparing containers, carefully planting the small, vulnerable seeds in the soil, watering gently to avoid run off and providing just enough artificial light and warmth, we anxiously wait for those small new plants breaking through the soil. No one can say it isn't exciting to witness the result of our work, especially after waiting out a long, cold winter. We look at our plants with hope that our gardens will be filled with exciting colors and tasty treats that will see us through the next several months.
Many of us, however, have experienced the heartbreak suddenly finding our plants laying on their sides, wilted and withered, with no chance of recovery. It has happened to nearly everyone I know at one time or another. It has happened to me.
Questions about damping off, what it is and why it happens are most often answered with one simple sentence, ''It's a fungal disease.'' But the fact is, damping off is a generic term that refers to several soil borne diseases including various types of root rot diseases and miscellaneous fungi species that are lumped together into that one term we call damping off.
Some seeds become infected as soon as they meet the soil, while others don't succumb until the seeds have germinated, and what were once healthy looking seedlings suddenly fall over. Sometimes insects are blamed and some gardeners may blame themselves wondering if they over- or under-watered, left the plants in the light too long or not enough.
Since this is the time to start planting those seeds, six-to-eight weeks before our average final frost date and around the time the weather here in northeast Ohio has calmed itself into something more dependable, it seemed like a good time to explain damping off disease and offer tips on how to prevent it.
It goes without saying that we should only purchase healthy, disease-free plants and seeds. After I lost nearly an entire tomato crop to damping off several years ago, I learned to start my seeds in a sterile, commercial, soilless mixture. Soilless mix is primarily made up of sphagnum peat moss that has had several other components added to it, such as vermiculite, clay, perlite, pine bark and other things finely ground.
It is also important to use a medium that drains well and to use sterile containers. This means if you dumped out last year's containers and stored them without washing, you need to not only wash them now but to soak them for a few minutes in a solution of one part household bleach with nine parts water.
Years ago, I tried starting seeds in trays, but soon found several things occurred when plants started growing. Not only does the damping off disease spread throughout the entire tray, but if the seedlings do survive, it is difficult to untangle tender young roots when the time comes for transplanting. Damping off diseases love moist, wet conditions, and crowded plants with little room for air to circulate around their stems is a perfect environment for diseases.
Now I only start seeds in individual containers, with two or three seeds in each peat pot, peat pellet or planting cell. Once the seedlings germinate and the true leaves start to form, I sacrifice the weaker seedlings, cutting them off at the soil line.
Give the seedlings enough light. If you don't have a bright enough window, and most don't, put them under artificial lights. Using one regular fluorescent and one cool-white bulb in a light fixture will simulate sunlight and is more reasonably priced than an expensive grow-light set up.
Light fixtures should be installed so they can be raised as the plants grow. Lights should be no more than two inches above the top of the plants. When plants have to reach for the light, they develop thin, spindly stems that are weak and susceptible to disease.
Moving air is important for young seedlings. Place a small fan on a table or open a window on a cool, spring day when there is a faint breeze.
There are fungal chemical controls available, although they are taken off the market nearly as quickly as they appear because they are, after all, poisons and are easily abused. I don't like to use preventive chemicals while gardening, including when starting seeds, and have had good success with these methods without turning to fungicides or other poisons.