giveaway: ‘making more plants’ with ken druse (and how to avoid damping off)

making more plants coverI AM SOWING MY FIRST SEEDS other than onions about now—Brussels sprouts and broccoli today, with tomato-sowing time just ahead here at mid-month—with a comforting, luscious copy of Ken Druse’s 2012 paperback edition of “Making More Plants” by my side. I’m sharing some of Ken’s advice on preventing that most dreaded of seed-starting mishaps: the fungal killer called damping off.

Like all of Ken’s 18 books (!!!), “Making More Plants: The Science, Art and Joy of Propagation” is rich in instruction, but also visually arresting, since he’s an award-winning photographer, too.  It covers the botany of propagation—the why’s behind how you can make more plants of a particular species sexually or asexually or both—because as Ken says:

“It is not essential to learn about botany to garden well; it’s inevitable.”

Then in words and intimate pictures he covers virtually every tactic for doing so, from seed-sowing to leaf and root cuttings, to layering, grafting, division and more.  The photos are so beautiful, and Ken’s obvious enthusiasm so evident on every page, that I want to try everything. (Just what I need: more plants!)

But trying to be timely and topical, I asked Ken for his most popular seed-starting tip—which he said without hesitation was how to prevent damping off. It’s all in the poultry grit, you see:

how ken druse prevents damping off

(By Ken Druse)

A LOT OF PEOPLE have trouble with damping off, the fungal diseases that attack seedlings. I do not use potentially toxic fungicide. Instead (like alpine plant people do), I fill pots to the brim with sowing medium (recipe below), tamp that down, sow and sprinkle on a little more medium to cover the seeds followed by a thin layer of fine chicken grit or very coarse sand.

Flaked granite chicken grit (“starter” is the finest grade for small seeds) is available at all agricultural supply stores. It is inexpensive but comes in large and heavy bags. Perhaps you can get some friends to share the lifetime supply you’ll get for about ten bucks, but it can also be used as a potting soil amendment for improving drainage. (I used to be able to substitute parakeet gravel, but lately the product seems to have changed and is no longer simply very coarse sand.)

Filling the pots to the brim reduces the area where air might be trapped along with pathogens. The inert grit is an inhospitable material for fungal growth.

I sow most seeds in very clean, 3.5-inch square pots, from 6 to 60 seeds or more, depending on their size. Fewer seeds if big (squash, for instance), more if small (flowering tobacco). Cover the seeds to a depth equal to their thickness (Nicotiana and seeds that need light to germinate get no extra medium).
Recipe: The medium can be a store-bought, peat-based sowing preparation with the addition of grit or perlite to “open it up” a bit–improve the drainage–since regular sowing media tend to get waterlogged. The medium can be around 20% grit or perlite.

“I usually use sifted coir (coconut hull fiber– available as compressed blocks from mail-order garden suppliers and better garden centers) and perlite, or sifted compost with perlite. I place compost or any questionably clean seed-sowing medium in a store-bought roasting bag in a microwave-safe pan and zap it for approximately 10 minutes on full power until an instant-read thermometer plunged into the center registers around 160 degrees F.

Be careful opening the bag in case there might be a cloud of steam

After sowing, I water the seeds from the bottom by placing their pots in a shallow pan of water until the grit on top changes color–from white to gray. The pots may not need watering again until after they are up and growing.

where to find ken and his books

how to win ‘making more plants’

TO ENTER TO WIN A COPY of “Making More Plants,” simply comment below, answering the question: What seeds are you sowing indoors (or out) this spring, and what seeds have given you the hardest time in the past? [Note: the giveaway is complete, but comments are always welcome.]

I know–some of you are shy (or aren’t sowing anything!) so in those cases just say, “Count me in!” and you’ll be entered for the random drawing. My answer: Besides the Brussels sprouts I mentioned, I’m going to give broccoli another try this year–those will be among my first indoors sowings.

I’ll pick a winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, April 8, 2012. Good luck to all–with the contest, and with this year’s seed-sowing adventures.

(Photos courtesy of Ken Druse, from “Making More Plants.”)

March 31, 2012


  1. Murrie says

    Well, I did it again. Bought more seeds than any reasonable person should, but I’m excited to try some new sunflowers this year. I’ve never heard of chicken granite before. I’ll have to look for that. I don’t have good luck starting herbs from seed so maybe this book will help!

  2. Robin says

    My new sproutlings are basil, bulls blood beets (from your fedco post in jan) cabbage and a few flower varieties. I’m trying to figure out why some of the flower stems shrivvle up and wither out of exhistence. A book like this could prove helpful to a newbie gardner like myself.

  3. cecilia says

    I start a lot of veggies inside to transplant out later – leeks, onions, chard, lettuce, brussel sprouts. Though it’s a bit early, I’m going to start tomatoes and peppers this weekend – my money is on our last frost being pushed back a bit this year.

  4. Karen J. says

    I confess that I usually just steal seedlings from whatever my father starts from seed! He’s retired and generally starts about 3x as many seeds as he really ever needs so we both view it as me doing him a favor. This year though, there are plants that I want for myself so I am planning on venturing into unknown terrotory and starting a few things from seed too. Thanks for the tips– damping off is super annoying and kind of depressing.

  5. Dana says

    Tomatoes… always tomatoes… and enough for the neighborhood!

    I start mid April hoping to put them out on Memorial Day weekend here in my newly designated zone 5 garden.

  6. Natalie says

    Sowing many varieites of tomatoes. Also peppers and flowers. I’ve quite lucky with my seedstarting as our heated bathroom floor gives them a comfy start!
    I love Druse’s book… so inspirational.
    Fingers crossed!

  7. Randy Galmish says

    I just yesterday started various tomato plants and for the first time Eggplant. Just a couple of each type. I have tried starting Stevia and actually have a few small seedlings. I also have started some different types of Zinnias.

  8. Abby M. says

    I started onions in January and I have alrady given them a few “haircuts”. The violas (aka historical pansies) are doing nicely as well as a few other early flowers. A flat of several varieties of lettuce has just sprouted. I am also helping to propagate some flowers, vegetables and herbs at the Berkshire Botanical Garden so my days are rather full of seed tending at this point! One thing I use to prevent damping-off: organic Chamomile solution I make myself and use to keep the soil moist for germination.

  9. Doug Roach says

    We’ve started Trout’s Back lettuce, Red Burgundy okra, squash, dill, basil, chives, melons and some broccoli. So far, (about 3 weeks in) the okra is the champ. The lettuce, okra, broccoli, and squash all head outside today (if the rain lets up) to join the spinach, cabbage, collards, potatoes and garlic which are all happy and growing.

    Weird alleged “winter” in the Piedmont this year.

  10. Rosemeri says

    Right now, I have several varieties of lettuce coming up along with peas. I have always had trouble getting carrots to sprout. Haven’t been able to get any to grow although I would love to have them. I’m trying again this year, but so far…nothing. I think I need to get this book.

  11. Dorothy says

    Count me in. I’ve given up on indoor seed starting and direct sow in the garden. Or buy starts from marvelous nurseries around the Seattle area.

  12. Carrie says

    I am growing Anagallis from seed this year. It’s something I haven’t grown before, and I’m really looking forward to the brilliant blue blooms.

  13. says

    Like Mr. Druse’s comment in the Foreword, I, too, was born in spring and have never gotten over it. This is a great book, beautifully illustrated and wonderfully written! I think it may be his best writing.

  14. Bonita Sitter says

    Here in the hills in Wisconsin ,we normally shovel snow on St. Pat’s, but this year I planted peas and potatoes which are up and looking good. I started seeds in early Feb indoors for salad greens, then moved them to my small unheated green house early March. Almost too warm many days. We have eaten several delightful tossed salads. To avoid leggy plants, a small fan toughens them, or setting them out on warm breezy days helps. Soaking peas and beans overnight before planing keeps them from rotting in the soil. Would this work for other, smaller seeds? Time to start my tomatoes, herbs, and peppers .

  15. says

    In years past, and especially as a Massachusetts gardener, I started seeds indoors to get a jump on the season. In coastal San Diego I keep a year-round edible garden and mostly direct seed. I do like to sow seeds and nurture them. Someday I’ll do more of that again. I’ve found the direct-seeded broccoli is sturdier. I cull the weak ones and move them around to make an orderly array, separating them by about 12-15 inches. In this French-intensive way. Plants shade the soil to limit weed growth and conserve moisture.

  16. Kelly says

    I’m going to start okra seeds indoor this spring, because it is nearly impossible to find plants around here in the nurseries and I miss it so much.

  17. says

    I usually start all kinds of seeds in the spring, but for some reason I just can’t get started this year. I might give some Dianthus seeds a go, and California poppy too. I would love a copy of Ken Druse’s book.

  18. Jacqui says

    I’m starting lots of greens, radishes, beans, and carrots right now. I’ve had trouble with tomatoes and eggplant, but I think I just don’t keep them warm enough. And I’ve recently been researching a little about plant propagation, so I’m really excited about this book!

  19. says

    We’re early here in Austin, TX. Christmas through Valentines I sowed many things indoors, all of which are finally out in the garden: tomatoes, peppers, marigolds, lettuce, cilantro (already bolting), dill, violas, zinnia, squash, and melons. I lost my first attempt at ground cherries to dampening off and am excited to try the instructions you shared for my indoor (to avoid the heat) summer sowing of fall crops (Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, etc.)

  20. Alice says

    I just started my 2nd apartment garden this year and now that I’m living alone with a large living room window, I can do so much more. I started hunting for some seeds on Etsy and Ebay and came across some delicious tomatoes, carrots, and herbs. Here are some of the seeds I’ve planted the last 2 weeks: rainbow carrots, sweet basil, Thai basil, Ghost peppers, Thai peppers, beans, herbs, shiso, mesclun, and alpine and temptation strawberries.

    It’s my first year growing something other than parsley and basil. last year, the parsley and shiso would not grow! I don’t know if it was because the shiso seeds I bought were bad but only 1 sprouted and then proceeded to angst over the following 3 months. I couldn’t get the parsley to grow any bigger than a sprout – I think I may have thrown too many seeds in the pot and knew nothing about thinning. C’est la vie! I’m hoping to have better luck this year. :D

  21. Julia says

    We’ll be planting purple opal basil in its own corner inside soon. I’d like to try more things, but we haven’t got proper light, and the aphids came indoors in the fall and have been impossible to eradicate from the houseplants, so at this point, any tender shoot is an easy victim. Some day when we have space I’d love to try starting everything from tomatoes to pelargoniums. Thanks!

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