Planting Soil Blocks

April may be my busiest time of year, and I am very late in my posting this month. One of those busy things is transplanting dozens of seed flats full of young plants. It’s now time for many of them to go outside.

My experience with Soil Blocks has been really great. I get very good results and avoid using pots whenever possible, but nothing ever goes as planned. This year I’ve noticed two problems. The first was I used a different brand of worm castings in a few trays. These plants struggled and it looked to me like there was a phosphorus deficiency and I found it necessary to supplement them with some liquid fertilizer to keep them going. The other problem I noticed was that for some of my plants I believe I started them a little too early in the season and by the time they were transplanted some of the lower leaves started to yellow, also indicative of a nutrient deficiency.

traysPictured here are many of my Brassica transplants: three varieties of kale, two broccoli types and a purple cauliflower. These seven trays had been growing in my basement for at least four weeks prior. A week before my transplant date I moved the young plants outside into the hoop house so that they can begin to feel what the outside world is like. This is called hardening-off.

The next step is to prepare the transplanting bed. I first used a hula-hoe or scuffle-hoe to quickly mop up any weeds that had germinated and pull any larger weeds. I then added some humic acid, kelp meal and some rock dust made of crushed basalt. Mix this into the top two or three inches, then rake the bed out flat.

Now I determine spacing, information usually given on the seed packet. I’ve learned that not all seed packet information is the same. I usually also look through a reference book or two and search the internet as well. Your experiences and individual soil conditions will also suggest differences. I do most of this look up during the winter months when I am stuck indoors and document them on my calender.

bedrowFor transplanting, the first step is to determine the plant spacing. Plant spacing is easy, it’s the distance recommended between each plant. Don’t confuse that with seed spacing, you want the final spacing between plants after thinning. I review, but usually ignore the row spacing. Row spacing is how many feet between growing rows if you’re farming, or as many gardeners do scaled-down farming. Pre-industrial gardening is a nearly forgotten art. Most gardeners base their knowledge on the experience of farming and scale that downwards into the garden space. The spacing used for farming is very inefficient and was born out of the need to accommodate a tractor.

For my Brassica’s, I started at the end of the four foot wide bed and measured out two rows for the broccoli and cauliflower, and three rows for the Kale. Please note that the distance between my rows is the plant spacing, NOT the row spacing. You can even go a little smaller if you stagger the transplants in each row. Another thing I’ve learned is to be sure and think about how your going to weed later in the season and to always leave enough room for your favorite weeding tool. I normally space my bed rows no less than 6-8 inches apart. Then I take a stick and carefully draw the rows down the length of the bed to mark them.

Now I extend the measuring tape down the length of the bed and fix it there. Using a hand hoe I quickly dig transplanting holes using the measuring tape to guide the spacing. When you have more than one row in the bed, I alternate the transplant holes. For example, with my kale I used 12 inch spacing and I dug holes down the first row on the foot markers (1, 2, 3, …). The second row I offset the holes by 6 inches (1.5, 2.5, 3.5, …), and for the third row I went back to the foot markers (1, 2, 3, …). This actually put each plant at about 13.5 inches apart. This gives you whats called BED SPACING. In the same space using traditional rows I would have only achieved two rows, not three, and I just increased my yield by 33%.

sbOnce all the holes are created, I decided to insert a small handful of high quality worm castings into each hole and mix it up by hand a little. Then I carefully lowered each block into its new home, but haven’t buried them just yet.

Since this blog is about Biological Gardening, how could I leave that out. I now mix in some beneficial bacteria with several gallons of water and use a watering can to wet each block well. After this I carefully bury each plant up to its cotyledons. The cotyledons were those first two seed leaves that formed after germination.

Since I did this work a few weeks ago now, I can also report how they are doing: The plants with the bad worm castings, have recovered and are now growing well, although they are still behind the others. The plants that were started a little too early are still alive and growing but they did struggle to get through a few light frost. The plants that were started indoors at the appropriate time, are doing amazingly well and are bright, green and happy. Despite the differences, of the 224 brassica plants featured here I haven’t lost a single one.

Why would the plants I started only one or two weeks earlier be struggling from a few light frosts when the others are so nice? Their brix was low because the block didn’t have enough nutrition to support that extra growth time. We can discuss this more in the fall, but a high brix plant is not phased by a little frost, as the extra sugar/nutrition lowers the freezing point of the plant.

Cheers,

~Sean

Measuring Success – Brix

If you read my last post reviewing the butternut squash competition that illustrated the correlation between brix and nutrient density, you may have wondered where my initial assumption had come from, the grades given by each squash’s refractometer value:

6 - Poor
8 - Average
12 - Good
14 - Excellent

These values didn’t come from me, but rather a lifetime of agricultural research by Dr. Carey Reams. What’s interesting for us though, is what these grades actually mean:

  • Poor – zero to terrible flavor, rots very quickly, very bad nourishment
  • Average – bland to somewhat flavorful, lasts longer in storage but still not very nourishing
  • Good – great flavor, stores a long time without decay and good nutrition
  • Excellent – legendary flavor, dries out long before rotting, superior health through food is now possible

We have already shown how nutrient density relates to brix, but also flavor and storage too? Indeed it does, but I will save those explanations for a later post when we discuss monitoring plant health and the role that insects and disease organisms play. Our goal here is to give you a new tool, the ability to relate your own brix readings to a meaningful measurement of quality.

Following this are the charts that you will need. It was the genius of Dr. Carey Reams that deserves full credit for compiling the original data and then freely giving it away in the early 1970’s. Since then, there have been several updates and additions made by the observations of other agricultural researches. What I’ve done here is created a greater composite chart of all of them together, choosing the highest values available.

The charts use the PAGE method: Poor-Average-Good-Excellent. There is an additional column in there called “Resistant”, I will explain that later, feel free to ignore it for now.

brixchart

In the process of writing this I discovered that I had used Dr. Reams’s original values for my article on the Squash Contest and not the values I have listed here. That was an over-site on my part. So instead of the 6-8-12-14 values I should have used 6-10-14-16. If you go back to that article and look again, you will see that no one had submitted the best possible class of fruits to the contest.

~Sean

Brix & Nutrient Density

Is anyone still wondering if any two vegetables are created equalIn 2013 International Ag Labs conducted a competition to see who could grow the best Butternut Squash, and the data is openly available. For each fruit that was submitted we can see a nutrient analysis and a Brix reading. I was able to copy the data into a spreadsheet and pulled out some interesting information.

First, lets look at the Brix readings. Let us assume that a low Brix value is bad, and a high Brix value is good in this way:

6 - Poor
8 - Average
12 - Good
14 - Excellent

If we then sort the available data by Brix, lowest to highest, we have a graph that looks like this:

brix

If we can now apply the same scale as established above but instead graph out the various mineral nutrients from the data, we find that:

CaMgas Brix increases, so does the Calcium and Magnesium,

Kand Phosphorous,

Pand Potassium,

ZnMnand Zinc and Manganese too,

FeCuand lastly the Iron and Copper content as well.

There does seem to be a correlation between Brix and mineral nutrients.

In the 1953 Yearbook of Agriculture (USDA), it is proclaimed that the “Lack of fertilizer may reduce the yield of a crop, but not the amount of nutrients in the food produced.” In essence, they’re saying that a Squash is a Squash is a Squash.

For the testing of these squash, 100 gram samples of each fruit are taken and scientifically dried. Once all the water has been removed, the leftover material is carefully weighed and we have what’s called the Dry Matter, the sum of all the material of the plant: minerals, proteins, lipids, etc. More dry matter means more nutrients. If it is as the USDA say’s it is, and a Squash is a Squash is a Squash, then all samples should be equal. Lets see what the graph says.

DryMatter

As Brix increase there is a doubling of the Dry Matter!

If you have been looking carefully at the charts, you will see some variations in the data. The sample to the very right serves as a good example of this. In a detailed explanation of the results, Jon Frank of IAL says that particular variety was called Honeynut and “it was genetically patterned to make more sugars but it didn’t back it up with more minerals.” This exposes itself to us with its high Brix value but a lesser Nutrient profile. A lot of factors come into play to produce a nutrient dense product, and in this particular case it appears that the selected variety is genetically predisposed to be higher in sugars, thus giving a strong Brix reading. This means that relying solely upon Brix by itself is not a sure fire way to identify a top of class product, although it is a very strong indicator.

There are two more bits of information in our data we haven’t looked at yet and that’s the Protein content and the Free Nitrates. Here they are:

ProteinProtein content doubles as the Brix increases,

Nitratesbut the Nitrates decrease!

What is the significance of this? Reviewing the Nitrates chart, notice that the first half of the graph the free Nitrates (Nitrogen) are very high and erratic, but then stabilize in the middle. Now look at the peaks and valley’s in both charts, there is a matching pattern in there, again more so on the first half of the graph while the Brix is still low. Nitrogen and Protein relate, and this takes us to our first small lesson on plant physiology.

Nitrogen is a required element for protein construction. A sick plant however doesn’t do a good job of this, and the protein synthesis can fail at any point. This can give you a large number of partially completed proteins, the degenerative kind that are unstable and decay rapidly, leaving a lot of extra Nitrogen floating around inside the plant. At the same time, all farmers and gardeners know that in order to get lots of green leafy growth you should add lots of Nitrogen, making an already bad situation worse. Further, in the laboratory setting when the Protein content is analyzed, it’s only tested for crude protein, and that’s only done by adding up all the Nitrogen found. What it does not tell us is how much functional protein is actually in the plant. Look at that last chart again, and drop the protein content even further downwards on the left side, because the free nitrogen is excessive and the proteins are not any good.

For gardeners, there’s no need to send a plant sample to the laboratory for an expensive count of the Protein and Nitrogen, just test your Brix and look for Aphids instead. These little bugs, and other sap-sucking insects, have a digestive system specially designed for processing low sugar sap and incomplete proteins. The excessive Nitrogen then becomes a signal to the insect, one that can be detected at a distance, and says “I am a plant in poor health, come eat me.” If however the Aphid inadvertently feeds upon the sap of a healthy plant, the high sugar and complete proteins can actually kill the poor little bug. Thus not only is a healthy plant more difficult for Aphids to identify, but the plant can effectively protect itself from attack. The digestive system of insects does not work the same as they do in animals, who obtain health from consuming healthy plants and illness consuming sick one.

One more small tidbit about identifying nutrient dense food. Some people can get a digestive upset consuming salad lettuce, my wife being one of them. This can be due to the presence of excessive free nitrates in the lettuce leaf. The farmer, organic or not, is spreading the nitrogen thick on these crops to get good leaf growth as rapidly as possible to take to market. Your lettuce should never give you a stomach ache, it should always be very crisp and free of decay, and should last for many months in the refrigerator.

Brix testing is one of the most powerful tools you can use to measure both the health of your plants, and the quality of your food. As you saw here, there are some pitfalls to be aware of, but that’s for another day. For now, get a refractometer.

~Sean

Assessing Quality – Refractometer

In the early 1800’s, European vintners were seeking a reliable way to determine the perfect time to harvest wine grapes, an important objective when a high quality bottle sold for hundreds more. Several methods were pioneered, but the one that most interests us most is the measure of total dissolved solids: the amount of stuff in the grape juice. With this understanding European vintners were better able to manage plant health and produce consistently higher quality grapes. This technique can easily be applied at home with a nifty little gadget called a refractometer.

The refractometer measures in degrees Brix (°Bx). The scale is based upon the quantity of dissolved cane sugar in water and equates to percentage. Thus a reading of 1° Brix is 1% dissolved sugar and 99% water, and 25° Brix is 25% dissolved sugar and 75% water. The tool is calibrated to 0° using distilled water.

The refractometer works like a prism. When light is passed through different substances it bends and reacts slightly differently from one another. To take a measurement, a small drop of liquid is placed on the refractometer window and pointed at the light. The degree of light bend is then displayed on a scale you can read through the eyepiece.

zerobrixThis is what a drop of water and 0° Brix looks like through my camera phone.

Since a large part of plant juices are made up of sugars and water, this is an excellent way for us to obtain a usable and very accurate reading. For example, grape must is mostly glucose, not sucrose, but the Brix is still within 0.1 degrees, a level of accuracy more than sufficient for our use. Like grape must, all plant juices contain a whole lot more than simple sugar (minerals, proteins, fats, vitamins, amino acids, etc), so when the tool is used  in this way it is referred to as “total dissolved solids” or “total soluable solids”.

In addition to 200 years of use among grape growers, the refractometer is well known within the food industry for things like fruit juice, jams and jellies, soft drinks, beer and numerous scientific and industrial applications.

There are numerous types of refractometers on the market, but we just need one: a hand held refractometer with a scale from 0-32 degrees. The only garden vegetable you will encounter that exceeds 32° are garlic cloves. The brix reading is also somewhat temperature sensitive, so getting a device with ATR (Automatic Temperature Regulator) will save you from doing some extra math.

This is what I recommend:

  • Refractometer, 0-32 degrees, with ATR
  • small pocket notebook and pencil
  • garlic press

Brix testing is one of the easiest and most informative tools available for gardening. You can use it to monitor your plant health, including the health of your weeds, and it allows you to grade the quality of fruits and vegetables at harvest.

I record all my readings into a notebook sorted by plant type: apples, oranges, carrots, broccoli, etc. To take a measurement carefully squeeze a drop or two of liquid from your plant leaf, fruit or vegetable. If the plant part is refusing to give you a good drop, use the garlic press. Place the drops onto the prism and look through the eyepiece and record the reading. You now have a point of reference you can use to measure your success with.refractometer

You can actually use your refractometer to measure any liquid, and I’ve had a lot of fun with mine. I test milk, tap water, bottled water, coffee, tea and all the soda’s at work. I also test every fruit and vegetable I can get my hands on: the store, the farmers market, backyards; and I always record whether it was organic or not.

The refractometer has proved itself in giving results in the field for 200 years of viticulture, and is an accepted tool in biological agriculture. It’s a great tool, but it’s not the only tool, and it does take some knowledge to use effectively, but more detail on that later. You can get a refractometer quite inexpensively, I bought mine (Vee Gee BTX-1) off of Amazon.

Happy Brix’ing,

~Sean