Sphagnum moss may be your best friend

on Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Perhaps you've noticed in many of my pictures of sprouting seeds that there's a light brown mossy stuff covering the top of the seed starting mix (let's just call it soil). Here's a good example:

What is it? It's milled sphagnum moss, and you can get it at most of the garden centers (I don't think I've seen it at Walmart). Here's what my new bag of the stuff looks like - it cost $4.99 this year. I was just about to run out of the bag I bought two years ago, and figured it was time to get more.

I first learned about the benefits of using sphagnum moss at a gardening class a few years back. Before that I always assumed it was added to soil to lighten the mix (so it doesn't compact as much), and also because it looks decorative while retaining moisture in potted plants, especially hanging baskets. But check it out - it offers more than that...

I've started using it sprinkled on my flats just after I've planted seeds for two main reasons - moisture retention, and the biggie - it's supposed to prevent damping off. I CAN say I don't think I've had any instances of damping off with seedlings where I've remembered to use the sphagnum moss, so it appears to be doing the trick. Damping off is one of the last things you want to see after your little seeds have sprouted. It's caused

"Damping off" is a general term used to cover a variety of soil-borne plant diseases and fungi, all of which can kill young seedlings. When your plants have it, you'll know it - and by then it's usually too late. One day your little seedlings will be reaching up towards the light, and the next day you'll check on them to find many appear to have withered near the base of the stem, right at soil level. Usually they look like a scaled down version of a forest that's had a crew come through and chop down all the trees - you'll find your seedlings lying over on the soil, dying. You can't save them - the base of their stem has already rotted through.

Now in reading around I do find some conflicting information... Sphagnum moss retains moisture so your soil doesn't dry out as fast. Some sites suggest using something other than sphagnum moss, such as vermiculite, sprinkled on top of the soil. Or you can supposedly use cinnamon, as it has anti-fungal properties like sphagnum moss is supposed to have. Cold, damp basements are supposed to be notorious for promoting damping off (another reason it's good to use heat mats - we'll cover this later). Plus the stagnant air that you'll find in many basements can cause damping off - a small fan aimed near the seedlings should keep the air moving gently.

I can't speak for sure for any of the tips out there on the web - I just know what I've tried and that SO FAR seems to have worked. That's why after planting seeds that I'll be sprouting indoors I sprinkle on a thin layer (about 1/4") of milled (chopped up finely) sphagnum moss, and then give it a light misting of water just so it doesn't suck all the water out of the top layer of soil (the seeds need that to sprout!). If you're uncertain, or feel it's an unnecessary expence, try starting your seeds without sphagnum moss or any of the other added preventatives, and see how things go. NORMALLY things will be just fine....you just have to see if your setting doesn't promote damping off.


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