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white mold on seedlings

How to Prevent White Fuzzy Mold on Seedlings

The Spruce/ Margot Cavin

Fuzzy white mold on seedlings is a visual warning that your plants are in danger. Fungi, like Rhizoctonia spp. and Fusarium spp., along with water mold Pythium spp. can severely damage your seedlings, causing damping off–a death sentence for your baby plants. Plants experiencing damping off may look like the seedling was “pinched” at the soil line, with the stem becoming water soaked and thin. The cotyledons (the first leaves to appear) turn soft, mushy, and may appear grayish brown. Young leaves wilt and turn brown. Roots are stunted or absent, and fluffy white cobweb-like growth may appear on the infected plant. Sadly, once seedlings are infected, they need to be destroyed, because it’s impossible to recover from damping off.

The good news? With some easy steps, you can avoid moldy seedlings and raise healthy plants.

Avoid Wet Soil

Fungus is a sign that your soil is too wet. Soil that is overly wet can cause the delicate roots of your seedlings to rot, which will eventually result in plant death. While it’s important that your seed starting mix does not dry out and damage the young roots of your seedlings, it’s equally important that it’s not soggy. Check the mix in the containers daily to determine watering needs. If the soil feels moist, no need to water. Make sure to use trays or containers with drainage holes in the bottom to avoid soggy soil.

Increase Airflow and Light

A second simple way to prevent mold from growing is to increase the airflow around your seedlings. Install a fan near your seedlings, and run it for at least a few hours a day. If your seedlings are growing in a covered tray, prop the top open or remove it for a bit to increase airflow. Not only does this help prohibit fungal growth, but the air movement encourages strong stems, resulting in sturdier seedlings.

Take a careful look at how much light the seedlings are getting. Newly emerged seedlings need between 12-16 hours of good, strong, indirect light per day to grow well. That also helps the water to dissipate and not sit stagnantly. Avoid direct sunlight, because covered trays will get too hot and may damage the seedlings.

Start with Clean Tools

Before you begin filling your trays or pots with seed starting mix, sterilize them with a diluted bleach solution to kill off any lurking pathogens. Use a solution of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water, and scrub the trays, pots, and any tools like shovels or plant tags to create a clean, healthy home for your seedlings to reside. Rinse with clean water after scrubbing.

Manage Temperature

Few seedlings will flourish in chilly or hot surroundings. The best photosynthesis occurs when the temperature stays between 77 and 82 F. If you are using a heating mat under your seedlings, turn it down or off to avoid overheating your plants.

Thin or Repot Seedlings

Most gardeners plant several seeds in the same seedling pot or tray. If you’re lucky, all of the seeds will sprout. Once they start to really take root, though, they will start to crowd one another. Crowding reduces adequate airflow and can lead to fungus.   To avoid this problem, simply thin out your plants by pinching out a few seedlings from each of your pots. Don’t wait too long to repot your seedlings. Once they sport two sets of “real” leaves, it’s time to pot-up the seedlings into their new home. (The first leaves that appear on the seedling are the cotyledon, or “seed” leaves. Wait for two sets of actual leaves before transplanting.)

Watering

Most seedling mold is a result of watering too much. Don’t water your plants-to-be unless the seedlings need it. It is easy to get into a routine of just giving them a quick watering every day or so “just to be sure,” but this can sometimes do more harm than good. Check the soil’s moisture with your finger, and only water if the soil is dry. However, be careful not to allow the seedlings to completely dry out.  

Rethink how much water you add when you do water your seedlings. You may need to cut down on the amount of water you put on each seedling—another way to reduce white fuzzy mold for healthier seedlings. Make sure the water drains well, and don’t allow seedlings to stand in water.

Finally, if at all possible, consider a system that lets you water from the bottom of the seedling container. Add water to a solid bottom tray and allow the insert with the seedlings to soak up the moisture for an hour, then pour off the excess water. By avoiding water on the delicate stems and new leaves, you can help keep your plants healthy.

By following some easy tips, your seedlings should avoid the dreaded white mold and other diseases, growing into healthy, happy plants!

Fuzzy white mold won't kill your seedlings, but it is a sign that something's wrong. Learn how to prevent mold with these simple tips.

How to prevent seedling damping off

Quick facts

Damping off is a disease of seedlings

Seedlings infected by damping off rarely survive to produce a vigorous plant. Quite often a large section or an entire tray of seedlings is killed.

Once plants have mature leaves and a well developed root system, they are better able to naturally resist the fungus or mold that causes damping off. There is a critical period of growth between planting and maturity when special care needs to be taken to protect sensitive seedlings.

A wide variety of vegetables and flowers can be affected by damping off. Young leaves, roots and stems of newly emerged seedlings are highly susceptible to infection. Under certain environmental conditions, damping off pathogens can cause root rot or crown rot in mature plants.

The fungi, Rhizoctonia spp. and Fusarium spp., along with the water mold Pythiumspp. are the most common pathogens responsible for damping off.

Identifying damping off symptoms

  • Seedlings fail to emerge from the soil.
  • Cotyledons (the first leaves produced by a seedling) and seedling stems are water soaked, soft, mushy and may be discolored gray to brown.
  • Seedling stems become water soaked and thin, almost thread like, where infected.
  • Young leaves wilt and turn green-gray to brown.
  • Roots are absent, stunted or have grayish-brown sunken spots.
  • Fluffy white cobweb-like growth on infected plant parts under high humidity.

What causes damping off

All of the pathogens (fungi and molds) responsible for damping off survive well in soil and plant debris.

The pathogens can be introduced into the seedling tray in several ways.

  • Pots, tools, and potting media that have been used in previous seasons and are not properly cleaned can harbor the pathogens.
  • Spores of Fusarium spp. can be blown in and carried by insects like fungus gnats, or move in splashing irrigation water.
  • Pythium spp. is often introduced on dirty hands, contaminated tools or by hose ends that have been in contact with dirt and debris.

Once introduced to a seedling tray, the damping off pathogens easily move from plant to plant by growing through the potting media or in shared irrigation water.

Garden soil often contains small amounts of the damping off pathogens. If you use garden soil to fill seedling trays, you could introduce the damping off pathogens that cause the disease into the warm wet conditions best for seed growth.

Seeds planted directly into the garden can also suffer from damping off. Disease is particularly severe when seeds are planted in soils that are too cool for optimal germination or when weather turns cool and wet after planting resulting in slow germination and growth.

The damping off pathogens thrive in cool wet conditions. And any condition that slows plant growth will increase damping off. Low light, overwatering, high salts from over fertilizing and cool soil temperatures are all associated with increased damping off.

Seedlings infected by damping off rarely survive to produce a vigorous plant. Find out how to recognize and prevent damping off.