Thursday, January 24, 2013

soil blocks (and hopefully artichokes)

I oftentimes have a hard time doing things the traditional and/or tried-and-true way. I like to make things complicated and difficult and set myself up for disastrous results from whatever absurd endeavor I've relegated myself to.

Conversely, I'm fond of shelling out money on something of reasonable quality and/or usefulness that I can reuse over and over instead of having to reinvest in time and time again.

Seed starting is a good example of meeting the above two criterions.

I'm not going to buy those shriveled little peat pellets that expand when wet or those plastic flats that my clumsy fingers have to wrestle young seedlings out of or coconut coir pots or felt grow bags or whatever trendy nursery item they've decided is perfect for starting seeds in. And I won't buy bagged seed starting mix either.

Nope, I want to do it the hard way.

So I made soil blocks from homemade seed starter mix. And it was the most fun I've had all day. In case you've never heard of them, they're basically soil mixed with enough water to stand on their own with no vessel of any sort.

First, I needed to make the soil blocker itself. You can buy soil blockers starting at around 30 bucks (and up to hundreds of dollars for one that does multiple blocks at once), but again, I want to be extra difficult, er, I mean thrifty. So, I stole this lady's idea and went to the hardware store and had the nice gentleman behind the counter cut me 12" of 1.5" PVC pipe. I asked him if he had a 1.5" wooden dowel that would fit snugly in the PVC pipe, and he rummaged around in the wood pile until he found one (part of a closet rod) and then just gave it to me. I think it was because I had Clyde Dog with me, and he really wanted to give Clyde some good ear scratches. He also thought what I wanted these two items for was fascinating, so I will likely patronize this establishment again just because he took a keen interest in what Hillbilly Girl was making (and didn't laugh). Total cost so far: 66 cents.

Next, I had to make the seed starter mix. I grabbed a bucketful of barn dust (aka, ancient poop from animals that previous owners of our farm had -- it's a goldmine, I tell ya) and sifted it with an old window screen I found in the barn into a small stock tank we lugged out here from Cali. The result was a very fine and light product.

Then I mixed in vermiculite (about 20 bucks for a 2 cubic foot bag at your nearby big box home improvement store) at a 1:1 ratio to make something nice and fluffy that I think I would very much like if I were a seed.

I brought half a bucketful of the mess into the house to try out my new tool.

Waitaminute, here's a cute puppy first.

Okay, so there are some really complicated soil block recipes out there on the interwebs, and I thought it was a ridiculous notion to have to go out and buy all the ingredients for Elliot Coleman's recipe, for example (peat, sand, compost, garden dirt, lime, blood meal, collodial phosphate, and greensand -- NO). I might regret this decision in the future when nothing happens and I'm giving clods of dirt lots and lots of love and attention like a crazy person with nothing to show for it. 

Anyway, I mixed the following recipe in a plastic container:

1 cup barn dust/vermiculite mix, loosely packed
1/3 cup warm water

Stir, stir, stir, stir.

Then the fun part. I packed a 1/4 cup measuring cup with the stuff, then spooned it into the PVC pipe that was positioned over a colander on a plate (I figured out the colander part later on). I used the dowel to firmly tamp down the mixture (water should pool onto the plate), then while holding the dowel, I slid the PVC pipe up, and voila!

I used a chopstick to poke a hole in the top of the soil block for the artichoke seed. I plan to attach a broken off push pin on the end of the dowel so that the seed hole is already formed and the structural integrity of the soil block isn't compromised as much as with using a chopstick (a few hairline cracks formed, but I think they'll all stick together fine.

At Wally World, I bought:

(2) 48" fluorescent shop lights
(2) warm white fluorescent bulbs
(2) cool white fluorescent bulbs
(4) 13"x9"x2" aluminum cake pans
(4) 16"x12"x2.5" aluminum all-purpose pans

... at a total of $60.35.

The reason for the aluminum pans instead of plastic trays is that I'm using capillary action
to keep the soil blocks moist. Watering them overhead would cause them to disintegrate, and misting is an option, but I'm lazy and forgetful so I needed something better. I inverted the smaller pan and placed it into the larger one, draped a piece of flannel fabric from an old bed sheet I had on hand over the smaller pan so that the ends reached the bottom of the larger one, then filled it with a half inch of water or so and placed the soil blocks on top of the smaller pan. 

I seeded 22 Tavor artichokes, which need a whopping four months' head start before being transplanted into our zone 6b garden. Jay and I both love artichokes (we did used to live near the artichoke capital of the world, after all), so I'm really hoping all these shenanigans pay off in the form of delicious homegrown chokes.

For a grand total of $82.35, my artichokes would cost approximately $3.74 each once harvested, which is ridiculous, but remember that I'll also be using these same supplies and methods for tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, celery, and onions and hopefully for many years to come, so I figure it's all a reasonable investment.

1 comment:

  1. Check out this blocker I haven't tried the soil block method yet, but I'm interested in how it works out for you. I'm using newpaper cups this year and hope they work well. If not, I won't consider it a loss since my grandson had so much fun making pots. Good luck with your artichokes!