‘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. Vickie says:

    This will be my first year to try starting from seed indoors. I’m starting tomatoes, peppers, sweet and hot, and cucumbers. I’ve figured out that windowsills provide inadequate light so I’m currently studying lighting options. I’ve got about a month to figure it out for my zone 7b planting schedule. I’ve grown potatoes in grow bags with the grandkids for the last 2 years – lots of fun! When its time to harvest Papa dumps the grow bags in the wheelbarrow and we dig through the planting medium until we find all the potatoes! Thanks for the chicken grit suggestion – will definitely try that!

  2. Sarah says:

    I will sow tomato seeds that my son sent me as a birthday gift. He also sent leeks, which I will start indoors as well. I have never, ever had luck with spinach, it has proven to be most reluctant in my garden, but since he also sent me some purple spinach seeds, I shall start them outdoors and speak enthusiastically to them. Many thanks!

  3. crystal says:

    I have had no luck seedlings and am ready to give up but I will give it one more try. Thinking of starting seeds is seems strange this year. I woke up to -54 F with windchill. This is not normal even for Manitoba. It should be 21 F. :(

  4. Mary Ellen says:

    I will be sowing basil, parsley and several varieties of flowers including sweet pea, morning glory, nastursium, sunflowers, zinnia (a few varieties) and bachelor button.

  5. Catherine says:

    I defintely will try the chicken grit idea. That’s a first for me and makes good sense. I normally use a mist for my seedlings, but if I start having an “issue” with damp off, I gently mist with a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water (1 to 10 dilution). It’s usually enough to stop it quickly.

  6. Katherine says:

    I am still not sure what I will start sowing first! I was considering starting passion flower from seed until I read that germination can sometimes take a year(!) Might be worth it for me to just buy the plant and focus my seed sowing efforts on easier plants.

  7. Donna Frankiewicz says:

    I’ve not done seeds indoors for the last several years, due to the spindly results. But I hate paying Nursery prices, so will try tomatoes again. One step at a time :) Thanks for the chance to win a book!

  8. Carole says:

    I’ll be starting most of my seeds in containers – baby zucchini, Swiss chard, nasturtiums and compact sweet peas in particular so there’s still time to get educated on the best way! Count me in on the drawing, please.

  9. Patti says:

    You didn’t mention using chamomile or horsetail tea for watering seedlings as a way of avoiding damping off. I am surprised. They work so well.

  10. Madeleine Tierney says:

    I sow seeds of flowering perennials for the plant sale at the historic Paca Garden every year. Some come up reliably like Delosperma & Dianthus others like Trillium & ferns are better bought as plugs.
    I have used chicken grit with Aquilegia and it works well. I will try it on other seeds as Ken Druse suggests. I will try some of his other hints and hopefully have greater success. Thanks for the chance to have his book.

  11. Maripat Flood says:

    Outdoors, in my raised square foot organic garden beds which I cover with pop-ups from gardeners.com, I have already sowed: chard; radishes; leeks; carrots, and plan to direct sow tomorrow (with a forecast of 70 degrees and sunny here in the Atlanta area, zone 7b): spinach; lettuces; bok choy; arugula; collards and a few other cool season veggies. A month ago, I planted seedlings indoors and today ‘potted up’ in bigger pots, about 8 different kinds of tomatoes; broccoli; eggplant; chard (which I already put directly in the garden). Soon, I will start seedlings of the warm season veggies and herbs. My worst failure has been beets. I plan to try them earlier this year. For the seedlings, I do not use lights. I take them outside whenever it’s sunny and warm, leave them out all day, and take them in at night. This has resulted in strong, healthy seedlings with no problems (no stretching or damping off). When it’s cloudy or cold, they are on a windowsill in a south facing sunroom. Happy gardening to all of you.

    1. margaret says:

      I do the same, Maripat (take the seedlings outdoors) though I do have lights indoors, too. How to grow beets will be a story coming up soon!

  12. Jeanne says:

    Love the chicken grit idea..? Will try it for sure! I start many veggies from seed inside so any cure for damping off is worth a try.

  13. Rita. Hlasney says:

    Have been using the turkey grit ( granigrit) for topping around my succulents for a while. Recently trying different methods of propagating succulents with and without rootone .and using granigrit. Will be starting my seeds soon and will use your suggestions. Thanks, Rita

  14. Donelda Johnson says:

    Reading your article Margaret has given me inspiration to “try once again”. I went “gung ho” a few years ago & started everything from seed..with basically little result . Did that a couple of times then went to the direct sow route & store bought seedlings (tomatoes). Still have all the equipment & more time now, so will try again. Here in Airdrie (Zone 4b) , we are very lucky to get anything to grow (garden wise – that is) between rain & hail storms it’s sometimes a struggle. In my yard (1/3 acre) I have many large spruce tress (50 -60 yr old) so they claim a large part of the nutrients. I will try again this year with a few different ideas. I would like to become as self sufficient as I can & hope to try raising some chickens soon.

  15. Rose Wicker says:

    I’ve been following your blog for a year now and enjoy your tips on gardening. Living in central Wisconsin, we have many of the same issues with our long winter and shorter growing season. This winter, in particular, has been tough on us and our gardens. Looking forward to your outdoor challenges and how you are meeting them this spring. Keep up the great work.

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