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!