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. Lucy says

    I’m direct seeding everything this year. Starting with the peas, radishes and lettuce today. Earliest ever, but the ground really does seem ready. Hmmm . . .

  2. Irena says

    My lot is super small, so every year I can plant only two or three kinds of vegetables and some flowers. This year, I am planting peas, beans and winter squash. Thunbergia will be covering my house walls.

    I had problems with the seeds of mixed salad greens, but maybe the problem was lack of sun – after the first disappointment, I never tried again.

  3. Kat says

    I recently started seeds for: lemon basil, greek oregano, cilantro, flat leaf parsley, russian kale and mixed lettuces. Looking forward to lots of herbs and other greens!

  4. Pat says

    I have terrible luck planting seeds. I over- or under-water. Not enough light. Curious cats, you name it. If I can sow directly in the ground that works for me!

  5. Kim Jessen says

    I am trying to start some cole crop seeds outdoors this year in my new coldframe in one of my raised beds. So far I can see little cauliflower and broccoli seedlings popping up. I am going to start some melon seeds indoors in peat pots on a heating mat in my basement in a few weeks. Should be interesting…

  6. Deidre Betancourt says

    I’ve sown my French Breakfast radishes! and I am trying lots of different methods this year because I am involved in a demonstration garden…seed starting in plastic tunnels, direct sow, seed starting under lights indoors….lasagne gardens…square foot gardens…composting and mulching using different components…..We are getting bees on or around April 17….we have three working hives now…AND my favorite part is chickens and their manure….I love giving it out to the different gardeners and seeing what happens….This is a Master Gardener specialization program I am part of in Akron, Summit County, Ohio…It’s exciting.

  7. Kathy says

    I’ve started several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, hyssop, chinese lanterns, cucumbers and wild strawberries. Damping off is a problem so this info from Ken is just great. Haven’t started anything outdoors yet though my peas is on the list. Thank you.

  8. Elizabeth says

    I have always been intimidated bt the thought of starting seeds. I think a book like this one will help me overcome my reservations. The excerpt is very clear.

  9. carolyn magnani says

    I have sown the usual tomatoes, peppers, lupines,Cassia alata, Ceratotheca triloba, Delosperma and Solanum pyracanthum under lights and many vegetables direct seed. The new seed I am excited about is Ornamental Rice Black Madras which I will seed under lights today.

  10. VermontLaura says

    I just planted leek and sweet pea seeds inside and will proceed with tomatoes and peppers mid-month. I used to plant those summer crops as early as Town Meeting Day (March) but that was really too early. You put me onto Tax Day as a good marker for planting tomatoes and peppers and it’s worked very well. I even planted spinach and lettuce (under floating row covers) a couple weeks ago in my raised beds but since it’s gotten pretty cold again, nothing’s up yet. Hope springs eternal!

  11. Kathleen Martell says

    I haven’t sown any seeds in many years, but this year the warm temperatures drew me back. Bachelor Buttons and Cleome have broken the surface. I’m waiting for the tomates and cosmos to do the same. Too early? Perhaps, but it’s good for the soul.

  12. says

    Happy Spring Margaret! I have already sown peas, spinach and lettuce seeds outside in the garden. I plan to plant tomato and pepper seeds inside in a couple weeks. Last year I made the mistake of putting my baby tomato plants outside, they got too much sun and got burned – this will not happen this year! Other seeds to be sown include pole beans, squash, cucumbers, and swiss chard.

  13. Sharon Leader says

    I have sown cucumbers, several varieties of flowers, and rosemary seeds indoors. I have sown lettuce seeds and planted potatoes outdoors. Although the weather here has been in the 70s, 80s, and 91 is predicted for Monday, I am waiting until mid-April to plant other things outdoors.

  14. Richard says

    I’m trying to be patient, waiting for my spinach to appear. It’s almost time for lettuce in the cold frame, I think. i’ve been growing it under lights all winter and I’m anxious to get it started outdoors, too.

  15. Barbara Dashwood says

    I’m seeding artichokes for the first time, Gaillardia ‘Arizona Sun’, Digitalis Plokadot ‘Pippa’ and Epilobium alba.

    The seeds which have given me the hardest time in the past were Digitalis ferruginea. Not one germinated! Oddly, I also have the worst luck with the common hollyhock. If the seeds do decide to germinate then something disastrous happens to them afterwards, eg, accidentally misted with vinegar or knocked over by the garden hose, etc…..
    Victoria, BC

  16. Deborah Banks says

    I have various primula seeds from the American Primrose Society seed exchange which I am very late in sowing. I sow them in trays whcih I then put outside in shade for several weeks, usually in the winter. This year I’ll baby them along in warmer weather. I’m also direct sowing some easy annuals and perennials, like calendula and nigella. We have the most trouble with tomato seedlings, because we don’t have a good light set-up inside. When the seedlings get a certain size, my husband rigs up a make shift “greenhouse” outside against the south wall of the house, but it requires constant manual tending to pull them inside on cold days and vent it on warm sunny days. One forgetful day and the seedlings are frozen or toast.

  17. Wheels says

    This year, I’m going to be starting sunflower seeds, cucumber, and squashes in pots. Normally I wouldn’t, but last year the wild turkeys hung around watching me plant, and ate most of the seeds right away.

  18. J Wyndham says

    Where I live in Alberta, Canada there are many farmers who are seed saving and so this year, I will plant their seeds in support. There is still snow here and we do not plant till June so…. so far, I have purchased and plan to sow, Shungiku, Sorrento Raab, purple peas ( the kids love them) and green kale.

  19. Julie says

    I’m starting Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry seeds indoors. They are sweet and make wonderful preserves. Seeds that have given me a hard time in the past are sweet peppers. I usually get a low germination rate and I’m not sure why.

  20. Linda Pastorino says

    Hi started early this year and had great results at first but then not so great and had damping off big time. I first startred seeds in egg carton cases. they work well because of the plastic lids and are self contained. Seeds came up in 7-8 days. After two weeks I transplanted into seperate pots, inside green house. I watered and they were fine for a few days then they all died. Now with the second batch growing I am not going to take them out of the containers this time. Leave them until they get bigger and stronger. Usually my best success with vegitables is to sow into the ground, same with other flowering plants to direct sow. I wanted more controle this time and tried same last time and had mixed results with tray starting.

  21. Carolyn says

    I don’t have the space, equipment or time to sow indoors, so do all of my seeding outside. I love anything that will come up and this year it is a mix of veggies and flowers interplanted. Both are serving double duty due to limited space, as they are planted for beauty and for eating. Vegetables add just as much color and texture as flowers, and many flowers (all parts) are just as edible as vegetables. It is a matter of having my cake and eating it, too. Yummy.

  22. MaryBeth says

    This will be my first year trying to garden on my own – not brave enough to start from seeds. Count me in, please!

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