The Value of Benign Neglect

by Doug Muller

Remember when you were a little kid, and your parents--weary from the burden of maintaining ever watchful eyes--turned aside for a while, tending to their own needs? Perhaps they engaged in phone conversations, or knitting, or sports on TV, or tinkering on engines. At these moments, your young mind expanded. You discovered the world, you became resourceful, you found ways to meet your needs--and learned skills that built upon each other to give you some measure of independence.

All young beings benefit from this benign neglect, including vegetable seedlings. I know because over the past couple of weeks I've forgotten this truth. I seem to have to re-learn it every year.

This spring has been the craziest yet, what with all the seed-selling and seed-starting on the heels of a winter spent building the foundations of our business (the website, the packing process, the marketing, etc.). We expected things to be a little hit-or-miss this spring. We finished the hoophouse with the help of our friend Michael in mid-February, but we've struggled to get all the elements of efficient large-scale seed-starting in place since then. The days kept passing, though, and the seeds needed to be started, so we crammed corners of our small house with giant trays of moist soil.

In the process, we tried a new soil mix for making "micro blocks"--tiny three-quarter inch soil blocks that are used to germinate seeds and then quickly transplant seedlings into larger blocks. This mix, it turns out, stays quite a bit more damp than the mix we use for regular-size soil blocks. I didn't know this at first, however, so I watered them as usual; getting them quite wet, nearly sloppy wet, but adhering to my usual watering schedule without reading the signs of the soil. I just wanted to show the little sprouts some love! Alas, like all spoiled youngsters, the seedlings went rotten; damping off had arrived.

Damping off is the bane of new seed starters. Just as you're admiring the gentle arch of an about-to-crest-upward pepper seedling--and typically just after you soak that little sprout with a hefty appreciative dousing of water--the stem begins to brown and wither with tremendous speed. The cause? Too much water and not enough air circulation. When you see this culprit, immediately stop watering and move your seedlings to a spot with moving air. Turn on a ceiling fan, and let 'em dry out. Luckily, in most cases, the neighboring seedlings will be fine if you take these steps. However, the affected plants are a goner. There's nothing to do but re-sow and apply the lessons you've learned to the next attempt.

Like parenting, gardening is most fun when you let go a bit and relax. Give the little babies what they need--but let 'em fend for themselves a bit, too.

Greenhouse pics and planting report coming soon. Also, members can look for the first of the 2009 season's e-mails to be sent out later this week.

In the meantime, stay seedy! --Doug

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