Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ready-To-Use Potting Blocks?


Greetings again friends, customers, loyal supporters!
After a refreshing sunny summertime break from blogging, I had to return to the key board of communication. The occasion? A ground breaking innovation in gardening: Ready-To-Use soil blocks shipped directly to your home! As I have told readers before, soil blocks are not new. They are over 2000 years old. But, what is new about Ready-To-Use soil blocks is the fact that you don't need to buy a soil blocker, mix your soil, or even get dirt under your fingernails to have all the numerous benefits of soil blocks. They're known as "Culture Cubes" and, thanks to the tireless efforts of one Mr. Jon Kehl, you can buy a sturdy home garden kit of 12 1.5" soil blocks complete with mini greenhouse cover and tray, seed covering worm castings, worm tea concentrate, and detailed instructions. But, what makes this kit so amazing to agriculture today, is the fact that the worm castings are 100% Vegetarian! This is known as Vegetable Vermicompost. That's right, everything I have extolled as a virtuous potting soil ingredient. Jon is the founder of Rocky Mountain Worms, and his soil block cubes are made with our PottingBlocks.com soil block makers! Jon, taking advantage of the "life time customer consultations", has asked the Guru many intelligent questions on how to make this product become a staple in homes of all gardeners who want the amazing growth potential of soil blocks, but don't want to make them. This is a garden product miracle, and I have personally tested them, as I do with every product I endorse. My results? Easy to use, easy to understand instructions, speedy germination, plenty of time for plants to grow up big before transplanting, plenty of worm castings and worm tea for continual support, clean, neat appearance, suitable for indoors and outdoors, kitchens and hydroponic greenhouses, and best of all, no work gardening!
This is what you'll get from Culture Cubes (in their own words):
"Culture Cubes are compressed cubes that hold their shape so no plastic inserts or pots are needed. Their base ingredients are rich organic soil and quality worm castings and tea. Volcanic pumice and vermiculite provide the perfect water to air ratio for strong root growth. The cubes contain no peat or animal waste (except vegetable based worm castings). Soil cubes are used extensively in European countries and have been in existence for 2000 years. Rocky Mountain Worms has combined seed starting technology and vermiculture techniques in developing the Culture Cube kit for ultimate seed germination and plant production. The kit contains 12 cubes in tray with clear lid, worm casting mix for seed topping, 1 oz. worm tea concentrate for watering and additional microbial activity and complete instructions. Shipped fresh in breathable containers to preserve microbial growth."
Our trial runs are proving to be every bit as good as our own home made Old Farm Boy Potting Soil, an amazing feat I might add! They also sell Vegetarian Worm Castings, a must have for the do-it-yourself potting blocker. They sell support sprays and worm teas, too. This is a great product, something PottingBlocks.com can stand behind. And, right now, they're on sale at their website for only $8.95, regularly $10.95. So, hurry in and stock up for fall, winter and spring planting. We are one of Jon's trial farms for Culture Cubes, and I must confess, he's spoiling us by sending Ready-To-Use Potting Blocks with dynamic growth results from your kitchen window sill. Please check them out at www.vermiculture-growing-cubes.com

Monday, June 1, 2009

Warning: Pocket Gophers Push Up Soil Blocks.


Alert! Alert!!!
Those of you who have, or have had gopher problems, be aware that for some reason or another, they detest them, and decide to dig them up and out. It is almost like a game for them as they push the little transplant Popsicle out of the ground where it meets it's fate and dries and dies in the sun. What do you do about it, you wonder? Gophers are big problem in many people's garden, as evidence of the things for sale in garden catalogs. The best relief is simple, but definitely not for everyone. Get a ground hunting, "mouser" cat, and keep the area prone to gophers mowed. Feed the cat less food, and introduce him/her to that pile of gopher dirt in your back yard. Eventually, they'll get them. And, hopefully it will be the male gopher, which is territorial, and hence has already scared every other male away.
The second bit of sound advice is to get rid of your perennial clover. I know, tough decision to make. I had to make it. Because perennial clover, that which grows from the roots every year, or year 'round, attracts the gopher as he/she feeds on the roots and subterranean critters. How are you suppose to do that??? Well, if it's in your lawn and everywhere, cut down to the ground real short, and time the cutting right before a rain comes. That let's the grass come back, and from all the rain it stunts and crowds out the clover. Do this a few times a year, and don't let any more clover go to seed. If you have a potential garden spot with clover and gophers, dig it up!
Best of luck! And, if you need any more organic gardening advice, buy some soil blockers at www.pottingblocks.com and get free lifetime gardening help. That's what I do.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Successful Transplanting of Soil Blocks Outdoors



Well, by now your soil blocks are probably busting out at the seams with all your
favorite spring starts. You will undoubtedly be wondering how to assure the success of the seedling, after watching it sprout and grow so vigorously in the soil block maker system.
We'll cover some crucial basics to transplanting soil blocks in the garden outdoors.
First, the best success comes from hardening off the seedlings. That means, get your pampered windowsill or greenhouse starts accustomed to the variable, drastic,
and changeable outside conditions. It begins by taking your flats or trays outside on a sunny day with little to no wind which will dehydrate the little guys. Bask them in the sun for about 2 hours, and then return to the comforts of the indoors. The next day, they will spend 3 hours, the next day, four. Keep doing this until they are successfully "hardened" by the sun, breeze, temperature, and changing elements.
This process should take a week, sooner if weather conditions are perfect, longer
if the weather has been inclimant. Some may say that this is an incredible amount
of labor or work. They may be right, but, I am batting 1000% with my transplants.
What I sow in the block, grows up and is harvested out of the field. No thinning,
no lapse in germination, no waiting for the right conditions in the garden, no transplant shock, and no stunting of growth. So, in the end, we'll all do the same amount of work, but will you have the same volume of produce harvested?
Second key to success is soil block moisture. They should be wet before being planted. The success of soil blocks depends more on their moisture level than the
outside garden. After a good night's saturated soaking, they'll be ready for transplanting the next night. Or, if they're really growing fast, soak a couple of hours before transplanting at night. Always transplant at night for best results because they'll use the whole night to get acquainted with their new home. Water only when the weather has been dry for a couple days after transplanting, and gauge the needs of your plants accordingly. With no transplant shock, they'll be growing very fast again.
The third success point is soil block depth and coverage. Plant your soil block deep. Deep enough so the entire block can be covered with soil. Firm all around the
block to squeeze out any air pockets, which can dry out a block faster than cut flowers in the desert sun. Always cover any bare stems right up to the first true leaves, even burying the seed leaf. That may suprise you, but you must trust me, PLANT DEEP.
And, finally, the best advice is timing. Use your gut feelings to predict the optimal time to transplant in the garden. If the weather turns sour, keep them sheltered for awhile before submitting them to the elements. If conditions are perfect and will remain so, try getting them out sooner than my recommened week of hardening off. Perfect conditions mean: moist air or humidity, a really good rain a few days ago, or a scheduled rain after transplanting, partly cloudy, partly sunny,(does anyone know the difference between the two?)no wind, barely a breeze, and believe it or not, 2 days before the New Moon, as this will pull their roots down and stimulate root growth, something to do with the tides and all that influence.
So, with these keys in hand, unlock the final stage of your successful soil block journey. I have taken you thus so far, the rest my friends is up to you.
See you 'round the fence post.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why You Need the Mini 5, 1.5" Soil Blocker Now


The little Mini 5 goes so unnoticed in the farm and garden. It is the least sold
potting blocker out of the potting block family. Why is that? It is not because it
isn't the perfect blocker, or an odd ball in the bunch. No, it is precisely because
of the lack of education first time soil blockers can find. By now, everyone is
fairly comfortable with the Micro 20 fitting into the Mini 4 and how versatile those two blockers are individually and together. But, where is the detailed information on the least known blocker of them all? Well, right here, right now, of course. The Potting Block Guru would like to shed some light on the Mini 5. And so, I would like to say, without a doubt, if you only had to buy one soil blocker in your entire life, IT WOULD HAVE TO BE THE MINI 5. Why? Many reasons compound in my reasoning, but first let's say that, by itself, it is the most versatile blocker we make. It will handle all seeds, all sizes, all types of growth rates, all seeds pins(cubic pins are not recommended, as the walls become too frail and fall apart), and they make a comfortable 5 blocks in one swift stroke. The Mini 5 can easily replace both the Micro 20 and the Mini 4 because you won't need to transplant the Mini 5 into anything except the Maxi 1, which the Mini 5 sits in so nicely with just a little potting soil to top it off. I have tested the Mini 5 this year with every seed imaginable, and it does the job quite well. It gets the early seeds up and out into the garden way earlier than anybody else, it handles the tomatoes and peppers started in February and finally transplanted into the Maxi 1 by April, with no transplant shock or slow growth. It is used to seed melons, one per hole, and you get to choose the most vigorous plant. It will handle squash seeds, corn seeds, and anything that needs less than three weeks before the last frost date, with no transplant shock. Try it for peas and get three crops per year, one extra early, one regular spring planting, and one fall planting, keeping the flowers safe from frost. It handles all flower seeds, even those microscopic seeds. It also uses way less potting soil than the Mini 4-Micro 20 combo. The small size is easy to handle, but holds as much soil as a 2" square pot from a nursery. It is actually a little smaller than the Mini 4, so it is easier to handle for smaller hands. And, since you don't need cubic pins, you'll save time in not changing those out over and over again. And, finally, it's cheap! The prices have come down because people are finding out about it. They just love it for lettuce and herbs. And, commercial growers, please don't forget the 1.5" comes in a Stand Up or Multi 20 soil blocker! Imagine, one machine one stroke, 20 blocks, perfect every time! This is actually the best selling Stand Up, or Multi blocker we make, but it has been rarely known about outside of the commercial farmer arena. So, make haste, make soil paste, block away, no waste, and enjoy the easiest to use blocker of them all--the little friend known as the Mini 5

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Prevent Your Blocks from Drying Out

The ingredients of the soil block is primarily composed of peat moss. Peat moss has a tendency to dry out. That is, unfortunately, the drawback of an otherwise excellent medium. But, there are tricks of the trade. First, always let your potting soil rest after you wet it down. This is crucial, because when you come back to it, you'll probably have to add more water. That's great, as that proves the peat was absorbing all that water and now you can top it off with just the right amount to make the "slur". Second, Drying can be prevented by proper spacing. The factory spaces the block spaces tightly together, so when they are ejected, they are touching. This is actually O.K. Leave them close together, under one condition: You transplant them before their roots creep into the block next to them. By transplanting faster you can close the air gap and keep the moisture. I know I said blocks should have 1/8" spacing aroung them, but this is the exception to the rule. Should you want to leave your seedlings in the blocks longer, yes, do go through the extra step and actually pull your newly ejected blocks apart from each other. Third, depending on the tray system you use, always close the last face of the blocks up with a piece of wood. Like a 1x2 on edge, cut to fit the inside of the tray. Air gaps within the blocks are fine, but exposed block faces will dry out quickly, and a dry block pulls moisture from other blocks. I keep all kinds of different sized sticks around to make little wood borders. Plastic trays are actually the best, drop your blocks right up to the edge. Fourth, try keeping your blocks in a shallow tray that can hold water. Fill the water up about 1/2" for the 2" block. This is known as the capillary mat system, and is tried and true at our farm. I use it when I'm going to keep non-root crops a long time in the blocks, like lettuce. Space out your blocks and keep the tray filled with water. And finally, you must water them morning, noon and night. Try using Fogg-it nozzles. You can just drench your seedlings without hurting them. Or, use a gentle water rose attachment or watering can. The main point is to saturate the block and keep it as moist as it was when you made them. Should you be left with extra "slur" after a day's work of block making, I highly recommend you fluff it up with some dry blocking mix until it is slightly moist, almost dry. Then, you can use the slur again without experiencing germination inhibition. Because, the wet slur will start to break down and use up all the nitrogen and produce gases that will prevent seeds from sprouting, or it will turn your seedlings yellow. So, "fluff it up", stir it up, and come back in no more than a few days, or else you should just save it for an ingredient for non-soil block potting mixes and make a fresh batch of slur every time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What is a Blocking Mix?

A blocking mix refers to the potting soil being used to create soil blocks. I would refer to it as blocking mix versus potting soil. Not all potting soils are the same, and more often than not, you do have to alter them. This is really no big deal and a lot of people are turned off to fixing a bought product, or creating a special recipe with obscure ingredients like rock dust, or technical terms like compost and garden soil. I understand completely....
One time, I ran out of my favorite ingredients. I had a lot of blocks to make that day, and the nearest garden center was 100 miles away. Add to that, a lot of my ingredients come from no where else, except California. I bought some cheap generic potting soil from our local hardware store. My results were dismal compared to my own. The blocks just wouldn't stay formed, they couldn't handle being saturated and compressed. Other times, replacements have dried out too quickly. Sometimes, they would stink due to the composted cow manure. And, some soils are way too chunky to fit in the Micro 20(3/4" blocker). I just wanted to make blocks that day, not mix a batch of my own stuff.
For our readers who "just want to make blocks", and "just want to buy some potting soil at the local garden center", here is my advice. First, you do have choices these days, but it pays to READ THE INGREDIENTS. You are looking for a soil that is actually soil-less. I know our home made recipes calls for soil as the secret ingredient, but I KNOW my soil. Your looking for mostly Peat Moss, some perlite or vermiculite, and a little compost. Compost again is our secret ingredient, but NOT animal compost, as it might stink, it might not be from organic animals, and it might not be thoroughly composted. Compost in our recipe is from our own home made vegetable or "green and brown" compost. Still, most bagged potting soils have composted bark or forest litter, and that can be too chunky. Watch out for excess fertilizers or nitrogen contents above the 2 range in the analysis(eg. 2-4-1, 2 being the N). Excess nitrogen can and will inhibit seed germination. Also, look for "horicultural or plug grade" ingredients, that means they're smaller particles, easier to use. So, go ahead and learn about the potting soils before you actually buy them.
Next, buy small bags first, and do a sample run. Make up some blocks and see if they hold up. See if the potting soil is finely screened or not. If it's not, you'll know. It will clog the block makers. You'll have to go to the hardware store and purchase some 1/4" hardware cloth, or screen. Build a nice wood frame for it, about a 2'x 3', and sift out all the chunks and sticks and bark and big pieces of perlite. You'll enjoy having a soil screen around, anyway. But, if that's not what you want to do either, buy a couple of brands in a small bag, test them, take back what you don't like. Stores are used to this, and if you didn't use too much, explain why you don't want it, and they'll readily take it back. (By now, I think you're getting the hang of it!)
Finally, the final analysis comes from the actual germination rate. Please use fresh, new seeds from a reputable company to test your potting soil out. This ensures a good test, as the seeds will be closer to 90% germination rate and above. Make sure to read the instructions on the seed requirements and meet those specifics. When seeding blocks, you have three options: 1.) No cover; 2.) Cover with potting soil dust(either sift some or pinch out small particles of soil and sprinke over the seed holes); 3.) Cover with black plastic, like a garbage bag, and check back in 2 days and keep checking daily for sprouts. If, for some reason seeds aren't sprouting in a timely matter, check for green algae growing on your cubes. This is an indication of excess nitrogen. Note: Most blocks will grow green algae on them over time, and that is just fine. The algae will act as a tiny green manure and will break down as soon as the block is buried or transplanted. It's the rapid formation of algae that signals excess nitrogen. Read your label again, and determine if there really is too much fertilizer for proper germination.
Some other things to consider when testing out your products: Do they dry out too fast? Do they allow water to drain quickly? Do they crumble when handled? Are your blocks not perfect like I said they should be? They can be, you know? Remember, there is a learning curve in block making, and chances are, you are going to be the only one who knows what to do. Keep searching for the holy pail of blocking mix!
If you really want to know the secret to my Old Farm Boy Blocking Mix, I'll tell you.
It's made with 1/2 to 1/3 coco peat with peat moss. The coco peat prevents drying and the peat moss knits the block together. Then, I have replaced perlite with pumice stone or diatomite rock. Next, I replace compost and soil with
the same volume of worm castings. Finally, I add glacial rock dust, and sometimes Zeba Quench. There it is: The secret is out. Now go on and make some!
We are beginning an exhaustive study of every potting soil available in the U.S. and Canada. When this is ready for publication, we hope it will save gardeners time and money and get them "potting on" with ease and joy.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Making the 4" Block


After you successfully made the 3/4", and transplanted into the 2", 2-3 weeks later you will want to transplant into the 4" block. The 4" will have it's own learning curve, as you're about to pack as much soil in a 6" plastic pot into a 4" cube. The first requirement is potting soil mixed with enough water for the mix to be stiff, but not dry. It should stand up when you form it into a mound. The mix should be thoroughly wetted, and let set up for an hour or so. You'll need a large rubbermaid tub or round rubber tub to make them. Fill it up almost halfway with mix, as you'll soon see that the 4" cuber eats up soil, fast! Now dip your block maker entirely in water and begin to mound up the soil in the tub to a peak as you start compressing the soil with your blocker. Keep charging the blocker, once, twice, three times into the muddy peak. At this point, see if water is oozing out of the top of the blocker. Keep charging until it is. Make sure to slightly tilt and twist at the same time and then lift off the blocker from the bottom of the bucket. This will release suction. Now, the time comes to eject. Place your blocker(heavy, isn't it?) where you want your block to sit. On a board, tile, plastic sheet on a bench, bread trays from a local bakery work well. I recommend using a piece of greenhouse plastic, or heavy garbage bag, and building a little wooden frame around it so when you place the plastic on the frame, it creates a little plastic lip that holds in water. You can staple the edges on the back side of the frame. That little bit of water retention will keep your blocks moist and worry-free. Back to the ejection, first, firm up the blocker by pushing the handle down into the cube, this sets it up in place and creates a firm foundation and 2" impression. Now, lift the handle up with your fingers and then push down on the lever with your thumbs, while lifting your arms up. This is one continuous motion. Your block should have a suction sound as it is trying to release the block. Hold this pattern steady, be patient......and the block releases. Inspect. Are your edges perfect, is the 2" insert deep enough? Is the block tall and erect, or is it squat and flat? Is it crumbly? You should be able to pick it up, EASILY! If not, you must try again. Check your moisture in your mix, wet enough? If anything, a wetter block is easier to make than a dryer block. The water acts as a lubricant and helps slip it out without crumbling the sides. This is the most important time of your block making life. So many people have given up at this point. The blocks aren't performing the way you think they should. You need to practice, get over the learning curve, and experience success. Take some time to master this art, once, and the rest is history. Keep trying until you make the block that feels like it doesn't want to come out of the mold, and then all of sudden, you hear a loud sssssssuction, and the block pops out stiff, strong, firm, wet, upright, only slightly tapered, perfect 2" insert indentation with a deep hole.



Here's some tips: The blocker might actually need to be lifted off the ground temporarily to let gravity pull it down and out. Always dip your blocker so all the edges are clean for the next round. I like to use perlite in my 4" mix because it acts like a spring and helps pop it out. When in doubt, keep charging, you can't over pack the blocker, so, keep compacting so the water is gushing out the top. Lean over your blocker, eject it at waist height so your arms can lift straight up into your chest and gravity is pulling the block down. (Ejecting at chest level will fatigue you quickly.) Place your blocks in a space where they won't be moved for a while. If it's still cold out, keep them off the floor, as cold settles to the ground and will stunt your root growth. If you have to move them, use a metal kitchen spatula, or a big cedar shim. A perfect block can be picked up and moved around with ease with your bare hands. This took me hundreds of times to get it to the point where I could actually toss you a block and it would stay together. Believe me, it's possible. I'm here to help. This is the most underrated gardening product on the planet. Our entire nursery has converted to the 4" blocks to sell tomato, pepper, eggplant and perennial herbs like rosemary, lavender, and globe basil. I grow entire heads of lettuce in a 4" block on the floor of my greenhouse throughout the winter. Think about this: if all you ever had was soil blockers and nothing else, not even potting soil, you could contrive a way to transplant starts. For instance, I use some soil in my back yard that has a little clay in it. I mix it with a little home made compost and then mix it with chopped straw(or straw that's been walked on and is much smaller than it's original form) and wet it down and make perfect 4" blocks. Then, I take them in new garden spot, punch a hole with a post hole digger, right into the sod, plant a cube, and walk away. I let nature do the rest. You can grow the best cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and sunflowers and even tomatoes this way. If you mulch heavily, you don't even need to water. So, don't give up. You're blocker is an investment for the future. USE IT. Tell me about your success, please. We need readers like you to tell the world about the 4" block and how great it really is. Thanks, folks, for listening!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to Make Free Soil Blocks Part 4 of 4



There could be no free soil blocks without the free soil blocker. Try this home made technique at my fabulous web site for the do-it-yourselfer. See Soil Cell 1 at pottingblocks.com. Here you can go down to the local hardware store and pick up
a few parts for under 10 bucks and in a few hours have a soil blocker to last many years.
There is also a link on that page for making another set of home made soil blockers.
Inspect both options and choose the one best suited for your time and skill.
This concludes our series found no where else in the world, except, of course, your source for all soil block gardening information, supplies, and technical assistance, PottingBlocks.com.

One final note to those who choose to purchase gardening products.
This is our hobby, our passion, maybe even our careers. To think that we can get along without ever needing to buy anything is refreshing. However, buying seeds, supplies, tools, garden aids and sometimes useful gadgets are what we enjoy doing. There as many ways to garden as there are people. Those, like myself, who buy gardening products to make our gardening more efficient, faster, more productive, more nutritious, more abundant, and ultimately the most joyous daily activity imaginable, are in it for sport, for love, and for sharing the wealth. We would spend our paychecks weekly for another brick in our wall of gardening splendor. To us, I say, shop on! You'll never know when you might find the Holy Grail of gardening Truth disguised as a potion, gimmick, or obscurity unless you buy and try.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How to Make Free Soil Blocks--Intermission


Before we wrap up the conclusion to "How to Make Free Soil Blocks Part 4", I need to address a serious problem among users of soil blocks. The problem is stinky, rotting blocking mix. This happens due to a few reasons. 1.) Using unfinished compost in your recipe. 2.) Choosing a potting soil with steer manure. 3.) Making up a slur, and then leaving it in your tub for days without using it. Remember, finished compost smells great and is dark and crumbly and is aged for several months after it has broken down, or collapsed from thermophilic activity. Check your potting soil for steer manure, it will always stink no matter how broken down it is. And, finally, you must use your blocking mix immediately after it "knits" together, like 1-2 hours after wetting it down. If you let it sit, it becomes anaerobic, or without air, and begins to putrefy. All soils need air to breathe and keep the microbes alive and well. To this extent, I have coined the term "Actively Aerated Potting Soil". A.A.P.S., for short, is the process of churning, mixing, and aerating your wet potting soil. Since blocking mix is whetted down into a slur, or muffin batter, it is going to react a lot different than filling up plastic pots of soil and watering them down, only to drain out at the bottom. The mix will just start rotting if air is not incorporated frequently into the mix by stirring vigorously every hour until it is used. Churn and mix and turn and stir, over and over until you smell good clean "soil smell" again. Let your nose be your guide to a good actively aerated slur.

You may be wondering how the block gets aerated after it gets made and is all compressed in a block. How does that get aerated? Well, it gets its air from the water that drains through it, and the drainage material used, perlite or great compost, as these ingredients allow air to penetrate the block. That is why I stress the use of misters. Misters have more water particles blasting the block than a watering can, and that means that more oxygen particles are being delivered to the roots than just dumping water over the block. If that's all you've got, fine, just make sure to aerate the water first by a.) shaking it up in the can, or b.) filling it up violently with your spray attachment. This will create more air molecules in your water. Your blocks are exposed on five sides to air, so they should get plenty of it. If you pack your blocks side by side, touching each other, than it is important to aerate your water, or brew compost tea and apply. But, AAPS goes a lot further than that, stay tuned for future articles at the Soil Block Blog for the first hydroponic system in the world that uses soil blocks as the medium. These techniques will simplify and demystify the science of hydroponics as it is applied to soil block gardening and organic fertilization. This trademark by the guru is known as OSBH, Organic Soil Block Hydroponics. Stay tuned for information found no where else in the world. Thanks for supporting. I greatly appreciate you all, even though you are few, but growing!

Monday, February 23, 2009

How to Make Free Soil Blocks Part 3 of 4

Of course you can't really make free soil blocks without making free soil. Our next subject will cover the art of blending your own soil block mix soil, for free, without the need to purchase anything.

Someone once said "Necessity is the mother of all inventions.", well, when I needed some blocking mix, I invented some right on the farm. It was really more about experimenting with on-farm materials until I came up with the right stuff. From those experiments, I figured out how to keep the free blocking mix coming so that it was always there. If you want to make free blocking mix, first, you have to discover what you do have. Blocking mix, in my experiments, need to have at least 3 parts fibrous material, 1 part drainage and/or aeration material, and 1 part compost, and a little nutrition/sweetener. Let's break down these elements into what you might find at your place:

Fiber (to knit your blocks together) is normally purchased in peat moss. If you have a peat bog in your back yard, dig some up and tell me about it. Here, in western Oregon we are blessed with a type of moss that lives on fir branches and the forest floor. It is very similar to peat moss, in fact, it is a moss and works just as well. You might have seen it lining hanging baskets. It's a light green, soft and very fibrous moss. You can dry it and crush it up a bit to make your own home-made peat moss. If not, the next best thing is chopped straw. It contains a nice light texture when chopped and sifted so that it knits together with the addition of compost or some compost/soil mix. Provided you have some dry straw, crush it up and sift it over a wheel barrow with some 1/4" screen. No straw? No problem, how about hardwood mulch or saw dust or hardwood branches that were stacked up and dried in a brush pile? Crush the brush pile and sift out the little pieces with your trusty, "wait for it", 1/4" hardware screen. Same with the mulch or saw dust. I really only recommend hardwood, as it is not so acidic and it doesn't inhibit germination. The best fiber from hardwood is a big hardwood pile of mulch or chips that have composted and are dark colored. Look around the neighbors yard, too. You or your neighbor will also have the next fibrous material, leaf mold. Leaf mold is decomposed leaves that still have some structure or leaves in it. It is known as "mold" because of the beneficial fungus that eats and lives in the nutrient packed leaf. Make sure it is also dried out a bit, crushed and sifted over a "you-know-what". These are the best ingredients to use, but if they are still not available try dried, brown, and fluffy grass clippings. Feel them, are they loose, dry, brown, light, not sticking together? You could make this material by bagging your own clippings and then sun drying them until they are crispy. Try dried, black pine needles under a fir, pine or spruce tree. They have to be black and dried so they will not cause major problems with your plants, like over acidity and numerous other problems that I urge you not to discover. Do you shred your own paper at your home or office. Bag it up and take it home. However, leave the little plastic window pieces from the envelope in the trash. O.K. then, I know anyone can have fiber around their house somewhere. Let me know if I missed any material.

Drainage and/or aeration material normally comes from perlite and vermiculite and is used to drain away excess water and provide air to the roots. It is also used to store a little water for the dry times of waiting for the next watering. By far the best material is sand. Sand from the beach, sand from the dunes, sand from your kid's sand box(don't take it ALL!). Sand is free everywhere and needs no explanation other than don't take it from potentially toxic places or sand that is too salty from high tides. Go a little bit further inland and it will be salt-free. Some people have it and some people don't. I have had it only once when we were mixing cement, and used some extra in my blocking mix. I really liked it, but since, have not used it, as perlite has been so cheap. Now, I'm ready to go back to sand, as it weighs down your blocks a bit for the outside transplants that get hardened off in the elements. If sand is not around, and sometimes I know it isn't, try rocks, pebbles, pea gravel, river stones, etc. screened through 1/4" screen. Go easy on the screen by using small shovel fulls and sifting slowly. Rocks should be everywhere and should come from a safe, non-toxic area. Volcanic rocks are best, especially pumice stones. All I've got now are basalt gravel and it's not my favorite because it's sharp and heavy, but screened and washed(driveway gravel) makes a most suitable free substitute. Do you have pine bark from ponderosa or yellow pine or jack pine or black pine trees? Crush it up, sift it out, wash it down, and it makes an awesome aerator. I only recommend the thick pine barks and not fir or spruce as they are much more acidic and difficult to grow plants. You could, however, compost them first, and use them when they are black. So, somewhere, someone will have these three on hand: Sand, Rocks, Bark. Now, it time for compost, and we have all heard it before: the best compost is dark and crumbly, finished, mature, smells aromatic, aged, broken down and homogeneous. Great compost is the key ingredient. See www.pottingblocks.com/compost.html for a primer and a how-to course. Our final ingredient is a little nutrition and sweetener. Your mix might be a little acidic from some of the ingredients we get on our land, so it's best to sweeten or alkalize your mix up a bit. Do you have any old sheet rock around? Crush it up, remove the paper and sprinkle some of the dust into the dry components like the fibrous material first. This is in essence, lime, gypsum lime to be exact. It may not be safe, as some drywall has asbestos in it. Use caution. The next sweetner is a little hardwood ash from your wood stove. Use only pure ash from hardwoods and nothing else. Sift and blend with the dry ingredients. If your soil is made with straw, and you're growing brassica family or Cole crops, dried and crushed eggshells will improve conditions considerably. Live near an ocean? Pick some sea shells and oyster shells and crush them up and add them to the dry mix, too. Do you have animals? Do you feed them alfalfa pellets or hay? Crush those up for a base fertilizer. Wow! We are on a roll with all of our free stuff. We better get a recipe and get mixing, there's still time you know? See www.pottingblocks.com/recipes.html for the right proportions you'll need to make a free blocking mix. Let me know of anything I may have missed or email me with any question. The whole point is to get growing using Nature's lead as our role model. Everything in nature grows just fine with free materials, why can't we? Just mimic our Mother Nature and we will succeed. Stay tuned for the most interesting subject yet, home made soil blockers. Come again in the guru's potting shed!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to Make Free Soil Blocks. Part 2 of 4


In our next free soil block technique, we will be revisiting the ancient Aztecs of Mexico City. For a primer on this technique, known as the Chinampas soil block, read up on the history of the first soil blocks ever made at www.pottingblocks.com/info.html. We may not have shallow lake channels to scoop nutrient rich mud and make blocks, but with a garden hose, a bucket, a hoe, some scrap wood, straw and soil, we'll come pretty close. Here's the Outline: (Makes one wheel barrow full of mix, about 100 2" blocks, 40 3" blocks, 25 4" blocks.)

1. Test Soil. 2. Make Forms. 3. Make Mix. 4. Fill Forms. 5. Remove Forms and Cut Blocks. 6. Seed.

Your first step is to determine if your soil is suited for the Chinampas soil block technique. You will need to do a home-made soil composition test. You will want to sample soil that is from your garden and has been weeded recently. You'll also want to take soil from perhaps a stream bank or some areas that are prone to flooding or look black with a humus build up. If you find yourself looking at the soil in your pasture, you might just want to make our turf blocks described last week. Now, take a clear glass jar with a tight fitting lid and fill it slightly over half way with your proposed soil. Take the first few inches of soil minus any heavy mulch or leaves and sticks, we're after the broken down humus and soil particles. Next, fill your jar with water almost to the top. Add two teaspoons of salt. This will help settle the clay. Close the lid tightly and begin shaking vigorously! Shake until all the soil is completely suspended and it looks like chocolate milk. Let it sit over night and check in the morning. You should notice that the soil sample has been seperated into layers of different colors and different particle sizes. Here's the break down: The bottom layer is Sand, the next layer up is Silt, the next up is Clay, and finally the top layer is Humus or Organic Matter(note how it appears to be floating on the top). You can determine rough percentages of content by taking a permenant marker and scoring some lines from the top to the bottom, about 10 lines evenly spaced will give you a percent in ten percent increments. So, what do you got? How much Sand, Silt, and Clay do you notice. My soil here in the foothills of the Willamette Valley are: 30% Sand, 35% Silt, 30% Clay and 5 % Humus. "What am I looking for anyway?", you might be saying. You're looking for at least 30% Clay. Clay will bind the blocks together where you have no other source of peat moss or "channel mud" which is the binding material source for other blocks. Clay is a fantastic soil medium when used with organic matter and lots of water, perfect for soil blocks! If you have too much clay or all clay, that's fine, too. Clay is composed of mineral rich powdered rock dust with a natural binding element. Sounds good for soil blocks! You may be thinking how can you turn sticky clay into rich potting blocks? This takes us to the next step. Provided you have some clay, you will want to get some straw from somewhere. It should come free. At last resort, you can buy some, but look around for some spoiled bales that nobody's using. If it's wet, start chopping it up with a machete or shovel and make it smaller. If it's a dry, start walking on it and break it up with your feet making the stalks smaller and smaller. You could sift this stuff with 1/2" hardware cloth. The wet stuff, keep chopping by hand to make little pieces. Make a big pile, like the size of a 2'x 2'x 2' pile. This is about half a bale of dry, crushed straw, much less of a wet, chopped bale. Our next ingredient is compost. Sift with 1/2" hardware cloth and bring that in a 5 gallon bucket. Now, go out and pick a spot where you will be mixing. Bring in a half a wheel barrow of clay/soil. Wet it down with a garden hose, and mix it up with a hoe. The point is to thoroughly wet the clay, but not soupy, stiff but moist, but no excess water. You will need some hard packed ground to mix the straw in or lay out an old piece of plywood. Do you have an old concrete pad somewhere? Dump out the clay and add the compost slowly, like adding flour to the creamed butter. Now mix in the straw. Chop it in with the hoe, turn it, flip it, get the straw mixed in thoroughly, through and through the clay. If it's too hard, add more water. This will make it easier to mix, but it will be heavier, so go easy. Your over all objective is to make a wet but stiff paste like a muffin mix, or like a cake batter that can be moved easily and spread in a pan.

Now, we need the pan, or the block form. There will be two ways that your block mix can be used now: 1.) in individual cells created with wood scraps or 2.) one large form that can be filled to it's capacity. The first way is to build grid like patterns of thin stocks of wood like 1/2" plywood and make your forms into 2"x 2"x 2" squares, 3"x 3"x 3" squares, or 4"x 4"x 4" squares. It depends on what you are growing. Check out the sizechart at www.pottingblocks.com/sizechart.html. You can make these grids any size you want. The idea is to make a form, fill it, remove it and fill again. These grids are like a honey comb. Make sure the form is wetted down or evenly soaked in water overnight in a tub with pond-like water that is sticky and thick with algae. This "pond water" will coat the wood form with algae that will help it lift off the blocks. Set your forms and blocks on wetted down plywood or a large sheet of plastic. Fill them with a shovel and level off the tops. After you have filled them, you should be able to lift the form up and the blocks stay put. If they do not leave the form, your mix should be wetted down again and tried again. You should have nice shaped wet squares of Chinampas soil blocks.

For the other method you will make only one form with a thickness of 2", 3", or 4". It can be made out of any stock and built as large as you want, provided you have made enough mix to fill it. You can put your form over a sheet of plywood, a large sheet of plastic, or a concrete pad, just make sure you spray everything down with lots of water to prevent sticking. After filling the form full of muck, smooth out the top with a trowel or board, sort of like screeting concrete. Now, lift off the form and what is left is a big block of mud soil. Take an old knife, or machete, or a piece of hardwood board sharpened into a shim-like cutting tool, known as the coa, or digging stick of the ancient aztecs(see entry photo) and cut and slice your brick up into the same size as the thickness of your board. You can score out the pattern first, and then cut through completly. Either way works well. I like the one form method because it's a lot less work and cutting those bricks or blocks are so much fun. On the other hand, a well made honey comb form made with wet soil spaces the blocks out just right for the air pruining technique. No need to move them any further or cut the roots when transplanting. Finally, it is time to seed. Poke a hole in your newly formed blocks with your finger, a stick or dibble, plant your seed, sprinke a little compost or sifted soil over to cover and wet them down. You could cover with black plastic to keep the heat in if it's chilly. Keep them moist, as the clay will have tendency to dry out. Transplant out when the white roots have poked out of the block, or when the canopy of plants are shading each other out of sunlight. Cover the block completely in the soil so the clay will not be in contact with the air. Mulch over for more moisture retention. Drip irrigation is best in Chinampas blocks. Top dress with manure, or fertilize with compost tea.

You now know how to make the famous Chinampas soil block. A very low tech, high performance soil block that costs nothing with large yeilds and enhances garden fertility with clay, compost and straw. Let me know how it goes or if anyone in the states has done authentic Chinampas type channel muck gardening. Lettuce get growing!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How to Make Free Soil Blocks, Part 1 of 4

You may not have a soil blocker and don't want one, but you are still interested in making soil blocks. You are inclined to do so because we all realize that plastic comes from oil, and oil is on the price hike. Plastics used to be cheap, very cheap. Now, even my cheapest wholesaler can't sell me a 5 gallon plastic bucket for under $7.00! So, it seems fitting to write about the subject of Do-It-Yourself Soil Blocks. Before I was a farmer, I lived in New Mexico and built Adobe and Rammed Earth homes since I was 19 years old. These principles guided my ability to create soil blocks at home. These techniques are nothing new to agriculture, as the ancient Aztecs made soil blocks over 2000 years ago. They are, however, revised and updated so that anyone, anywhere can make them for free. The idea is that the gardener has nothing but seeds, and would like to grow and protect them in a nursery until better planting conditions exist. Here, you will receive the most comprehensive subject ever written on Home Made Soil Blocks and Free Soil Blockers. I encourage readers to write and to add to the expanding list of techniques.

How To Make Free Soil Blocks: Part 1 of 4

First, we will follow the way of the old school American Farmer. He made Turf Blocks and raised them in a glass house or glass cold frames from old glass windows. All that was needed was a good piece of sod from a good pasture or backyard. The soil should be dark brown to black and have been growing grass or grasses for years. It should be cut from soft soil and not hard packed from human or animal traffic. You will also want a sod cutter; a wide, semi-circle metal blade atttached to a handle. A long serrated kitchen knife will do as well. Something to cut the thick matted root mass is all that's needed. Try bones, sticks, wittled hard wood scraps or old pieces of metal. Water the patch of sod the night before so that it's easy to cut in the morning. Get right down to it and cut the sod in a 1 foot by 1 foot square. This first cut may not come out well and it doesn't have to because you're just getting the edges started for the next cut. Rip or tear or cut that first square out and discard. Clean up the edges all around the square and cut another 1' by 1'. With the one edge previously cut it should lift out easier. You'll want all that root mass and soil to be about 3-5" thick.

How does it look? Square? How does it hold up to handling? Intact? Solid? Keep searching for a good tight strong piece of sod. Different grasses have different lengths of roots and runners. Find a good chunk! When you have a perfect square and about 3-5" thick, cut it further into 4 squares. A serrated blade works best, scissors will do the cut, too. A machete blade can dice it into four squares with two hard, precise chops. An old cow or sheep shoulder bone will work, too. Now turn them over and place them where they can grow for a while, like a board or on cleared piece of ground, or some metal roofing or against a south facing building. The idea to make blocks in the first place was to get a head start. So, create your nursery with the best place possible. Sunny windows? If you provide no cover, it is best to at least protect them from the wind and keep them on the sunniest side of a building. If you're expecting a frost, sprinkle the seedlings with straw or long dead grass, or cover with an old blanket, but use some wire hoops are fir bows or bent poplar sapplings for support. Do not crush seedlings. Next, you will want to wet your blocks really well so you can poke a hole in them with your finger or a stick, depending on the size of the seed. Plant your seed and cover lightly with some good compost or black topsoil. Water again and do what you can to increase the temperature of the blocks. See http://www.pottingblocks.com/season_extension.html for ideas on creating a micro climate.

Don't worry about the living grass underneath the block as it will die and become organic matter when you transplant in your garden. Keep them moist. Fertilize with compost tea, rabbit manure tea, fermented seaweed, or your own urine diluted with water at 16:1. Hey, you're the one gardening on the cheap, you don't have to tell anyone, anything. Human urine has been used as a fertilizer since the dawn of man. But don't take my word for it, try a little research and see what you find. Look at this book called "Liquid Gold", by Carol Steinfeld. Even Jesus Christ mentioned it: "Drink thy water from thine own cystern." Quoted from another farm book called 'The Water of Life". I may have gone out on a limb, but hey, now is the time and here is the place. Transplant your turf or sod blocks when all your garden soil is warmed up, all danger of frost has passed and the block is starting to show white tipped roots poking out. Stay tuned for more in Part 2. This is the Potting Block Guru signing off.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Transplanting the 3/4" soil block into the 2" block


Let's examine the soil block method of transplanting, or otherwise known as "potting on". We call it potting on because you pot "on" top of the next size block. When we transplant, we simply lift one block up and place it on another. No pricking out, which always scares me that I might be ripping some roots out or traumatizing the poor seedlings. No popping out of the container which also seems damaging. And, no untangling any roots that have been circling the pot. Nope, not here. We "pluck" and lift, place and push in slightly to release air pockets. No transplant shock. No stress. However, the potting block method has to be done before the roots overtake the bottom of the block, the only side not air pruned. As you can see in the picture, this tomato taproot has broken the bottom surface and needs to be transplanted. If you were to see the top, the seedling hasn't even produced seed leaves, yet. It is still in it's seed coat, while the root is galavanting around looking for food. That is why we must pay attention to the roots in the Micros versus the leaves. We must have our 2" blocker with cubic pin inserts ready to go and get ready to make some up. We should have made our grow tweezers and be ready to pluck, lift, pot on, push out the air. This ensures a rapid root developement in our seedlings. We now can relax, and watch the growth. We can do this for about 2-3 weeks before we're planting in the garden or planting in the 4" block. Sometimes, growth happens even faster. Say, a week, and we need to tranplant because the roots have maximized the block. So, we stress the need to pay attention to the roots, not the leaves, in soil block transplanting.



It is interesting to note that you can leave tomatoes in the 3/4" block for an extended period of time. Yes, they will be set back a little bit. But, our next move will get them back up. Say, you just didn't get to them in time and they're three inches tall and roots hanging out everywhere and into each others' blocks. We know it happens, especially with that ambitous tomato! You might notice that it would be very difficult to transplant this tomato into a 2" block. It is clearly overgrown. No worries, if you have the 4" block maker! We'll get into making the 4" block next week. If you were to make some 4" blocks and then take your little overgrown seedling and, with a clean exacto knife, cut off all the leaves except the top four. Then, wrap the stem and roots around the micro block, for 360 degrees. A complete loop. At this point, only the top four leaves should be right above that root and stem ball. Now, place in the 4" cube. (The 2" cube can actually work just as well, but make sure you build a strong, wet, fibrous block and push it in.) Back to the 4" cube, simply take some slur and fill in the big 2" hole insert, covering the stem/root ball. Squeeze out the air pocket and let it develop new roots off the stem. After a few days of that, watch out, this 'mato is gonna bust! Try it, you'll have a stronger stemmed tomato that can sit in that block for another 2 months before transplanting.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Practical tips for the 3/4" Micro blocker

The Micro 20 or 3/4" block maker is an amazing tool. It blocks 20 spaces for seeds with 3 times the amount of soil of a 1" tapered plug. It is a space saver. You hardly need any space to whip up 20 seedling cubes. But, this machine does have certain particularities that you might not be aware of at first glance. First, the best potting soil to use is simply peat moss screened over a 1/4" hardware cloth or screen. With 4 parts peat, 1 part vegetable compost (or worm castings) and a handful of horticulture grade lime and rock dust you can create hundreds of successful blocks for little or no money. The mix should come out stiff but not dry, thoroughly wetted and moist, but not soupy. Second, such a small machine will have two types of users: one with big hands, and one with small hands. For the small handed folks, using two hands to charge the blocker seems appropriate. Pack your blocker in a shallow plastic tub. Use your pointer fingers and thumbs, and push into the tub over and over and pack it tightly. For the large handed users like myself, use one hand and hold the ejection mold and pack and turn and pack and turn. Using a flat wooden surface works fine, just pile the soil in a heap over and over again. Scrape it against a real flat blade, like a trowel or a dull knife or thin piece of wood. But, a bit of advice from the Guru: You simply may opt out of the scraping the blocker step, as I have found it leaves a less desirable block. Try both ways, first. If you don't scrape, you'll want to press the maker firmly on the tray to flatten out the bottoms. Your blocks should come springing out and be perfect little squares with a nice seed hole definetely indented. Anything less than perfect is not acceptable with the 3/4" blocks. You should be able to pick them up easily; firm, strong, solid, crisp. It will take a few times to find the sweet spot. Third, lay them on a small square of plasic or a recylced plastic container of some sort. I'm not a big fan of wood anymore as it seems to dry out too fast. Wood works fine if you're constantly watering. But, even better is some recylced plastic container with a shallow lip around it to hold in some water for easy watering. DO NOT LET YOUR MICROS DRY OUT! You could lose valuable seeds, quickly. Now let's talk about what to grow in Micros.
In my experience, tiny seeds for flowers work best in Micros. We are planting more and more flower starts each year, and the space saving benefits are miraculous. Seeds that take a long time to germinate are perfect because you don't tie up all that space waiting for seeds to germ. Classic examples would be flowering tobacco and alpine strawberries. They can sit there a month before anything happens. As far a vegetable seeds go, parsley and celery are best started in Micros. If you are a market gardener or nursery owner, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are the norm. Not that a home gardener shouldn't use the Micro, if that's all you've got, but I would just use the 2" blocker if I had a small amount of seedlings of those three to start. Then you have to change out pins for transplanting, and that's a little time consuming for home gardeners. I have a dedicated 2" blocker for every pin, so I don't change them out anymore. Make sure to cover tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants with black plastic to keep the moisture in after watering, and it help heat up the surface. Transplant quickly for these three, because their roots are already three times the size of the seed leaves that are visible. Note: If you have let them get too lanky and tall, just transplant them on their sides convering up the long stem with soil. They'll just grow roots on the stem and your plant will be stout and strong. The best transplanting method is using a grow tweezers. You might have to make your own. Just take two wooden plant label stakes about 6-8" and staple or tack them over a 1" dowel at the end. You could also use some scrap metal for a spring taped around the stakes. You could use some cedar shims split to 3/4" and some metal wire spring or sheet metal or the 1" dowel for the fulcrum end. If you find one, a tortilla flipper is PERFECT. Always dip your tweezers in water before plucking out a block. The ends should be fairly thin and sharp to push in and cut or separate the blocks from each other. Transplant immediately to your prepared 2" blocks with 3/4" cubic pin. Push down firmly to release all the air gaps. Water with a little willow branch water for root growth, or kelp fertilizer to ease them in their new home. With a little practice the Micro 20 will become the most amazing space saving seed starting invention you've ever used.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Finding the Fabled 8" Soil Blocker.

I've noticed most gardeners use the 2" block maker. And, only a few commercial gardeners use the 4" block maker. Maybe it's too heavy, maybe it's too much work, maybe it uses up too much potting soil, or maybe it's too expensive. Some will make their own 4" block maker. But, not me. I have covered why the 4" Ladbrooke block maker is the King. For those that do use the four inch block maker and are curious if it can be potted onto another block, you have arrived at the right place. I call it the fabled 8" soil blocker because nobody makes it, you have to make your own. And, besides, I don't even know of anybody who has ever made one! Why would any body do that? It's true, it brings up a lot of questions, doesn't it? Well, let's take a look at the nursery business. How many sizes of plastic pots do they go through before the final sale? Lots. We're starting to seed in November for summer block sales. We sell mostly soil block six packs in recycled wooden flats. When it's time for larger pots, I reach for the black plastic bags in 1-10 gallon sizes. I use bags because I anticipate the customer throwing them out when they've transplanted their plant. It has way less waste then pots, way cheaper, and way lighter, easier to move, and has a slight square shape, which we all know from soil blocking, saves space. But I'm all about the reduction of plastic pots on my farm. So, one day I decided to build my own 8" soil blocker. Out of new plywood and hardwood dowels and an old metal spring and some short screws came the invention so few will use, so few will need, so few will want. Oh well, I loved it. It worked. It worked just like the 4" block maker. It makes a BIG block. Now, I could transplant long standing plants like blueberries and all of the berry bushes in 8" blocks. I could keep fruit tree saplings around a year or two now with no worries. I could over-winter peppers. I used them for landscaping plants and hedges to roses and flowers, flowers, and lots of blocks of flowers. My next challenge was to provide a way for my customers to cart off their blocks. This block is heavy, like about 5 pounds of wet potting soil, so if it falls, it breaks. Other than that, it can be made out in the nursery and just sit there. With the right blocking mix it was easily moved, but that was also a challenge to find the right blocking mix consistency. And, although I could move it with a wide tined manure fork, I know my customers needed a handle. So, with some left over jute netting, which is similiar to burlap, I sewed a cradle/sling with two handles slightly offset as to not disturb the plant stems. I used some thin hemp twine and a long nail punch and made a very inexpensive reusable sling for easy pickup. Now, it's even better with constant refinement. I build the block right on the sling, or sometimes in four packs with custom slings for blocks of berry bushes or peppers. Much like the wooden flats for 2" six packs, I offer the customer $1.00 off their next plant of the same size if they bring the sling back. Was all this extra work really necessary and worth it? Absolutely! I have a customer base that shop at my garden center because it's different. I keep giving them reasons to support me and spread the word about my offerings and commitment to the environment. With all of this oil talk, I can offer the customer an environmentally alternative to ugly plastic pots, and entice them to come back with the $1.00 "deposit". What are the difficulties in using the "fabled 8" soil block? First, it's heavy. It requires great strength to make a block. Second, it requires a lot of potting soil and a large tub. It has to be deep enough, like twice the size of the depth, which is 8" for the depth as well as 8"x8" on the sides, and enough room for the long charging handles. Third, you have to make them where they will sit for up to 3-6 months or a year. That takes a lot of planning. For my nursery, I use mobile tunnel over landscape fabric to keep them warm in the winter and slide the tunnel off of them for outside summer sales. Fourth, for commercial use, you need to sew up some slings. That is very time consuming to sew up hundreds and in a couple of years, tens of thousands of slings. Fifth, building the blocker so it can withstand repeated use is slightly difficult. I have had to rebuild mine a few times already. Wood and screws cannot keep up with the demand on this machine. I am having one constructed by a metal fabricator starting this year. Email me at jason@pottingblocks.com if you're interested in purchasing one. I am not sure if there will ever be a need for one outside of my unique nursery, but I am here to say that all the principles of soil block gardening are used to create the 8" block and it is well worth it. Here is one design (next paragraph) based on my experience with adobe and rammed earth building. It is so easy to build and easy to use, perhaps this is the idea waiting for discovery.



You'll need: a couple of 2x 8's scraps and some 2 x4 scraps, some 3" wood screws, and a cordless drill. Build a frame with the 2 x8's as long as you want, but preferably the lenth and width of at least a four block maker(21" x21"). Frame the interior of that wood block with cross blocking keeping your 8" square and creating 4 squares. Done. Now, set it on a piece of plywood and water it down really wet. Next, make up some blocking mix with whatever you've got. Refer to my blog on making free blocking mix for ideas, entry for May 11th, part 3. Fill it halfway with a moist layer of mix, but not as moist as regular blocking mix, as you'll want to tamp, or slightly tap the potting soil down with a block of wood. I use a four by four post end cut off and attached to an old wooden handle. Moving on until you reach the halfway point or 4", then build a stack of 2 x4's 3 high(4 1/2") and 4 1/2" inches long. Screw 'em together and you've got your cubic pin. Screw a little block of wood on top in the shape of a handle so you can pull it out later. Water the pin down, too. Lay that in the center and make sure that the cube is flush with the top of your form. Fill with tamping mix around the block and begin tamping and filling until you've reached the top on all four blocks. Now, carefully tap around the outside of the form to release suction. Pull up the form carefully. Note: This is different for every type of wood used. Some woods may catch on the blocking mix and some won't. To be absolutely sure it comes up clean each and every time, do one of these two things: 1.) Sand and paint the inside with Kilz latex primer. Or, 2.) Let your form and cubic pin soak in water for a couple of days in the sunlight and let it get all slimy with algae. I recommend the soaking to get the algae growing because it's natural and easier and slicker. In this case, you must use galvanized 3" wood screws so they won't rust. After the form is pulled off you should have four beautiful blocks. Now, carefully grab the handle of the pin and lift straight up and out. Voila', you're Fabled 8" block is ready to use. Stuff it with your favorite 4" plant and move it in part sun and part shade for a while, and water well in a couple of days with some manure tea. It can sit there virtually all season without the need for transplanting any further, if you fertilize regularly. Transplant late in the season if neccessary, but only in late afternoon. And, if you want to keep this block idea going, make yourself a 14-16" block the same way and Pot On again. You know I will! Blast me email if you've ever tried to Pot On your 4" block. I'd love to hear it, but you know that! The Guru writes again and everyday until the world understands the soil block method. The Guru predicts the wave is coming. The Guru understands the power of relentess pursuit of passion! Au revoir!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Environmentally Sound Ingredients for Soil Blocks

Many of our readers are sharing their concerns about the enviromental impact of horticulture grade potting soil materials, not to mention the possible irritants of mined products. So, PottingBlocks.com has made a new commitment to provide detailed information about new environmentally sound and healthy-minded potting soil ingredients. But first, a clarification: Potting soil contains soil or compost or living ingredients. But, then it could be sterilized and become inert. Always know what has been done to your potting soil. Then, you have potting mix. Potting mix or potting soil mix is always inert, and always free of soil, or known as soil-less. For the most applications, your blocking soil is a potting soil, or, full of soil, compost and never sterilized. Now, back to the point...Peat moss has come under attack, as of late, because of environmental degradation of peat bog ecologies. PottingBlocks.com has responded with test runs of coir fiber from some companies that are milling it just right for soil block making. Suprisingly, most coco peats will not work for soil blocks without half peat moss. We are almost ready for release of the first and only soil block recipe with only coir. In the past, I have always recommended peat or coco peat mixed half and half. That is because soil blocks must knit together and yet still be friable. Peat moss has been our only medium. But, with certain techniques, coir can be washed, aged, composted and milled exactly like peat moss, so hope for the future is here! We will be updating everyone when we have the coco peat moss line available. If you have access to straw, like wheat, barley or rice straw, the kind with the hollow stem, you can shred it by hand, or leaf shredder, and sift it with a 1/4" soil sifter. Use it as the same ratio as peat moss. The key here is to use soil and compost in your block mix to bind it all together. It will be friable enough for seed germination. As, far as human health is concerned, perlite has been known to cause certain irritation in some people's throats and lungs. Perlite lets off a lot of dust when dumped and mixed, so ALWAYS WEAR A DUST MASK! Mining products are still a key component to horticulture, so at the present, the next best alternative is PUMICE STONE. Pumice stone is mined from abandoned, open field, lava and volcanic ash wastelands, so it's impact is minimal. I can find it for less than $50 a ton, and is a very suitable replacement for perlite, with no toxic dust! This is a miracle product that I wish I was using years ago! You might be able to find it by the bag, but, maybe you should call or go to a nursery and see if they can bag you up some. The next concern is vermiculite, which is a known carrier of asbestoes, IF IT HAS NOT BEEN TESTED! Always buy "tested for no asbestoes" vermiculite. The best suitable replacement for sand would be large, coarse, washed horticulture grade sand. It may not help moisture retention, as water usually drains freely in sand. But it does work, if you keep your blocks well watered. You must, however, use the coarsest sand possible so your blocks do not fall apart. Sand harvesting, as you might expect, does minimal damage to the environment. We will keep you updated as soon as our test results are complete to which materials we should all be using to save our beautiful, abundant planet. Also, we will be releasing our line of Vegan Composts, Vegan Worm Castings, and Vegan Fertilizers and Amendments, as well as our commercial line of ready to use blocking mix called Old Farm Boy. Stick with the guru, I promise to protect the environment!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Moisture Retention in Soil Block Ingredients

You know you'll have to make your own blocking mix in order for your blocks to be perfect and professional. You know your main ingredient is peat moss. Your next ingredient is the water absorbing, retaining and aerating medium known as the fluff or the fill. It puffs up the peat which will be saturated with water. Yet peat would dry out too fast if it wasn't for the fluff. Typically, this material has been known as perlite. And, just as peat moss was the only way to make blocks until coco peat came along, perlite was the only way to hydrate and aerate your blocks. Not so anymore. There are now two more exciting mediums to consider, if you have access to them. The first is pumice stone. By far the cheapest ingredient to add to your soil block mix if you can get it local. Pumice stone can absorb and release anywhere from 45-65% of water back to the plant roots. Perlite can absorb and release only 35% of available water, still too low to prevent drying out in case you skip watering for a few days. But with pumice, you have less to worry about, and it is not dusty and irritating to the lungs, which is one drawback to perlite when mixing your own. Pumice is common out in the west, I get it 25 miles away at 50.00 bucks a ton! Cheap! You may have to screen it down to 1/4" before mixing, as it might plug up your blocker. Pumice is the best replacement for perlite when budget is a concern.
The next ingredient of monumental importance to our potting soil industry is diatomite rock. A mined substance from ancient sea bed dwelling creatures, diatomite rock is diatomateous earth before it is pulverized. The new king in organic water retention, it has the ability to hold 150% of it's own weight in water and slowly release it back for absorption by the plant roots. Not only that, it is less dusty and contains numerous micro minerals and nutrients. It is also very colorful in all shades of pastels. Makes a very pretty potting soil! It is a little more expensive than perlite, but well worth the cost, if you forget to water in the heat of the summer. It will not dry out for many days, whereas perlite would be spent of its water and the plant will be dead. Diatomite rock is as lightweight as perlite, too, yet breaks down in your garden soil even more slowly, releasing valuable trace minerals.
And, of course, those seeking a fool proof addition to the blocking mix and any of the three aerators mentioned, Zeba Quench will be mentioned again and again by myself and other commercial farmers. Zeba Quench is an all natural, starch-based biodegradable super absorbent soil amendment that improves soil moisture retention and water supply to plants. It can deliver up to 400%! of its weight in water back to the plant. And, Zeba Quench releases 95% of its stored water to the roots when they need it most. Not only can it do all that, it can do it over and over for hundreds of times hydrating and re hydrating the plant roots all year long. Decreases your watering by 50%, which is a lot of time spent frolicking somewhere else in the summer, not slaving over transplants. It is the ideal soil block amendment, and it comes recommended for no other reason than the assurance factor of having reliable transplants in all seasons.
Many people are reluctant to buy Zeba as an added expense to what should be a virtually free act of gardening: starting and transplanting seedlings in soil blocks. I understand. But, Zeba is most helpful for beginners, busy careers, moms and busy housewives, and professionals in the nursery business. Why? Because if your not always right there tending your soil blocks, they will soon out grow everything around them and be searching for more water, not more space. In a moment's notice, the hot summer sun could kill thousands or even just one precious transplant. If you know you can't be there all the time to monitor soil block growth, which, literally grows before your eyes, than hire someone that will. That help, my friend, is Zeba Quench.
But remember, you can always skip soil blocking and keep your plants in a stunted state of existence called: Plastic pots!
Good day and welcome to spring, the Potting Block Guru is here to dispel the darkness of winter blues! Stay tuned, onions are coming up!