Friday, March 21, 2008

Starting Seeds; Chamomile for Damping Off

"It smells like wet dirt in here," Aries says when he gets home from work. No wonder - I'm in the kitchen wetting down four trays of little pots filled with potting soil. It's time to start seeds for my tomato, pepper, eggplant, and other garden veggies.

The process starts on my living room floor - picking out what I want to grow this year. Some are staples every year - six-packs of paste tomatoes for canning in the fall, sweet bell peppers to chop and freeze, chiles to roast and peel, a couple of jalapeƱo and okra plants. Then there are things I only plant every 3-4 years. Each year, I plant a different hot pepper to string up in a ristra and dry, to use as needed. I'm about out of cayenne pepper, so I'll plant a couple of those this year, and I want to try growing a Habanero pepper or two. I need labels for each little pot or six pack. Some, I have from years past. For the new ones, I cut up the side of a white-plastic bleach bottle, writing the name with a Sharpie marker.

Next, I head outside to get the pots and trays from the garden shed, and get the potting soil out of the cellar. It's not unheard of for us to have below-freezing weather or even a couple feet of snow in March, so the previous fall I put my big rubbermaid tote of potting soil down there so I'm not chipping away at a frozen block of dirt when I'm ready to plant. It's cold and windy outside, so I fill the pots as quickly as possible and line everything up on the kitchen counter.

Each pot gets watered, and while the water soaks in I insert the labels. I've found it's easiest to do things assembly-line style, so next I use a chopstick to tamp down a little depression in the center of each pot. I drop 3-4 seeds in each according to the labels, and then go back and smush the dirt down over the seeds.

Earlier, I'd stopped by a nearby Hispanic market to buy dried chamomile flowers. I get a lot of my teas and spices there, in bulk cellophane packets that I then transfer to my own jars. It's a much better price (½ ounce for 89¢) than buying a box of teabags in the regular supermarket. In Spanish, chamomile is called manzanilla (man-za-NEE-ya), which translates to little apple. If you're familiar with the distinctive aroma of chamomile tea, you'll understand the reason behind the name. I dump the chamomile into two quarts water, bring to a boil, cover and let steep until cool. I want a really strong brew, and two quarts will be enough to thoroughly soak the top of the soil on all the pots.

Damping off is when just sprouted seedlings suddenly shrivel right at the soil line, fall over, and die. It's caused by a fungus in the warm damp soil the seeds need to germinate. I try to keep my potting soil clean (and that's a major reason you don't want to use regular garden dirt to start seeds), but since I reuse the pots, six-packs, and labels each year, I don't want to take any chances with losing my seedlings. A dousing with strong chamomile tea can prevent damping off. I strain the cooled tea and gently water the seeds in with it, taking care not to wash too much soil over the seeds. I'll do it again after the plants come up if any start to flop over.

Then, I want to get everything off my kitchen counter. With a bit of rearranging in the living room, I can squeeze in a place for the plants to grow inside and under lights until I can plant them out in the garden in late May. I put my set-up together with a couple of ladderback chairs, a strong board across the seats, and a couple of salvaged florescent shop lights hung on old drapery rods. I won't need the lights until the seeds germinate, but as soon as they do I can use the chairs' ladders to get the lights down as close as possible to the seedlings and then move them up as the plants get bigger. I'll also plug the lights in through a timer, so I don't have to worry about turning them on and off. I want to keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate, so for now I've clothes-pinned a sheet of plastic down tight over the top of the trays. Everything should be up in a week or two.

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