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

Early Potatoes

Last weekend I planted my early potatoes, far ahead of the main potato planting schedule. If all goes well we should be roasting fresh new baby potatoes by June, four to six weeks before the main season starts. If you want to try your hand at growing early potatoes, this is my method.

I grow about eight varieties of potatoes every year, but only one for early potatoes, Yukon Gold. Normally I wouldn’t have picked such a commonly available strain, but for our purposes we need one that’s vigorous and matures quickly, something Yukon’s work very well for. I’ve also found this varieties yellow flesh to be richer in flavor, as a matter of fact, every variety with yellow flesh is richer in flavor. Since discovering that I’ve dropped all those boring and tasteless white fleshed types from the growing schedule. The flesh color comes from several health giving phytonutrients and is documented well in Jo Robinson’s book Eating on the Wild Side. White fleshed potatoes are very low in these extra nutrients, even if the skin is dark and vibrant.

chitpotatoesThe time for planting early potatoes is about four weeks before you would otherwise plant your main harvest potatoes. The first step is to pre-sprout, or chit them. I pulled my seed potatoes out of storage three or four weeks ago and carefully arranged them into an empty seed flat so that the root side of the potato was generally downwards. The root side can be identified by locating the scar where it was attached to the mother plant the previous year. I then placed the tray in a warmer room exposed to indirect light. After a few weeks you should see small buds forming as you can see in this picture.

You can’t drop your potatoes in the cold damp soil of early spring to decay, the soil must be warmed first. A week ago I moved one of my cheap portable low tunnels over the planting bed, and was simultaneously blessed with a weeks worth of sunshine. By potato planting time, the soil temperature had risen to 55 degrees, while the outside soil was still slinking at a cool 40.

For seed bed preparation, most of the work was done the previous fall where I had carefully deep-tilled and re-mineralized the soil. My beds are about four foot wide and this year I will be fitting in two ten foot rows spaced about 18 inches apart. With a narrow shovel I quickly dug two parallel trenches down the bed, about eight inches deep. I then sprinkled in a few handfuls of Gypsum into each trench to provide some extra Calcium.

To prepare the seed potatoes, carefully cut the larger ones into golf ball sized pieces, making sure to get at least a few good sprouts, or eyes, on each piece. Your typical potato planting recommendations encourage you to coat each piece in a sulfur based anti-fungal powder/chemical to kill pathogenic fungus. For naturally disease resistant and nutrient dense potatoes that’s an absolutely terrible idea. Of course I did the exact opposite and coated my seed pieces with a beneficial fungus instead.

lowtunnelPlace each potato seed about a foot apart into the trenches, making sure the eyes are facing upwards. Then partially fill in the trench with about four inches of earth. Lastly, I added a couple handfuls of high quality worm castings, kelp meal and about two lbs of rock dust per trench and watered it all in well.

Now the potatoes just need some time, and a little climate control by covering their bed with the low tunnel again. Our baby potatoes now have everything needed to encourage maximum biological activity and nutrient availability for a healthy start.

~Sean

UPDATE: read about the results here on Early Potatoes II

pH part II

In the first part of this article, I presented what the conventional approach to pH is, what it’s accused of doing, some ideas on how pH actually works in the soil and should have impressed upon you the notion that pH is hardly what it’s made out to be. There’s a claim that “good plant growth” can’t be assured unless you fix your pH, but I counter that notion and state that this assurance can only come from appropriate soil mineral nutrition.

pH is not a cause… it is an effect.

It is the reflection of the the soil makeup. In our case we want nutrient rich crops growing in fertile soil with the most happy pH of 6.4. This would afford maximum nutrient availability to the plants. If however your pH is too high or too low, the pH is not the cause of poor plant health rather it is sign, a message to you about the state of your soil mineral balance and biological activity. It’s also not the end of your gardening career if you can’t achieve the perfect reading, many native soils can be difficult to impossible to move very far. If you can’t get your pH into the ideal range experiments have shown that if a plant’s roots have access to adequate nutrients and there is no toxicity then pH makes little difference. Therein lies the crux of the problem, availability of nutrients is the limiting factor, not pH. A strongly acid or alkaline soil may be a sign that soil nutrition is in bad shape, but that can be mitigated by excellent biology.

vinesCalcium lime is not the only material that can raise the pH either, so can magnesium, sodium, carbon and potassium. Likewise sulfur is not the only mineral that will lower the pH, so will phosphorous and chlorine. On your typical farm, the heavy use of salt fertilizers creates a situation of rising pH levels, where calcium is not then being applied, resulting in a calcium deficient soil, followed by cascading nutrient failures and greater and greater problems. In your garden things could be different, or very similar, with over application of dolomite lime creating a magnesium problem, or an over application of compost/manure creating phosphorus or potassium imbalance achieving the same situation. Poor nutrient availability to the plant leads to poor plant health leads to disease and insect attack and a low quality nutrient poor product.

In my own garden space I had just this case. A slightly high pH with a soil mineral matrix that included naturally excessive magnesium and potassium, little calcium and several years of over zealous applications of manure and compost that intensified the imbalance. It was the perfect situation for induced plant stress, low quality vegetables and rampant weed problems… much to my dismay. Had I followed the conventional thinking, organic or not, a little bit of sulfur would have been applied along with more compost. Net result would have been an ever worsening change in the soil, including increasing soil compaction and no improvement whatsoever to produce quality.

What about the idea that certain plants prefer a soil within a particular pH range? For example blue berries are thought to prefer an acid soil of 5.5 to 6.5, alfalfa from 6.5-7.5 and corn and wheat from 6.5-7.0. Studies in plant nutrition and available calcium have shown the truth of the matter (Soil Acidity as Calcium (Fertility) Deficiency Albrecht), when there is sufficient calcium for good growth then pH as low as 4.5 can grow a great crop. And since low pH soils are usually limed with calcium it erroneously leads one to think that pH makes a difference. Even the nitrogen fixing abilities of certain soil bacteria on legumes only works effectively when there is sufficient available calcium in the soil regardless of the pH.

Interestingly there is an alternative way to understand pH that makes a lot of sense. Recall from the last article I introduced the idea of positively charged ions called cations, and negatively charged ions called anions. What’s the importance of this? It’s that pH is a measurement of electrical resistance in the soil. Thus a pH reading of 7 means that there is an equal amount of resistance between the cation and anion charges. A high pH indicates there is too much electrical resistance in the soil, causing a restriction in energy-nutrient flow to the plant, while a low pH indicates that there is too little resistance causing an overload of energy-nutrient flow. Keep this idea in mind as in the future we will discuss this in more detail and how we can use electrical conductivity to monitor and improve upon plant nutrient uptake.

So instead of working to adjust your pH, it’s more essential to manage the factors that construct the soil pH. A very fertile soil for high nutrient and energy production is a living biological system and must must be carefully balanced for the needs of the soil microorganism via an equilibrium of pH, soil minerals, energy, physical conditions and organic substances. Without this balance, the potential for plant nutrition and soil building erodes.

Remember then, that pH is a consequence of soil nutrient and biological interactions, it is not a cause of anything. pH can however be a useful gauge for you to monitor how various nutrients and other substances you apply are interacting with your soil. It is not however to be used to determine what nutrient, mineral or compound to apply to the soil. That should only be done after you have carefully reviewed all the factors that contribute to excellent soil fertility.

~Sean

Favorite Seed Sources

All together I grow upwards of 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers each year. The majority are certainly heirloom varieties, but I do grow some modern hybrids if I believe it offers something unique to the garden. Recall that my space is French Potager themed and we are always on the look out for the most attractive vegetables. I do always avoid growing anything that I can commonly get in a grocery store. This is not because store varieties don’t have something to offer, but that I am more interested in expanding my diet and discovering new flavor and textures. In terms of nutrient dense gardening, there is much more to consider here as well.butterfly

Many people believe that heirlooms are more nutritious than non-heirlooms but I think that’s hardly the case. It’s true that the genetics of an heirloom variety may contain higher amounts of certain phytonutrients as was made abundantly clear in Jo Robinson’s recent book “Eating on the Wild Side”. It is however equally likely that a modern hybrid can contain higher amounts of other phytonutrients. A hybrid grown in nutrient dense soil will outperform an heirloom grown in average soil, and vice versa.

In regards to genetics of heirloom plants, DNA only defines how the plant should be made, but it’s the environment that dictates the materials available for the construction. Think of the story of the three little pigs comparing the straw house to the brick house, they’re both houses but clearly one is more robust than the other.

Heirloom varieties are also generally more demanding of good soil nutrition, where commercial varieties were bred to withstand the nutrient poor and biologically devastated soils of the typical conventional farm. If your soil lacks energy, you will actually get a better response from hybrids than from heirlooms but be prepared to provide them with extra support as they will be sick.

Seed quality also makes an important impact in getting a good nutrient dense product. Low health plants will produce low health seeds that lack the rare minerals needed for maximum early plant health and reduced seedling stress. Poor seed is less dense, weighs less, smaller in size, less likely to germinate and is more susceptible to pathogenic attack. At this time I know of no commercial source that sells consistently high test weight seeds. Your best bet is to save the seed from your own quality plantings.seedpackets

I also only purchase untreated organic seed. To me, any plant that needed chemical support is a poor candidate for your garden. Non-organic seeds  are also sometimes treated with chemicals to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungus. This is because seedlings from these are in such poor health that they easily succumb to pathogenic attack. You cannot grow a nutrient dense product without the support of the soil microorganisms, so killing them is not recommended.

Lastly, I am located in eastern Washington and getting locally produced seed is always wise. This has two clear benefits. The first being that you’re supporting your local economy and not the economic interests of a pile of shareholders who could care less about your garden, and the second is that many of the seeds are already acclimated to the nuances of your particular climate. I encourage you to find some companies located near you too.

Seed sources I frequently use in the US Pacific Northwest, in no particular order:

And here are some others that I use, also in no particular order:

~Sean

Indoor Seed Starting

A few people have asked me about seed starting indoors and now is the time to do it.  My setup is quite large and allows me to have 32 seed flats under lights at one time. It’s composed of two stainless steel shelving units, 16 shop lights and 32 bulbs. Remember I have 10,000 square feet of vegetables, herbs and flowers to grow. I certainly didn’t buy all of this at one time either, instead I started with just a shelf and two shop lights and slowly grew it as the need arose. For your average small garden space of one or two hundred square feet, then a single shelf and two to four seed trays may be more than sufficient for vegetables, herbs and some extra flowers for the front yard.

My first year at gardening I quickly realized that purchasing plant starts can rapidly get out of hand, particularly if you kill your tomatoes like I did. I haven’t purchased a seedling since. The store’s vegetable starts are also frequently problematic with poor nutrition, chemical fertilizers, poisonous pesticide and fungicides, reduced or missing biological life and nearly always a poor root mass. Even the ones growing in those peat pots can struggle particularly if the biology isn’t functioning. Besides, growing from seed is far more satisfying and the variety of plants you can grow is exponentially more. And, if you’re like me and want high quality nutrient dense food a biologically dead soil isn’t going to do it for you. Additionally, depending upon how many starts you were going to buy, the cost of your indoor setup at least will pay for itself on your first year. My setup has probably paid for itself ten times over by now. As for the electric bill, it hardly budged, the lamp in your living room consumes more energy then a whole shop light.

lights

My lights are setup in a previously unused space in the basement were the temperatures are usually about 65 or 70 f. This is optimal germination temperature for just about all seeds. However, for seeds that need more warmth like peppers, tomatoes and celery, I use a seedling heating mat until they germinate, then remove the mat as the extra warmth is only needed to induce germination not plant growth. My wife would like me to find a couple of lemon trees so perhaps next winter I will buy a high powered grow light for the trees if I have enough money. Be aware that my description here is for standard fluorescent bulbs, not expensive high power grow lights that would burn your plants at the two inch distance I recommend here.

What about growing in the window sill? It certainly does work, but plant stress can significantly effect your outcome. At least in my area, most winter and spring weather means clouds more often than not and I don’t even have a suitable south facing window to use, or 32 of them, that isn’t at least partially obscured by trees. Outdoor greenhouse growing can work well too but you have to me much more careful about temperature swings, heating when its too cold and ventilation when its too hot.

lights2

Here is a detailed description of my setup. There are certainly many ways to accomplish this but I have had a lot of success with this one:

  1. Shelving. I use a stainless steel shelving unit picked up from a big box store. It’s four foot wide and deep enough that I can place four seed flats width-wise per shelf. It contains 5 total shelves, I use only the bottom four for the lights and the top for storage.
  2. Four foot long T5 shop light with a reflective back cover and holds at least two bulbs. One shop light is sufficient for two flats per shelf, but two shop lights will allow you to have four flats per shelf.
  3. Two s-hooks to hang each light from their short chains to the shelf above it. You can then easily adjust the height of the lights using the links of the chain.
  4. Two standard 32 W 5000K sunshine fluorescent bulbs for each shop light. I compared these to similar specially designed (marketed) grow lights and the only difference I could identify was these are 1/4 the cost.
  5. Electrical timer. I set this to run for 16 hours, turning on at 6:00 AM and off at 10:00 PM.
  6. Once your seed trays are in place, adjust the height of each light so it is about two inches above your plants. As the plants grow slowly raise the lights so they are always a little above them.

Now bask in the glow of your growing accomplishments.

~Sean

Soil Blocks: the Building Blocks of Life

Within the first few days of seed germination the maximum yield for your vegetable plant has already been determined. From that point on any and all types of stress that the plant sustains has a direct impact upon your harvest, be it from the weather, nutrients, water, chickens, children, insects, cloudy days, etc. Thus any effort you make to increase your yield in reality is an effort made to decrease your loss of yield. As garden manager, your role then is to identify ways to reduce plant stress at every possible stage to ensure a bounteous crop of nutrient rich food.

blockerThe place to start your plant stress reduction strategies is during seeding, actually it starts with seed selection but that’s for another time. I quickly learned during my first year of indoor seed starting that there was a trick to accomplishing this successfully. First, it didn’t take me long to realized that I was going to have to replace all my black plastic seedling flats every single year, they sure make those things cheap. It also just pains me to have to buy the same thing over and over again year after year, but what other options were available? A little bit of online research revealed to me another method and no more plastic cells and pots. Instead, the pot can be made of the soil itself, soil blocks!

With soil blocks, my young plants grew more vigorously and were highly resistant to the stress of transplant shock. Also, the seedling roots no longer spiraled out of control at the bottom of the cell or pot, but instead upon hitting the outside air the roots will check their own growth and then shoot off again after transplanting. Additionally, losses due to transplant shock were very rare with almost 100% transplant success. There are however a few new concerns. First, you have to be more careful with watering, the extra soil surface area dry’s out a little faster, but that’s easily managed. The other thing is that it’s more time consuming to build the blocks, but this is one area you can have a big impact on plant stress and its worth the extra time, besides its still winter and it gives me something enjoyable to do.

If you want to try soil blocks here is my method, there are many variations so don’t think this is the only way:

  1. soilblocksPick up the soil blocker of your choice off the internet, you can even find directions for making your own. I purchased a 4-cell two inch block maker and it will last me a lifetime of use.
  2. Pick up several higher quality leak proof seedling flats, still black plastic but reusable every year. Naturally they cost a little more, but the price makes up for itself after only one year. Whatever trays you use its important that they do not leak. All the trays I bought from the big box store’s were junk.
  3. Pick up an equal number of black plastic flats that are perforated, or just melt some extra holes into the ones you were going to throw away from last year. The flats I found at my local seed store were exactly that.
  4. Insert the perforated flat into the leek proof flat. When you want to water your blocks gently pull the top tray out, add water to the bottom tray and reinsert the top tray. Always bottom water your soil blocks.
  5. Make your block mixture. There is a trick to this, if you use the wrong materials, not enough water, or too much water then your blocks may not work out. I use about 80% soil less seed starting mixture, 10% high quality worm castings, 5% rock dust, 5% kelp meal and a bacteria/fungal biological inoculation. Mix with water to the right consistency and start making your blocks.
  6. Space the blocks on your trays so there is at least a 1/2 inch of space between them.
  7. Drop your seed of choice into the small hole at the top. Then for most seeds I take a pinch of the soil less mixture and cover the seed, followed with a squirt from the spray bottle to dampen it.
  8. Cover with a clear plastic dome to create a moist environment and wait for germination.
  9. Drink a nice glass of wine to celebrate your hard work and reduce your own stress.

~Sean