Monday, November 30, 2015

The Most Frequently Asked Questions About Soil Block Makers

Q: All my various seedlings seem to want to push up out of the soil, exposing some of the roots. Is that a problem?
A: If a seedling is growing vigorously and rapidly, then there is no problem, they'lltuck their roots back down in the soil eventually. To prevent the delicate roots fromdrying out, though, patch the roots very carefully with wet potting soil. Pat it on the rootssoftly and stabilized the stem. That should help out fine. Try not to chargeyour blocks so much next time so that your particular soil blend is softer for the seedsto penetrate. Now next time you sow seeds, cover with potting soil, and place a black plastic bag over the top and weight down with some cardboard. You can use whatever is at hand, but the point is to weight down the seed firmly enough so that when it "pops" open the root gets forced to probe the soil block and stick there and grow down. This is the "weight-down" method, and can be used with whatever style or technique is readily available.
Q: I'd prefer not to have to mix-up a new batch of soil each time I plant. Is it feasible to make a month's worth of potting blocks at one time? If so, how would you "store" them before using?
A: Yes, you can make a bunch up and store them. Keep them in large flats or multiple flats and slide them inside a large garbage bag and seal up the moisture. Keep in a cool location. If they dry out, they're a lot more prone to drying out again, faster; the peat has "memory" so to say, as towhat it will do.
Q: I would like to know if you could explain the process of using the coconut coir fiber to make soil blocks? Can I use it with the micro(20) soil block maker also? Can it be used alone without any additives, just water?
A: Coco peat should never be the only ingredient, the blocks will not hold together. Coco peat must at least be mixed in with peat moss up to one half the "peat" ratio, or at least should be mixed 1/2 compost, 1/2 coco peat. The compost adds the stickiness which can hold the block together. The sphagnum peat moss adds the fibers that also hold together a block. Coco by itself really has no way of adhering to itself, even with water, so add those other ingredients. The Micro soil blocker will work fine with coco peat if it is sifted to 1/4", and, of course, blended with sifted compost and peat moss, too.
Q: Do you cover the hole with additional potting soil?
A: I like to cover seeds in the cabbage family with a pinch or two of potting soil. I like to cover most other seeds with a sheet of black plastic, like a garbage bag, to seal in moisture and heat, check daily, for sprouting seeds and remove promptly. You can do a combination of both aforementioned techniques.
Q: When working with potting blocks for the first time this year, I didn't have the fertilizer mix items when I made the soil blocks. I plan on adding fertilizer now that the first set of true leaves have appeared but what type or levels do you recommend for vegetables?
A: In our experience working with soil block transplants without the dry fertilizers blended in the soil block making mix, the best thing to use is: once every three days a weak solution of fish emulsion and kelp combo keeps them strong.
Q: I recently purchased a 4" (maxi) block maker from you and while I've got watering figured out for 2" blocks (I use a 3 gallon pump sprayer) I'm guessing that's going to take forever for a tray of 4" blocks.What's your favorite way?
A: A big watering can with a rose attachment works well. I also use a 4 gpm Fogg-it Nozzle. Bottom watering trays are effective as well. Fill them up to the top and the blocks will soak up the water readily.
Q: I am seeing a lot of white fluffy mould growing on my blocks and potting mix. Is this an issue?
A: This is a type of fungus, but not damping off, and it is good. It is natural and a symbiotic relationship with your plant roots. It is an overall sign of good organic matter in the soil blocks. See below for further explanation.
Q: Can vermiculite be used in place of perlite?
A: It can, but it is NOT advisable as vermiculite will crush and be rendered useless for soil block making, and it is very irritable to the respiratory system. Please avoid.
Q: Once blocks are made and on a heating mat, is it possible to keep the blockstoo wet? I'm not afraid of the blocks falling apart, I'm certain the peat will keep that from happening. What I do fear, or want to avoid, is the trial and error of having to repeatedly start seeds over because I drowned them with too much water?
A: You're always safer overwatering soil blocks IF you have fans on in your seed starting space, because soil blocks that dry out could stunt your plants.Don't DROWN them, but keep them CONSISTENTLY moist, but only after they havegerminated and are off to a good vigorous start.Don't worry about them falling apart, you'll see, begin practicing at once todevelop your skills. Fear not, push the soil into the chamber to the max, experiment withdifferent moisture levels in the potting soil with no attachments to the results.Just get a good feel for the perfect soil block, then seed.
Q: I'm curious to know if you've ever had a problem with seeds pushing themselves out of the 3/4" blocks?
A: Get a black garbage bag and a piece of flat cardboard. Then make a flat of micros and seed them. Cover the flat with the black garbage bag and loosely place the cardboard on top just for weight and check ever day to see when the sprouted and remove promptly when most seedlings have emerged. This light weight sealing technique will firmly seat the tap roots in the block. Keep groups of families separated like the brassica/cole crops separated from carrots, etc., so they can germinate in unison.
Q: What is this dip, air prune, and bottom watering tray stuff mean?
A: The bottom watering trays are the water tub and the soil propagation trays have a fine mesh holes on the bottom, and this is for air pruning. To use in combination with the Bottom Watering Tray, fill the bottom watering tray with half water and dip your soil blocks, which were placed in the soil prop trays, in the bottom watering tray. Let it absorb the water and remove, letting the soil blocks air prune again. In the spring do this once a day in rapid growing situations. Over a weekend? Fill up the bottom watering tray, while the mesh prop tray is in it, about 1/2 full, and it should stay wet for the weekend.
Q: In multiplant blocks, do you put all the seeds in the one dibble hole? The standard dibble?
A: Yes. Smaller seeds in the regular seed pin for multiplants. Use 1” dowel seeds for larger seeds in multiplants like beets, chard, peas, beans, corn, etc.
Q: What is "greensand?"
A: Also known as New Jersey Greensand: It is a naturally occurring marine sedimentary deposit. It is the mineral Glauconite that is used from these sea-born deposits of 80 million years old from iron-potash-silicates. It is a natural source of slow-release potassium (3%) used for long-term soil building of potassium deficiencies, opening up clay soils, and providing improving moisture holding capacities in sandy loams.
Q: I am a bit new to seed starting, always having used purchased transplants before. I am wondering why, as a home gardener, I would start with small blocks and transplant up to the larger ones rather than just using the larger ones to start the seedlings and the transplant those directly into the garden. I am not a commercial grower, just trying to be sustainable and grow food for several families. Am I thinking incorrectly here? I just don’t really see the advantage of using the small blocks and moving up. Maybe you can help me understand better.
A: Some gardeners know that transplanting stimulates plant growth. And, starting with the micro 20 blocks, one can save space and start the smallest and flattest seeds that take a long time to germinate, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, parsley, tiny flower seeds and herbs. The small cube helps retain heat for those heat lovers, as well. So, after almost 2 weeks of germination, some with irregular germination rates, one can then select the finest plants of the bunch and then transplant them into the 2" blocks for premium plants, no runts. So: Stimulates Growth, Saves Space, Heat Retention, Select for vigor, "Pot on" for best growth with those stated crops. It’s even been studied andprovenin Europe to produce bigger, better plants, and harvests are weeks ahead.
Q: What is lime?
A: Anytime we refer to lime in horticulture we mean “horticulture grade limestone”, which is at least 95% Calcium Carbonate, and/or “Dolomite limestone”, which is pure calcium carbonate and magnesium. Oyster shell is acceptable in soil block making, too. The goal is to stabilize Ph levels in the peat moss block mix.
Q: My soil blocks have a white fluffy mold on them, is this damping off?
A: The "white mold" is actually a fungus, but not the damping off type, and is an indication that blocks are indeed very wet which could lead to damping off, but is OK for now, it won’t hurt your plants.
Damping off is an indication of overwatering and mostly: NO AIR MOVEMENT. So, you should be adding a fan in the germ room. The Humidity Dome works to keep heat and moisture inside for a germinating seedling, but should be cracked during the day to allow the fan and air to keep soil blocks aerated. Sterilization is not needed in soil blocks made with well decomposed compost and a reputable peat moss. Fungus is handled easily by lots and lots of air and oxygen in the room blowing on the seedlings and the blocks. Damping off fungus is only thriving due to low levels of oxygen. You need a fan!
Q: I don’t have any good compost for soil block making, and I don’t have good garden soil. What do I do?
A: Replace all the compost and soil parts in any soil block recipe with worm castings or vermicompost. You can find worm castings by searching in your local area for suppliers and back yard worm growers advertising locally in newspapers, craigslist, or farm and garden store bulletin boards.
Q: Why do you recommend using fans for starting seeds in soil blocks?
A: The use of fans are four-fold:
1.) Keeps the very surface of the soil block dry so that fungus gnats or other pests can't set up shop.
2.) Strengthens the seedling stalk by moving it back and forth creating tension fibers in the plant.
3.) Allows light to penetrate all parts of the seedling by moving the leaves all around distributing light to the canopy.
4.) Delivers fresh supplies of nitrogen found freely in the atmosphere to the stoma cells which will utilize as much air born nitrogen as possible. (That's also why foliar feeding works so well.)
Q: What is the difference between hard and soft rock phosphate?
A: Regular rock phosphate is mined from rocks from the earth, whereas soft rock phosphate is fossilized ancient marine sediments from the floor of the ocean or deposits left over from ancient seas. So, you can not get soft rock from regular rock. Regular rock will do the same thing, just very, very slowly. So, hard rock will work, but use it in your garden, and get it in NOW so that it can be used a little bit this year. It will be a good long term amendment for your garden soil. Go ahead and skip the phosphate in the soil block mix, or try bone meal, which releases phosphorus a little faster than hard rock. But, when it comes to seedling health, the “colloidal” phosphate is released to the roots immediately by the microbial action in the soil, giving the plant a head start on phosphorous.
Q: Do you recommend capillary mats?
A: No. At transplant time, you’ll end up ripping off all the roots. Use a tray that holds water and fill the tray up 2/3’s the way and let the soil blocks absorb the water over a span of a few days.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

How Do You Water Those Soil Blocks?, Which I'm Sure Will Wash Away Like John Travolta

There are two very good techniques for making sure that your soil blocks are watered correctly:


Fogging our Farm Plants

The fog watering set-up (old style)

The fog watering set-up (old style)

New style brass connectors with fogger

New style brass connectors with fogger

Fog means air and tiny penetrating water particles. Fog watering refers to watering or misting or fogging the plants with super small aerated water particles in abundance over, around, side to side, under and on top of your soil blocks. The tiny water particles naturally mix with air and thus create a living ion of oxygen, so very needed to plant roots that are trying to burst through compacted potting soil.

Aerating your water is a crucial step in healthy plant growth. Fogger nozzles are easy to use and require no agitating of the water before you water your blocks, which one should do if she's using a watering can. Agitate the water by filling the can with a powerful streaming of water into the can so it bubbles and froths up, adding air bubbles to your water. Or, stir rain water very vigorously for the ultimate in healthy, happy plants. But, in the greenhouse or nursery, fog misting is preferred, even though it is usually done three times a day.

We like to be close to our plants, constantly assessing health and speed of growth. We play music for them, or I put on one of my bird CD's which contain songs by many birds for hours and hours. These tricks have been well documented to aid in plant growth. So, by fogging we believe we create a natural environment for soil block growth. The fog completely saturates the plant, root, soil block, and leaves a heavy dew on the leaves and stalk. Coupled with tons of sun and lots of wind and air from recirculating fans, our plants develop thick stalks. Fog and mist will never crush your seedlings.

We also create wire benches for soil blocks and mist from the bottom up, under the benches. We don't miss any spot. The wire benches are used so we get all six sides of the potting block "air pruned". Air pruning eliminates transplant shock. But, at least, the mist should be sprayed over head until the bottom of the block is dripping water.

We use Fogg-it brand nozzles attached to coiled garden hoses that are suspended from the greenhouse pipes and roll back and forth with a little pulley/roller wheel on top of the pipe.

Fogg-it nozzles come in 4 sizes:

  • 1/2 gallon per minute used for newly seeded soil blocks and 3/4" soil blocks.
  • 1 gallon per minute used for established seedlings in the 3/4" soil blocks or vigorous seedlings in other blocks.
  • 2 gallons per minute used for heavy drinking seedlings in the 1.5" block or bigger.
  • 4 gallons per minute used for 2, 3, 4 inch blocks that are growing crazy and very thirsty

We go a few steps further for installation. We used to use Gardena Quick Connect hose ends, (see top picture,) for quick interchange of all foggers. We also used to set them up on Gardena flow regulators, and install the actual fogger on a high quality brass squeeze nozzle, called a thumb valve. This provides the ultimate in control, flow and endless adjustments for different growth rates and tender flower starts. Now, we are using pure brass Quick Connecters, (see bottom picture) because we don't like that the plastic started to break after a few years of heavy use. Plus, we no longer have to change out washer seals. Also, the plastic connectors eventually started to leak, and leaks are NOT good.

So, gardeners rejoice at the availability of super-high quality brass quick connectors with a water stop feature, which means when the fittings are disconnected, the water stops immediately. As soon as the fittings are reconnected, the water flow starts. YOU NEVER HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE FAUCET TO SHUT OFF THE WATER! The foggers screw right into the brass male ends and won't break (as screwing plastic into brass over and over will eventually do) and never need any washers anymore! They also allow twice the flow of plastic quick connect fittings. They are not interchangeable with plastic fittings.

We also have certain commercial mono crops growing in hoop houses that can be built with automatic misters and timers that attach directly to an in-line black or white poly pipes directly over the seedling benches. A little programming gets it done all day without worry. This would be known as drip irrigation using misters. Not really that much more work involved in setting this system up, and it works well for mass planting of seedlings that require the same amount of water every day.

Complete instructions can be emailed or faxed to commercial growers who purchase a commercial Stand Up blocker. Give the Guru an email with your needs. Another great idea is a gentle rose watering from a watering wand with a rose attachment. This is the basic economical way to water soil blocks. Just give 'em a good drenching, and check and water at least twice a day.

Of course, if you're going to purchase a new watering wand, you'll get what you pay for. Surprisingly, you can't get a professional watering wand that will last for longer than 3 years without spending well over 30 bucks! That's the Dramm company who sells the top-of-the-line wand.
 


Bottom Watering for Soil Blocks

Make a simple bottom watering tray:

  • Screw a wooden lip around the perimeter of some plywood.
  • Line it with agricultural plastic.
  • Level it.
  • Fill with blocks and water.

bottom watering tray

Many people are convinced the only way to raise soil blocks is by bottom watering. This is also known as manual ebb and flow, static evaporation, and water wicking. It is not the only way to water soil blocks, but it is the best way to water if you have very little time to monitor your seedling garden. Let's explain bottom watering and explore the variety of methods used with advantages and disadvantages, and instructions on creating them.

Bottom watering is the manual watering technique that fills a shallow, water tight tray with water up to a predetermined height of water at specific intervals to hydrate the roots of seedlings, transplants, or cuttings. The rate at which water is supplied is determined by the rate of evaporation of the environment, and root wicking caused by plant growth. The amount of water supplied is determined by the size of the plant container (or soil block) and the depth of the holding tray or water reservoir.

Bottom watering can be done manually by watering cans, or automated by timers outfitted with drip irrigation, or with timers on pumps which fill and empty the reservoir, known in the hydroponic industry as ebb and flow (E&F).

If you answer "Yes," to any of the following questions, then you are a bottom watering candidate!

  • "Am I at work for 4-8 hours a day, every day?"
  • "Am I new to soil blocks and gardening?"
  • "Do I have A LOT going on in my life and tend to forget little things?"
  • "Am I going on vacation, or away for the weekend?"
  • "Do I live in the desert?"
  • "Do I want to grow baby greens?"

After viewing a brief discourse on soil block making in Step by Step Instructions, you'll want to have your system of watering prepared in advance of making blocks, since they will need somewhere to go right away.

Big Tip Here: If you are bottom watering, you need to make absolute sure that your blocks are very firm. Make sure and charge the blocker 3-4 times and watch for water oozing out the tops. If not, your blocks could just melt away.
 

Put your recyclables work!

The fastest and easiest way to start bottom watering is to reuse some of your recyclable containers. Look for aseptic packs, or rice dream and soy milk containers, Styrofoam take-out trays, salad bar trays with clear lids, plastic bottle bottoms, old cake pans, salad green tubs, etc.

Make your blocks and discharge them into the container with about 1/8" spacing between the blocks. After you seed or place cuttings, you won't have to water for about three days, as the newly wet blocks contain enough moisture in them for that time.

Cover your seeds with black plastic to make absolute sure they won't dry out. Check every day, twice a day for sprouts, and then remove plastic immediately. After about three days, you'll want to water your blocks by gently pouring in water on the side of the container, never directly on the block, to a maximum of 2/3's of the height of your chosen block, be it micro, mini, or maxi.

You'll have to watch and keep track of how fast it is evaporating and how fast your plant uptakes the water in order to gauge how often you'll be filling your trays up to the 2/3's mark. Never go over that line or you could drown your seedling. Better to have too little water at this stage then too much as the block itself contains a lot of water pores for emergency use. Only when the plant is well established in the block could it be over watered and pose no threat to growth.

If your block is made from a potting soil that DOES NOT CONTAIN FERTILIZER OR AMENDMENTS, make sure to begin an organic fertilizer program in 10-14 days until your blocks are transplanted into your garden bed. Consult my web pages for fertilizers to use, or my past Blogs for free ideas.
 

Bottom watering trayBottom watering with a tub

The next best way to begin bottom watering is to cut the bottom out of an old Rubbermaid tub, provided at least 2" of the bottom is salvageable. A jig saw is easiest! Try cutting the bottoms out of any old plastic junk lying around. This works well for a larger blocking system. Or, buy a Hydroponic-grade grow tray right here. Best in the industry!
 

Lots of soil blocks? Make some custom trays.

The best way for larger scale growing is to make a custom tray out of plywood for the bottom, and 1x3's or 1x2's nailed or screwed around the sides to make a lip. Then, take a spare or old piece of greenhouse plastic (4-6mm) and line the tray and make it water tight. Be sure and sand any sharp edges and wrap it completely and staple, poly fabric tape, or lathe it to the bottom of the plywood. If you decide to staple, use some kind of a tab on top of the plastic to prevent it from tearing, like plastic tabs or even heavy cardboard, as the water will stretch out the plastic and make it loose if you don't secure it firmly. This method takes a little longer to construct, about a half an hour to an hour, depending on your size, and, if you have to rip your lumber down to size, but creates a solid tray that can be used for a few years.

Build shelves for them in a greenhouse (keep it very level), or create a potting block bench top with the option to cover with wire hoops (9 gauge) and plastic for a hoop-bench propagation station! Add a large heat mat with a thermostatically controlled switch and you got yourself a mini greenhouse.
 

Build a custom hydroponic system

Now, you can take the last option and create a hydroponic system (known as the ebb and flow) with a pump and timer. For this you will need:

  • Your custom-made plywood tray
  • a water reservoir or Rubbermaid tub
  • a little fountain pump
  • a timer (capable of multi-settings)
  • silicone
  • some plastic tubing that fits your pump
  • whatever fittings secures the pump with the tubing with couplings.

Now it's time to assemble:

  1. Build your plywood tray. Be sure to build it deeper for the larger blocks, at least 2" for the micros or minis, or 4" for the maxis.
  2. Drill a hole the same size as your tubing at a corner of the tray and then cover with plastic. That hole will be your drain and fill hole.
  3. Position your tray. As you position your tray make sure it is slightly slanted towards the hole for proper drainage. Position the tray on a bench over the reservoir and secure the pump in the reservoir, silicon the tubing to the hole in the plastic lined tray. Check for proper water drainage and tilt.
  4. Hook up the pump to a timer, fill the reservoir with water, and manually test to see how long it takes to fill up the tray to the 2/3's rule on whatever block you choose. This amount of time will be programmed into your timer to come on once every three times a day.
  5. Fill the tray with soil blocks, and seed or transplant or fill with cuttings and wait three days and turn your timer on. The water should fill through the pump and drain through the same hole.

Mix fertilizer in your water at the 10-14 day mark and watch for rapid growth in order to transplant before the roots spread out too far. You can transplant or pot on the next block and replace them back in the tray, or get them out in the garden.

Make sure to harden plants off properly to prevent stunting of growth. You could, however, keep them in the blocks until harvest, depending on the plant size and length of time until harvest. Lettuce, spinach, baby greens, micro salad mixes, mesclun, basil, herbs, scallions, flowering broccoli, baby kales, nasturtiums, flowers, and spices work wonderful for block to harvest.

Experiment and create for yourself the wonderful options of bottom watering. Be sure to check out our timeless, in-depth and hot information on soil blocking on our blog at thesoilblocker.blogspot.com.

Bottom watering trayBottom watering tray

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Just Another Boring Article on How to Make Compost by a Genius Compost Maker from the Essenes

Did your know that there are more than 6 billion microbial life forms in only 1 teaspoon of cured compost? That's more than all the people on Planet Earth, at least for now, right?

Animal manure is not used for composting in soil block gardening. Remember, the block mix will be wet like oatmeal and the structure of the manure does not hold up like the strong, fibrous, lignum rich vege compost. Also, your hands will be mixing it while it's all wet, and if some manure wasn't broken down thoroughly, it might react unfavorably with your skin due to certain organic acids. Use gloves if all you have is animal manure compost.

However, there is the exception to the rule: If your animal manure was composted by worms, also known as vermicomposting, it is completely safe from any harm. The worm's "guts" break down all forms of pathogens in the soil and manure and convert it into mineral rich, pathogen-free soluble nutrients. Studies have proven that a worm will take a nasty strain of E. coli and break it down, and when the "castings" come out, E. coli is gone!

The break down of your compost:

1.) Increase the amount of green, or nitrogen rich materials. Fresh grass clippings and fresh animal manure are perfect. (It's O.K., use a little "fire starter" manure!)

2.) After every layer, sprinkle alfalfa meal over the surface. Use up a 20 # bag for each 4'x4' pile. Watch it cook with this trick!

3.) Turn the pile over a few times in the first 5 weeks. Aerations will speed up the process. If turning is too hard, try jabbing lots of holes deep into the heart of the pile. Use a bamboo stick, or, use a fancy compost aerator tool.

4.) Make your pile with the smallest sized materials possible. These small

These tricks will give you cured compost in less than 2 months.

Did you know cole crops or brassica family crops love eggshells? Try drying some, crushing into tiny pieces, and mix it in your blocking mix. Yum! Did you know soil grown with onions have an antiseptic property to them? If you can, always use onion soil from last year's onions to make your blocking mix recipe with the soil. See recipes.

Did you know that the first market gardeners who sold transplants started them in pieces of sod turned up side down? They would make a seed hole and water and that's it! It actually works quite well. Take a deep and turn it upside down and poke a hole and plant cucumbers, melons, squash, or lettuce and water well. Now that's a free soil block!

Try even growing your own patch of rye or grass in good soil. It will cut a lot easier and seed better. Seed very thickly and use it next year after you cut the grass and throw your clippings in your compost pile.

Make the Best Blocking Mix: Make your own Vegetable-Based Compost, Turf Compost and Vermicompost. Theory and Practice.

Have you ever noticed vegetables growing out of your compost pile in your back yard? Cucumbers, melons, squashes, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins have volunteered more than once in my kitchen compost pile. What was in yours? This got me thinking that something in those piles were just right for germinating seeds, vegetative growing, flowering, and fruiting, all from Vegetable Compost. Vegetable Compost is an all organic, green(live or green matter collected for the pile from vegetable and fruit peelings, grass clippings, green leaves, fresh food scraps, green hay and weeds pulled from gardens) and brown(dried leaves, dried grass, dried weeds, straw, yellow hay, coffee grounds, wood chips used sparingly, dried weeds) materials and soil that have been decomposed and recombined by various microscopic life forms like good bacteria and helpful fungus.

Compost happens naturally all around us: a forest floor collects leaves and animals die and plant roots get recycled back into the earth, where soil microbes and earthworms feast to their heart's content. While doing so, they release nutrients to living plants like elements, minerals, trace minerals, and this whole process creates fertility. Compost improves the structure of soil blocks, meaning your mix will be easier to work with, will have good aeration and water-retention qualities, and will be resistant to erosion. Compost also provides nutrients for plants in the form of organic acids, which makes the nutrients in the soil block available for plants. It also provides organic matter, which resists leaching of nutrients. Organic matter is dead plant and animal (microscopic) residues of all kinds and at all stages of decomposition, whereas one microorganism feeds off the dead or dying other microorganisms. This means that your soil block plant will be healthy, and a healthy plant is insect and disease resistant.

A Compost Pile is something you can do to create or mimic nature's fertility. The feeding frenzy of the microbes and the recombining of the pile creates the warmth that can germinate seeds at different temperatures within the pile. While the pile decomposes it releases carbon dioxide and water, which explains why it shrinks so much when it's cured. Cured compost means it's reached it's maximum temperature for the specific ratio of ingredients that were placed in it. Try jabbing that kitchen pile with a bamboo stake and then feel the tip and how warm it is. There are three temperatures of compost that happen, thermophilic (113-149 degrees), mesophilic (50-113 degrees) and vermiphilic (a combination of the two by the act of worm composting). This just means that the hottest pile has the least amount of finished product, but has more immediately released nutrients for plants. We want thermophilic compost for our blocks. After it cools down, the remaining organic matter is in the form of humus. Humus is the living and dead bodies of microbial life. Humus has trapped the nitrogen in the breakdown process. (Organic matter is humus and undecomposed organic matter.) It has stabilized the nitrogen so it will not be lost to decomposition, rapid solubility, and dissipation. Humus is where the plant roots will absorb, but, actually exchange their electric charges(+,-) and nutrients(think of a link exchange: I'll give you a calcium and you give me a carbon). This is a food bar for plant roots. Good quality humus says: Eat here. Get your food and move on to the next available humus (not hummus!). In soil block gardening, we rely on this natural, slow releasing biological process for nutrient release to the plants. If we would use any fertilizer, that would mean we have kept our plants in the blocks too long, and they have used up all the available nutrients. But, in our soil block nursery business, this is the exception, not the rule. You will want your plants in the garden, spread with more compost, than in the block.

Before we get into the Practice of the Compost Builder, let's take a look at the third ingredient after green vegetation and brown/dry vegetation, Soil. Soil is important for your compost and/or blocking mix because it contains a good starter supply of microorganisms. The busy little microorganisms have tied up essential nitrogens and nutrients in their little bodies and will release them back to the roots as they die and decompose. They also excrete organic compounds into the soil. This has been referred to as "soil glue", and help build soil structure. These organic compounds contain disease-curing antibiotics, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes all vital to a healthy soil block. Soil also adds more microbe diversity. The more ingredients your compost contains, the more available food sources there are for different species of the soil food web. Plan on having at least three different materials with three different textures plus soil for your pile. Think food bar for the compost critters. More is better! And finally, soil often contains clay and little rocks. As rocks get worked around, they release particles of dust which is an ancient source of minerals. And clay alone can harbor and exchange nutrients fairly well. What kind of soil do you use? Your best garden soil is preferred. Since you've been weeding it for a few years, I hope, it will contain less weed seeds and have good microbe diversity. If you can't spare garden soil, any soil will work, as long as it's free of herbicides and pesticides and fungicides and algaecides and any thing else with -cides in it. Try to find some under a deciduous tree or bush, but not walnuts. A forest floor minus the pine needles? A neighbors fill dirt? Or, have the neighborhood kid dig you a pit where you will fill it back up with compost materials and the soil you just took out.

Compost makers and piles vary from person to person and from text book to text book. The compost pile we are focused on here is proven out on our farm to work best for soil block making. The finished product will have a 30 to 1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. The finished pile will 1/3 to 1/4 of its original size, and will take less than 3 months to cure, provided you a.)build it all at once, b.)turn it over periodically c.) use smaller materials so they break down faster, d.)proper layering. See sidebars for getting cured compost even faster. O.K. Let's build a pile!

A compost pile is just that, a pile. It is unnecessary to use any container of any sort, so if you don't have anything, don't worry. We do like to use an old wire fence, though. It helps size up your pile when you build it, and is taken away when your done. You should have an idea where all your materials are and have a stock pile of kitchen waste on hand. Keep kitchen wastes in 5 gallon buckets with lids because you know it will stink! You'll need 1/3 dry brown materials, and 1/3 green materials, and 1/3 soil. You should always build a compost pile in the spring or the fall. Too hot or too cold will slow your microbes down. You should build it all at once so you can use it in three months. If you want to you can slowly add layer by layer, but it will take longer. Just make sure you finish with a soil layer. You want to build a compost pile 6 feet away from the base of an old oak tree near your garden hose. That is the ideal scenario; now for the rest of us: Make sure your location is shady and protected from the wind. Mark out a four foot by four foot area. This is the minimum requirement. Remember, this is compost for our soil block mix, so we don't need it for our garden. Just make a bigger pile if your plan on incorporating it into your garden.

Clear out your 4'x4' square or circle and loosen the soil to about 12" for drainage. Your first layer is for air circulation and it consists of roughage, or brush, stalks, or thin fruit tree clippings. Layer it up 3" high. The brown and green layers will be built 1-2" high at a time. The soil will be built up at 1/2" high, sprinkled over your green layer to prevent flies. On top of your roughage layer up a dry brown material and water well. Next, layer on a green material and water well. Next, sprinkle on some soil and water well. Now, back to brown, then green, then soil. Watering each layer well. Keep layering until you are up four feet high for a 4'x4'x4' pile. Cover with 1" of soil. Water regularly if it's dry out. Or, cover with a tarp if it's pouring rain. In about 2-3 weeks, jab a stake right into the heart of the pile. Keep it there for a few minutes and then pull it out and feel the temperature. Is it Hot? It should be. Is it turning from yellow to brown? Is it more earthy smelling than musty? Is the aroma like freshly plowed soil? Your pile is peaking, and in one more week it is ready to turn. Are your ready? Here we go.......

The turned pile will be right next to the old pile but will have a smaller base dimension, roughly 3 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet. This creates a more dense pile with more mass, since it is shrinking, isn't it? You can now leave it alone for 2-3 more months for a slow cure. See sidebar for speeding up the process. When is it ready? Your compost should be dark and rich looking. It should crumble in your hands. You should not be able to tell what the original ingredients look like. The shapes and textures should be even. It should smell like a forest floor after it rains. Go ahead, let your nose be your guide. Close your eyes, hold it up to your nose and take a deep breath..............Is it ready?

Tips: Avoid pernicious weeds like wild morning glory and bermuda grass roots. Avoid insect infested plants. Avoid pine needles, eucalyptus, walnut, cypress, and acacia leaves. Avoid poisonous plants. When you're ready to use your compost, screen it in a 1/2" hardware screen and throw the larger chunks on to the bottom of your next pile. I like to store some for block mix recipes, so I lay it out on a tarp and dry it down just a bit. Then, I just pick up the tarp and funnel it into large plastic barrels or totes for future use. Turf compost: The ideal "soil" in blocking mix for soil and compost!

The next best thing for compost in a soil block recipe is good 'ol fashioned turf compost. Turf compost is also known as "loam". Loam is made by stacking up field or turf sod upside down and on top of each other and let it decompose for a year or longer. Farmers in the past have relied on loam for their planting mixes because it was readily available and makes a superior grow medium. They would say that compost made from plants is 4 times better than compost made from animal manure, but compost made from plant roots is twice as good as plant compost! Many grasses and grains have deep, thick, fibrous root masses that create awesome compost. Cereal rye roots can grow up to six feet deep! If you have good pasture with good soil here's what I would recommend for next year's blocking mix compost:

First, sharpen up a turf or sod cutter. You can even cut sections or 1 foot strips with a lawn edger. Market gardeners, you can even rent a sod cutter to make a huge pile. With your sod cutter, cut little bricks 1'x 1' and stack them up in a 4'x 4' area with the first layer grass side up. Water thoroughly so you can see the soil glisten. Then, layer the next sod bricks grass side down, so grass is touching grass. Water. Next, grass side up again, so the dirt is touching dirt. Water. Alternate grass sides together and soil sides together until you're four feet high. Make sure to finish with soil side up and water throughly. This pile will be too heavy to turn, so aerate with sharp, deep sticks or bamboo poles. You can use the tricks in the sidebar to speed up the composting process, but this compost is best used in one year. It is the best. It has perfect soil structure or soil crumb, nutrient rich, and holds up to the rigors of block making.

Worm Castings or Vermicompost (Worm Compost):

Finally, the next best thing to vegetable or turf compost in the potting block recipes is worm castings. If you don't have time to make your own compost or can't buy it anywhere, as finding an all vegetable compost is nearly impossible to do, you can purchase worm castings. Worm castings are the digested food excretions from red worms. They can eat manure or vegetable wastes, and both are just fine. You can make your own fairly quickly, and there are numerous sites on the internet to help you out. We raise our own, but use the castings for worm compost teas. It takes the soluble nutrients and spreads them out a lot further than making blocks out of the straight vermicompost. We don't do the large scale worm raising any more, as that is back breaking! Worm castings are perfect for soil block making because all the nutriments and nitrogens are readily available and fertilization will never be needed until they get to the garden. If we are growing transplants for resale, we will always use worm castings blended with vegetable compost for the plants that get held extra long in the hot house, like tomatoes and peppers. It is such a wonderful product, and we are experimenting with ways to raise them without any extra labor. It's worth looking into the science of vermiculture. See Resources and Links for further education.

 

Quick Steps to Soil Blocks, but Don't Use Quick Root, Never Works, sorry GrowOrganic.com

6 Quick Steps to Soil Blocks

 

  1. Empty bag of potting soil into tub, setting a little aside in case you make your mix too wet on your first try. (Sift for ¾” blocks)
  2. Add water, stir, and wait one hour for it to soak in. If you don’t have the time, then be sure to stir very thoroughly. Add enough water to give it a thick peanut butter consistency. Too watery and the mix won’t form blocks, too dry and it won’t go in the blocker. Trial and error are your best teachers.
  3. Thrust the blocker into the mix 2 or 3 times to fill the chambers snugly and smooth the bottom of the blocker against the bottom of the tub.
  4. Set blocker into tray, lift up with your fingers on the handle while depressing the plunger with your thumb ejecting the blocks straight up.
  5. Place the next set of blocks 1/8” away from the previous set to make an air root pruning gap. (Dip in water to clean out soil in blocker)
  6. Wash and dry the blocker after making blocks. Otherwise, the natural acids in any growing medium will corrode the protective zinc coating.

 

Hints:

  1. Do not use potting soil that has decomposed or “composted” wood chips or wood by-products in them. We have had poor results on our research farm.       Regular Miracle Grow potting soil is the most commonly found potting soil and it works great in soil blockers. Happy Frog is good organic potting soil. Be cautious of steer manure in soil blocks, as they could give below average results.
  2. Micro 20, or Hand-Held 20 soil blocker maker makes 20 ¾” cubes: Use one hand or two hands, depending on the size and strength of your hands and fingers. Use gently, but pack soil firmly to create nice seed holes.
  3. The bottoms of soil blocks should be flat in order to sit straight. Smooth the bottoms by rubbing them back in forth in the bottom of the tub or you can scrape off the excess on the side of the tub. Tilt and twist off the bottom to release the blocks from sticking to the bottom of the tub after filling the blocker chamber.