Damping off is a general term used to describe the sudden death of seedlings. It actually refers to several fungal infections and plant diseases.
Many times when I've germinated a seedling from seed it will suddenly wilt and die for no apparent reason or it will just fall over with a pinched area on the stem at the soil line and die.
Sometimes a seed will rot before germination or an apparently healthy seedling will appear 'stressed' but will survive to become a dwarf.
What causes it? Since this may be one of several fungal infections it is still caused by fungi and treated with a fungicidal spray.
The key is vigilance...if you can catch a sickness as soon as it presents and treat it, you may save the seedling. Unfortunately most fungal infections seem to progress with super speed.
Like many plant infections the best treatment comes from prevention. Purchase and plant disease-free seeds which are those with a fungicidal coating.
If you are using seeds given to you from someone else or seeds you have saved from your harvest then apply your own fungicidal coating by soaking them in 1 gallon water with 1 teaspoon bleach for 15 minutes before storage.
When watering seedlings, add 1 tablespoon vinegar to 1 gallon of water to maintain an acidic pH which damping off cannot survive in.
You can also sterilize any soil you use for germination by placing soil as well as containers into the microwave for sterilization. Add 1 cup water per half gallon of soil and microwave on high for 8 to 12 minutes.
Another means of prevention is to avoid excess watering and overcrowding of seedlings (I am personally guilty of overwatering seedlings).
Mist seedlings with chamomille tea or clove tea and lightly dust the soil around the base of the plant with cinnamon or powdered charcoal (just do this once though).
As you can see, prevention is the key to stopping this and any fungal infection before it can take hold. Good luck and let me know of problems...
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