Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Getting Down and Dirty with Soil Blocks

Today, I learned the art of making soil blocks. Soil block engineering is a largely obscure craft, lacking the glamor of other, better-known skills. But I hope to change all that, and shed some light on this mysterious trade.

Soil blocks are a pretty simple method of starting seedlings to transplant later. Spring in Virginia is notorious for being somewhat crazy, I've come to realize - 80's yesterday, 50's today, for example. So planting tender little shoots that could be wiped out in a late frost is a pretty terrible idea.

Soil blocks are what they sound like - blocks of soil that we use to plant seeds, and keep in a greenhouse until they've grown a bit and the weather is nice enough to transplant them. And since they're in neat little cubes, transplanting them is easy.

First, however, we must make the soil blocks. This is a multi-step process, best done with two people - in this case, Caitlin* and myself.

The first step is mixing the ingredients. They are peat moss, lime (to balance the acidity of the peat), some organic fertilizer, sand, compost, soil and water. We mixed all this up in a big tub, eventually just diving in with our hands.

This was when I realized that today was not going to be a clean day.

After everything is properly moistened, it's time to use the soil block maker.** In the tub, you level out some soil so that it is a little bit higher than the bottom of the soil block maker, then press it down, with a lot of wiggling to make sure that the soil is packed in tight.

Then you move over to the waiting tray, press down the handle, wiggle a bit more, and soil blocks are born.

This is repeated three more times, so that the flat is filled with as many soil blocks as it can hold. Then it's time for Worker No. 2 to step in, to fill the little divots with seeds (eggplant, peppers and tomatoes today), then tamp soil down on top, label the trays, and put them aside to begin sprouting.

Which, hopefully, they do.

*Caitlin lives in Charlottesville, and has been working on the farm part-time since 2008. She knows a lot.
**There is probably an official name for this, but I don't care. Mine is probably more descriptive anyways.

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