soil blocks

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Chris here.  I’m going to be honest and confess that for the last month or two, I have mostly been dreading the enormous amount of work I know is ahead of us in starting a farm from scratch for the second time.  I had a wonderful experience with the CSA last year.  It was exciting, fun, and rewarding, but it was a whole lot of work.  I guess it has sort of been like that last month of summer before school starts back up.  Sure, there’s a lot to look forward to, but all you can think about is the monotony, the homework, and the alarm clock that will be waking you up every morning.  I think I turned a corner on Saturday.

On Saturday, my mom came out with a friend, and we planted our first seeds.  Over 1500 of them.  There’s something about having seeds in the ground (well, in soil blocks) that has renewed my excitement.  It feels like there’s life in this project again.  Now we get to anticipate the first sprouts.  We get to see things go from tiny seed to fruit-bearing plants.  We aren’t just abstractly imagining a productive farm in this place, we physically have seeds to tend and plants to expect.  We can estimate what we’ll have to harvest and when we’ll have it.  This isn’t just an idea that promises to bring with it a boatload of work, it’s seeds in the ground.  It’s exciting.

We’ve decided to try something new this year.  Last year we direct seeded everything except for a handful of tomatoes.  This year, we are going to try to start as much as we possibly can in our greenhouse using soil blocks.  What are soil blocks?  Well, they’re blocks of soil.  Mixing peat moss, compost, soil, sand, and a few soil-amending minerals, we are creating a soil mixture that can maintain it’s shape in blocks without the need of any sort of mold, plastic or otherwise.  Our plants will have an ideal environment for early growth, so they’ll get off to strong starts which will help them avoid disease, fight off pests, and be more productive. When the time comes, they can be planted straight into the ground.  The soil mix will help fertilize our topsoil, the plants will have a head start on the weeds, and we’ll be able to avoid the gaps we had in our rows last year due to inconsistent germination.  All good, right?  We’ll let you know how it goes.

On Saturday, we started this whole process.  We followed a recipe from Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, and made our soil mix.

We mixed a little lime into our peat moss

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then added compost, sand, and topsoil

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We added a few other minerals, and then began to add water to get it to the pasty consistency we needed to form our blocks.  This was the only snag we hit as our initial attempt to pour water all over the pile just resulted in water rolling off of the soil and going everywhere but where we wanted it to go.  Fortunately, I spent a large part of a summer in El Salvador hand-mixing concrete, and we were able to take advantage of what I learned – build a mountain with the material (concrete mix/soil), open up the center like a volcano, pour water in, and throw material from the bottom of the volcano into the water pit, throwing a shovel-full of material at any leaks that pop up.  Worked perfectly.

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From there, it was just a matter of getting the feel for our soil blockers, and we had row after row of shaped blocks, each block with a hole in the middle begging for a seed.  In a week or so, we should see green poking out of the tops of these blocks, and we’ll be on our way!

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