So last night the Handyman and I put our new DIY Soil Block Maker to the test.
My last frost date is in mid to late April, so I needed to get some seeds started indoors. According to Brett Markham, author of The Mini-Farming Bible, some spring seedlings can be started indoors as early as 12 weeks before the last frost. This is good for cold-hardy plants like broccoli. Some only need about two weeks inside before going outside, so obviously we aren’t starting those yet. Sorry, watermelon, you’ll have to wait.
Round One consists of the following plants:
- yellow onions
- red onions
I’ve mentioned before that I love the book Small- Plot, High-Yield Gardening. Well, this book has one of the best things for someone starting out: A complete garden plan for just about any size garden you could possibly want. There are a lot of things to consider when planning a garden. Did you know that some plants really don’t like to be neighbors? For example, planting onions near beans will actually stunt the growth of the beans (Burpee). And some plants provide protection for others, like garlic, which is pretty much your garden’s personal bodyguard. But honestly, the list of dos and don’ts is kind of overwhelming, especially for someone who is trying to flesh out other plans as well. I just want someone to give me a diagram of what I should plant and where I should plant it. Next year I’ll think about what I loved and what I hated and adjust accordingly. Well, that’s exactly what I found in the back of Small-Plot, High-Yield Gardening.
The Handyman and I figure we are going to aim for a 20’x20′ garden. We have the space, and when we do something we don’t mess around. However, we reserve the right to scale it back if we find it too intense for Year One. We did make a couple of minor changes to the plants within the garden, but we are essentially following the layout for the 400-Square-Foot Soup Garden found on page 231. Once we’ve started all our seeds and made those final decisions I will post a diagram of exactly what we’re planting. I can promise one thing, though… it will contain a lot of hot peppers. The Handyman is capable of making hot sauce that will burn your eyebrows off if you get too close.
Just to give you an idea of scale, however, for just the plants we are starting in Round One of seed starting indoors we have to do 236 soil blocks! So, we got to test out our soil block maker and really get the technique honed in.
First of all, we are using coconut hulls as seed starting medium. If you’d like to know why, check out my post on the DIY Soil Block Maker. Burpee makes a lovely compressed brick of organic coconut hulls for just under $3, and it’s available at Home Depot. We bought several with our spare change. Basically, you take this brick, put it in a bucket, add water, wait for it to expand, and then form the hulls into whatever shape you want. It expands to 8 liters, and we found that we were able to get about 70-80 blocks from one brick. For our seed starting project all we used was the coconut hulls, a large bucket we got from a friend’s restaurant, a small bucket for spillover, water, some leftover trays we never used from a barbecue last summer, and the block maker. Now, in case anyone is wondering…. yes, this is my kitchen island. And no, I don’t recommend that anyone use their kitchen islands for this project. Ever. Learn from my fail. This was after making the five you see pictured. Imagine what my kitchen looked like after over 200!
Here is a short video demonstration of me using the soil block maker. I don’t have fancy camera equipment, but it should suffice.
Here are additional tips as well as the written tips for anyone who can’t access the video.
- The directions call for 4 1/2 quarts of water. We found that 4 1/4 quarts was just perfect. Too much water and the medium is soggy, too little and the blocks don’t hold their shape. The key is to add 4 quarts of water, let the brick expand, mix it thoroughly, drizzle the remaining cup of water around and thoroughly mix again, breaking up any clumps.
- Hand fill the block maker with planting medium. Don’t pack it full. Imagine you’re filling a measuring cup with flour.
- When pressing down on the plunger, don’t smash the heck out of it. It doesn’t take your whole weight to compress, and you don’t want to make the soil too dense for early roots to penetrate.
- Don’t forget that when you pull up the PVC you don’t have any support on the block anymore, so stop pushing on the plunger before you pull up on the PVC.
- The plastic disk really needs to go past the bottom of the PVC, so if it’s indented then you need to adjust the location of the disk on the carriage bolt (see pic below)
Now that we have blocks made, we have to add the seeds. I added three seeds per block, and I will thin them out later, once I can identify the single seedling that is the strongest of the three. According to Small-Plot, High-Yield Gardening, one of the biggest mistakes people make when starting seeds is burying them too deep or covering them too hard. They only need to be covered with a sprinkling of dirt equivalent to 3x the size of the seed. Look at the size of these mint seeds! They need a few crumbs of dirt on them, and that’s it.
Here is an example of a soil block that has been planted with onion seeds and one that has not. See how loose the soil is covering the seeds? We don’t want the plant to have to work too hard before it gets those first leaves up and starts photosynthesizing.
So, as I mentioned before in my shopping post, plants need growing medium, warmth, moisture, and light. Our seeds are going in the furnace room in my basement. It’s around 70-75 degrees in there. That’s perfect for new seeds. We put the blocks in repurposed trays that are water-tight, and we will mist them until the first leaves appear and then water from the bottom to help establish healthy roots. No spoiled plants here.
Now here’s the interesting thing I discovered. According to Brett Markham’s Mini-Farming Bible, fluorescent lights work just as well as growing lights when starting plants inside. Whaaaa? So you mean I don’t have to spend $20-30 for a fancy bulb? He swears that if you get a warm and a cool fluorescent light bulb and hang them very close to the seeds for 18 hours a day, then the plant will get the full spectrum of light necessary for healthy growth. You’ll know if it’s not enough because the seedlings will lean toward the light or grow tall and spindly reaching for more. So we got a couple of shop lights and some warm and cool fluorescent bulbs and the Handyman rigged us up a proper growing station in the furnace room.
And, spoiler alert… we started some seeds a couple of weeks ago because we were really impatient and wanted to try our soil block maker. And there they are in the back right corner! They’re doing great! No one is growing all leggy and stupid or leaning hard toward the light. Here’s a close up pic.
I did learn a few lessons in this seed starting adventure. Firstly, I learned that the Handyman’s patience for working out the kinks of soil block making is positively correlated with the number of Yuenglings he’s had. Secondly, I learned that I should never let the Handyman do the seed labeling (might also be Yuengling-related).
And finally, I learned that the feeling of having all of this done is so much better than I thought it would be. It was weighing on my conscience, just knowing how close spring is getting (92 days as I’m writing this!) and how many things are still on our To Do list. It feels like every time I cross something off I add two new things. Having this done takes a lot of worry away.