‘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.”)

  1. Nancy says:

    Tons of starts started and more to be started soon! Kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, lettuce, spinach, arugula, onions, leeks, Soon Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, winter and summer squashes, many flowers, etc, etc. Count me in!

  2. Rose Kruvand says:

    I always have problems with starting seeds indoors but will try again with chicken grit. We use it for mulch in the thyme bed too. Count me in!

  3. candy says:

    Thanks for the great ideas and inspiration you give us!! Chicken grit really does help and if you have black knats it keeps those out of houseplants too.

  4. Kathy says:

    Perfect timing for this article. Going to the store today to pick up some pots and soil for my seeds. I plan on starting three kinds of tomatoes, and four kinds of peppers. Will also start some flowers for fun. For the rest of my vegetable garden I’ll purchase starter plants later. Just hoping I won’t have the “damping off” this year. Now off to find the chicken grit…

  5. Mindy says:

    I am starting quite a few things from seed. A few different tomatoes (Sun Gold being my fav), Butternut squash, 2 different types of cukes, Ping Tung eggplant, 3 types of peppers (all sweet), parsley and basil. Most (maybe all) are organic. I am finding that my germination rate isn’t great this year and am having to start a second round of some.

  6. Janet says:

    I started cabbage and brussel sprouts indoors which have come up. I pre sprouted them before planting, which was my first time trying this. I planted peppers and tomatoes indoors and marigolds but am still waiting for some green to appear. I have several mini greenhouses outside with Dino kale and spinach and other greens which I can’t remember. I’m like the grit on top and bottom watering method till the sand on top darkens as an indicator of wetness. I want to get some sand to try this on my next seed starts.

  7. TISH says:

    I start most everything we grow inside. Have put it off until now because of the terribly cold winter this year. After yesterday’s sunny 72° day I am ready to start my pepper seeds! Tish, Chagrin Falls

  8. June says:

    Thanks for the great tips on starting seeds. So far all I’ve started are some Sweetpeas (Charlie’s Angel’s — saved from last year because they were such a beautiful blue). I’ve soaked them over night and want to see some sprouting (they’re resting now on damp paper towel inside a wrap of Saran) before I carry on. Next on my list is Nicotinia but before I sow I’ll be bleaching pots and looking for true grit!

  9. Diana says:

    It’s still January and certain seeds have already been sown. Three flats of Primulas. Exhibition, Auriculas, double Auriculas, spinach, Gorteria, scales of various lilies. All under lights and in a cozy setting. I have been using an organic fungicide but grit is on my shopping list this week!

  10. Kathy Shreve says:

    Tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), cucumbers, winter and summer squashes, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, green onions, lettuce, beans, peas (sugar snap and snow) pansies, violas, thyme (regular, orange and lemon), basil (many kinds), fenugreek, cilantro, parsley, caraway, sage, garlic and regular chives, oregano, eggplant, rudbeckia, gaillardia, penstemons (several kinds), verbascum, foxglove, larkspur, nasturtiums, sunflowers, sweet peas, lobelia, alyssum, arabis, aubretia, shallots, poppies (several kinds), delphinium, dill, mint, petunias, beets, carrots, parsnips, rhubarb, spinach, collard and mustard greens, turnips, watermelons, cantaloupe, and probably some other things that I can’t remember.

  11. Regina newlin says:

    What advice do you have on starting native plant seeds for the wild flower garden? I tried last year with little luck at raising purple coneflower, pink coneflower, and yellow flame zinnias

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Regina. Great question — which Ken Druse and I will tackle on next weekend’s podcast (the February Q&A segment) and here on the blog for you.

  12. Rita Hlasney says:

    Right now I am keeping a 3’ Meyer lemon blooming under my led grow lights and plan a few gallons of milk weed Winter sowed soon. I live in zone 6 b.
    Enjoy your info. Helps get though these winter days.

  13. Mary Yates says:

    Peppers other than bell type, always give me the hardest time due to needing that bottom heat and having a longer germination time than say tomatoes, etc.
    No seeds started as yet but getting ready to start some flowers, eg marigolds and alyssum, as well as shallot sets. Mid-March I will start the tomatoes and eggplant, and sunflowers.

  14. Barb G says:

    Tried starting chocolate daisies from seed…didn’t work. I have the worst time with sunflowers. Can get them started, but then after transplanting, they don’t develop a sturdy enough stem to really start to grow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.