Soil blocker cubes held together with gelatin. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Mastering the soil blocker gizmo

I start these seeds in pots inside, right about now, along with a host of other seeds

By Mary Lowther

If we want to grow heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, we can try to sow them in the garden and hope that summer will be long enough for the crops to produce. Maybe some summers will fill the bill, but just to ensure I’ll get a good crop, I start these seeds in pots inside, right about now, along with a host of other seeds.

When I’ve sown crops like onions, cabbage and lettuce directly in the garden at this time of year — early spring — sow bugs and slugs come on like gangbusters, chewing the life out of every sprouting seed, so I’ve learned to start them inside. I’m hoping my feathered pals whose friendships I’ve been cultivating this winter will repay me by eating these insect eggs but I want to make sure I’m going to get a harvest.

I re-use plastic cells until they finally fall apart but there’s a fancy soil-blocker gizmo I bought years ago that sits on my shelf, looking good, admonishing me, wondering why I haven’t figured it out. I really hate giving up on something that other gardeners swear by until I’ve tried everything possible to make it work. In the past the soil blocks mushed together after a few waterings, leaving a flat mess of potting soil and seeds that were a pain in the tuchus to sort out.

Gardening guru Eliot Coleman says: “Roots grow throughout the block of soil up to the edges and wait, poised to continue growing as soon as they’re set into the garden, instead of circling around the walls and becoming root bound as they do if grown in regular containers.” Now isn’t that a lovely way to put it? If he thinks they’re so great then a mere backyard gardener like me ought to copy him and make the blasted thing work this year. Surely I’ve been doing something wrong if it works so well for people like Mr. Coleman.

And I’ve had a brilliant idea. My soil needs to hold together better so it needs some sort of gelling mixture. Why not gelatin?

Here’s my recipe and we’ll see how well it works:

1 packet Knox gelatin

2 cups water

8 quarts potting soil

2 cups coir (coconut fibre)

Soil blocker gizmo

Gelatinize the water according to the packet instructions and add it, along with the coir, to the potting soil. Mix it all up thoroughly and give it a half hour to soak. Press the block-maker into the mix with a quick push, followed by a twisting motion when it hits the bottom of the container. Then lift the block-maker, set it into the tray and eject the blocks with the plunger. You can use a regular flat tray or any rectangular container. Place one or two seeds into the centre hole and lightly cover with a dusting of moistened coir or peat moss to inhibit damping off.

One thing I had forgotten was where to put the labels indicating which seeds are where. I’ve laid them down beside each line of blocks and hope that I don’t accidentally move them. That’s a big problem and I’ll need to take special care.

I’ll still use plastic cells for most of my seedlings with potting soil I made last fall and label everything with the date and variety. These labels travel with the plants through re-potting and out into the garden so I use indelible markers.

I water seedlings with a solution of one tablespoon of liquid fish fertilizer to a two-gallon watering can of water. I push larger seedlings into the potting soil and let smaller ones sit on the surface before I dust them all with sifted coir, sand or diatomaceous earth. I water my flats from the bottom because the water flows up to the seeds by capillary action and besides, the lights are only two inches above the seedlings and moving the light every time I want to water gets pretty tiresome.

I cover each flat with Remay to keep out the nasties like cabbage moth which will be here as soon as it warms up enough to open up the doors. Lots of great work and delicious food ahead!

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

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