The Q&A Archives: Dying Plants

Question: I ordered these seeds from you, and planted them. I ordered Lemon balm, Oregano, and Sweet basil. The only one doing okay is the lemon balm, but that is growing SO SLOWLY! The oregano sprouted and died two days later, and the basil grows like one small set of leaves, keels over and dies. What am I doing wrong? I mist the leaves, keep them in the light, and even have a chat with them every morning (I heard it's good to talk to your plants. I feel like an idiot, but hey, whatever works...)as I prepare my lunch for the day. Please help...this is all very upseting for me...

Answer: Based on your description I suspect your plants are "damping off" (due to fungal or bacterial infection) which basically means keeling over at an early age despite regular care. In general it is not a good idea to mist seedlings once the seeds have germinated and this may be the reason for your problem. Another possibility, since both oregano and basil need very bright light but lemon balm will tolerate shade, is that your growing conditions are not bright enough. Here is a basic outline of seed starting that may be helpful.

Start out with soil that is just barely moist, like a well wrung out sponge. Plant your seeds and cover them with the plastic wrap to maintain humidity, but open it as soon as they start to sprout and put them immediately into bright light. Make sure there is also some air circulation where you keep them as stagnant air can encourage fungal growth. Next, make sure the plants are thinned enough to allow for ample light and air to filter through them. Also, do not over fertilize them. They do not need fertilizer until they have several sets of true leaves. You might try watering by dribbling water gently and slowly out of a small pitcher onto the soil rather than spraying them -- wet foliage will also encourage fungal growth. Finally, make sure all of your tools and equipment are clean and that you are using a relatively sterile potting mix such as a soilless seed starter of peat, vermiculite and possibly perlite. Other causes can also be too high or low a temperature or too little light -- many gardeners find it necessary to use supplemental lights for seedlings. Last of all, you might have luck watering them with chamomile tea when you see the fungus appear.

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