by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
"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 transplants.
Earlier, I'd stopped by a nearby Hispanic market to buy dried chamomile flowers. In Spanish, chamomile is called manzanilla (man-za-NEE-ya), translating to little apple. If you're familiar with the distinctive aroma of chamomile tea, you'll understand the reason behind the name. They carry teas and spices in bulk cellophane packets, at a much better price (½ ounce for 89¢) than buying a box of teabags in the regular supermarket. I'd dumped the half-ounce packet of the chamomile into two quarts water, brought it to a boil, then turned off the heat and covered it to 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 after the seeds are in. I don't even remember where I learned about using chamomile to prevent damping off. I've been using it on my indoor seed-starts for years.
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 seed-starting soil clean (and that's a major reason you don't want to use dirt right out of the garden to start seeds), but since I reuse the pots, six-packs, and labels (a Sharpie pen on pieces of a plastic bleach bottle) each year, I don't want to take any chances with losing my seedlings. A dousing with strong chamomile tea works great for me. When all seeds are nestled into the damp soil in the pots, I strain the dark-brown 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 once more after they start come up if I see any start to flop over. And now, we're off and growing!