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          If the gardening bug has not bit yet, watch out, it won’t be long. One of the first signs is the insatiable desire to fill every usable container with potting soil.

With flowerpots lined up on every windowsill, seed packets piled high on the table, and a bucket of clean pasteurized compost behind the wood stove, there’s no doubt its spring!

Most anything that holds soil will work, even used yogurt containers with drainage holes can be used. Make sure that all containers have been cleaned out and sterilized since the last time they held soil.  Now you’re ready, right?

Not exactly, without the proper care when choosing a potting mixture, you could wind up with some unwanted stowaways. The fungus, bacteria and viruses that can be hidden in garden soil and compost can quickly wipe out weeks of work.

I so remember waking up one morning, about thirty-five years ago and finding all my three-inch tomato plants laying on the ground, it looked like something had eaten away the bottom section of their stems.

Not knowing about the dangers of using my own soil and compost, I had gone out and brought in a pail full of infected potting soil and what happened next is called damping off.

Seeds that are infected with damping off will not germinate and plant stems shrivel causing seedlings to topple over and die. If you have waited an unusually long time for a particular seed to germinate, brush the soil away and carefully take a peak. If it is dark and mushy it has damping off and the only thing left to do is start over, this time with clean potting soil.

 This problem happens everywhere things grow, no matter where you live and there is absolutely no remedy once plants and seeds are infected. The answer is prevention.

Many people choose the safest route, buying a pre-sterilized package of potting soil, if you have a large amount of pots and flats to fill, this could be expensive. By taking a couple of extra steps before you begin, you can use your own rich, organic compost.

I’ve heard people tell of how they ‘bake’ their soil in their oven to kill micro-organisms, this process of sterilization kills everything, even the healthy organisms that you have worked so hard to create.

The answer is simple; instead of sterilizing compost and garden soil, pasteurize it.While sterilizing kills virtually all surface-dwelling microorganisms, when you pasteurize your potting mixture, it is only heated to a temperature that kills harmful organisms and leaves beneficial organisms alone.

 To pasteurize, take a large aluminum-baking pan and cover it with three to four inches of potting soil, insert a meat thermometer in the center and place in a preheated oven, at 200F., once the center reads 160F., bake for 30 minutes. Allow mixture to cool thoroughly before using.

There are other pitfalls to avoid when starting seedlings. Water pots and flats in the morning or early afternoon, and avoid leaving them where the night temperature falls below 50F.

If using a southeast windowsill check pots often, most seeds are only of an inch or less from the surface and when the surface dries out so do the seeds. A couple of hours without moisture will quickly destroy anything that has sprouted.

When you are limited on window space, you can actually start a dozen tomato, eggplant or pepper plants in one pot. They’ll be ready to be divided when they are about two inches high, it’s easy to separate plants at this stage and they seldom suffer from the experience.

When ready to separate, place them in individual pots, taking off the two lower leaves.  Bury the tomatoes all the way to the top leaves, this will encourage them to build a stronger root system right from the start. The peppers and eggplant are not buried any deeper than they were in the original pot.

When they have reached six inches high, I repot the tomatoes again, burying most of the stem. This is where having a good supply of tall cans comes in handy. By the time they are ready to set outside they have developed thick, strong stems with a magnificent root system.

 When it’s time to take them out of the can and place them outside in the garden, dig the hole almost the same height of the tomato plant you are putting in, and take off all but the top two or three sets of leaves, now bury him right up to the last set of leaves. You’ll only have a tiny plant showing, but there will be nothing above ground for this plant to waste energy on, it will use all it’s energy growing a strong root system.

Having short plants also makes them easier to protect from an unexpected frost on those first nights outside and in no time their strong root system will produce strong healthy branches, and you’ll have the best tomato plants ever.

Young plants should be fertilized lightly, or you’ll wind up with huge bushy plants and few fruit. At the first signs of blossoms I side dress each plant with a good serving of well-aged manure and rich compost.

This may seem a bit early, but it is nice to start a few lettuce seeds. While they are growing there is plenty of time to put together a small cold frame. Setting your young lettuce plants into a cold frame around the 15th of April, you’ll be eating fresh salad greens while everyone else is planting seed.