Lesson learned from ‘watch me’ approach to gardening rules

Erin Schanen

As we prepare for the gardening season and seed starting, it’s important to sterilize all those plastic pots and trays that will become homes for new plants.

That advice is spot on, and I dish it out liberally at this time of year. But I have a dirty little secret — my trays and pots are dirty and I rarely do anything about it.

Like many things in gardening, this is one of those “shoulds” that I rarely get around to doing. That may be because of a character flaw that involves me thinking “watch me” whenever I’m told I must do something, but maybe it’s just that an afternoon spent washing trays and pots doesn’t elicit a great deal of enthusiasm.

I’ve thrown caution to the wind for several years by not sterilizing everything I’m reusing from previous years and I’ve not had problems because of it. Or have I?

When starting seeds and growing on seedlings, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Perhaps it’s poor germination or the dreaded damping off that hampers seed-starting efforts early on. Seedlings may fail to thrive or, even if they’ve had a strong start, suddenly start looking a bit peaked. The reasons why any of these things happen are too numerous to ever peg down the problem, and it very well could be a fungal or bacterial disease carried over on a dirty pot from last year. The only way to know that it’s not is to sterilize it all and eliminate that option from the equation.

Sanitizing seed trays and pots is not difficult, but it can be messy. The process involves a good scrub in warm water and dish detergent followed by a dunking in an 10% bleach solution, then a good rinse before allowing them to air dry. Some guides suggest using a vinegar or hydrogen peroxide spray instead of bleach, but professionals swear by diluted bleach.

Among the other thing I should aspire to do but rarely manage to accomplish is to clean the dirt off my garden tools at the end of the day. This helps protect your tools and avoid cross contamination from anything evil lurking in that attached soil. (Jumping worm eggs come to mind). And, I suppose, much like making the bed every morning, this brings a degree of tidiness to the garden shed.

Sterilizing pruners or loppers between cuts on any shrub or tree that may have some kind of disease is also very important, but another thing I rarely take the time to do. I have faced the consequences of this before, managing to spread an infection from one branch to the rest of a plant. I use an aerosol bottle of Lysol for this, allowing the blade to drip dry, since other methods, like using diluted bleach, are corrosive to blades.

I’ve learned my lesson from glossing over some of these best practices, and sterilizing my tools, at least between plants if not between cuts, is on my to-do list.

And this year I’m going to sterilize all my seed starting trays and pots. After a decade or so, it’s probably time.


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