A soil block is a cube of lightly compressed soil and nutrients that will grow one seedling. When the plant is ready to be transplanted, the entire block is planted into the soil. No root mangling will reduce transplant shock.
When I first began gardening, I purchased transplants from a local nursery and had a difficult time getting the seedlings out of their individual cells. Often times the plants were root bound and suffered from transplant shock because of my mangling.
Once I decided to grow my own transplants from seed and assembled a Grow Light System, using soil blocks for growing seedlings appealed to me. Since the soil block serves as the container and the soil, it is easy to transplant without injuring the roots.
I learned about soil blocks from reading Eliot Coleman’s book, The New Organic Grower. Part of the charm was that the soil blocker was an investment that would be used for many years to come. No need to invest in plastic cell packs that crack and break over time or peat pots that constrict the roots from growing. I also liked that transplanting soil blocks allows the seedlings establish quickly into the surrounding soil with no root damage.
What is a Soil Block?
A soil block is a cube of lightly compressed soil and nutrients that will grow one transplant. I start all my seedlings in soil blocks that I make with a 2-inch Soil Blocker that produces four soil blocks at once.
Soil blockers are the spring-loaded tools that form and compress the soil mixture into blocks. Once ejected, each block has an indentation at the top of the cube to plant your seed. Soil blockers are available different sizes but I use a 2-inch Soil Blocker. Soil Block Makers are available at Amazon and other places online. Seek out the quality Ladbrooke brand and it will last forever.
Benefits of Using Soil Blocks to Grow Seedlings:
- Eliminates the need for plastic cell packs or peat pots. Since the soil block functions as both the container and the soil for starting and growing seedlings, this reduces the need for plastic growing pots.
- Seedlings develop a stronger root system. More oxygen is distributed to the roots since the growing medium is not contained. Roots are also “air-pruned” once they reach the edge of the block. This means that they stop growing rather than winding themselves around the plastic pot seeking nutrients.
- Transplants establish more quickly. Since there is less disruption to the roots, the seedlings are less prone to transplant shock.
How to Make Soil Blocks
When I invested in a 2-inch Soil Block Maker from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in 2010, they included a copy of Eliot Coleman’s recommended soil block recipe from The New Organic Grower. The recipe can also be downloaded at Johnny’s Selected Seeds website.
The recommend mix is composed of peat, lime, coarse sand or perlite, fertilizer, compost and soil. Just like any recipe, this one can be altered and adjusted to accommodate the ingredients you have on hand. I have experimented with different mixtures and found that as long as the mixture holds together, it will be fine. I have settled on a mixture of organic seed starting mix, screened compost, perlite, and a little all purpose organic fertilizer.
I use a dishpan to mix up small batch of soil block mix. I add 4 scoops of the seed starting mix and 1 scoop of screened compost to the dishpan. Most seed starting mixes already contain perlite, but if the one I am using doesn’t I add a handful or so. I sprinkle in a couple of tablespoons of fertilizer and mix all the dry ingredients together.
Before wetting down the mix, I scoop out a little of this dry mix into a separate container to use later. I add hot water to the mix in the dishpan and let it sit for a few hours or even until the next day. This gives the mixture ample opportunity to soak up as much water as it can. Once mixed, the soil should look like peanut butter. Add more water, or reserved dry mix to adjust.
To make the blocks, I pile up the soil mix into a mound that is about double the height of the soil blocker. Then simply plunge the soil blocker into the mixture. Twisting the blocker helps compress the soil and release it from the mixture without sucking out the wet soil back out. I do this three times so cubes are filled tightly.
I scrape off the bottom of the blocker with a metal straight edge, then set the blocker in the tray and release the soil blocks by pushing down on the handle and lifting the blocker. The blocks should be firm. If the blocks crumble, add more water to the mix. If they slide out easily and fail to hold their shape, add more dry mix. The seeds are planted directly in the depressions created by the soil blocker. I label the soil blocks using tape on the outside of the tray.
As an added bonus, the soil blocks are easy to move around and organize. If a block fails to germinate, it can simply be removed from the tray and recycled. Also, it is easy to know when it is time to transplant the seedling or pot up into larger containers because you will see the roots when they reach the edge of the block.
Out of all the gardening tools and gadgets I have purchased over the years, this soil block maker is one of the most useful. A soil block maker is a great investment that will serve you well for many years.
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