The wisdom of planting seeds in soil blocks

We planted 300 seeds today and I’m feeling more relaxed about how much we have to do around here. I know, it’s only March 18th and here in eastern Ontario it felt like June today (and will do so all week, apparently). Eliot Coleman’s methods have been working their way more and more into our gardening (read ‘wannabe farming’), the latest being our approach to planting seeds for crops that we will later transplant out into the garden or our unheated greenhouse.

Mixing peat and soil for soil blocks

Soil blocks are a revelation: they remove the need for any kind of storage container, as the formed blocks are both container and soil. This comes with a raft of advantages to the growing plant, to the environment and to the grower. More about soil blocks explained by Eliot Coleman here. There is a good video with similar soil block information here on Jason Beam’s site (we bought our 4 by 2-inch soil blocker from him).

We were ready with our seed selections for the year, having ordered our seeds at the end of January. On Friday our soil block maker arrived in the post and we went out to purchase peat and and a soil/sand mix to combine for our planting material. By today, we were ready to plant, and our youngest got in on the action. He loves to learn how to use new equipment and he stayed with the project for the first out of five trays that we planted (the sand box called its siren song at that point!).

Young boy using soil block maker

We had a ‘first go’ a few times in order to get the consistency right (the soil mixture needs to be pretty wet).

Young boy practising using a soil blocker for planting seeds

The blocker that we purchased makes four blocks at a time, and our trays hold 40 blocks altogether; multiply that by five trays and you get 200 blocks. For certain crops, Coleman advocates creating ‘multiplant blocks’, which means deliberately planting multiple seeds in a single block. These won’t be thinned later; instead, these are crops that are supposed to grow well in tight proximity, and this method cuts down on transplation effort and shock, as well as garden space. These crops include: cabbage, cucumber, squashes, peas, turnips, leeks and onions, beets, melons and spinach (all of which we planted), as well as corn and broccoli (which we didn’t).

Seed planting trays filled with soil blocks

In addition to the multiplant crops, we also planted about a dozen varieties of tomato (I want to do a whole post on those), pumpkins, kale, chard, lettuces and salad greens, herbs and even some English lavender (the one non-edible crop).

Seed planting tray with seed packets

The one part of Coleman’s method that doesn’t sit entirely right with us is his preference to leave most newly planted seeds uncovered; he maintains that the oxygen circulation boosts germination success and that seeds should not be covered by even a little soil unless the instructions from the seed grower expressly demand this step. I’m willing to put a lot of faith into Coleman’s methods, as he is so clearly successful, his explanations are always fully detailed and very sound, and he’s farming in the same latitude that we are (if not exactly the same conditions). In the past couple of years I’ve failed to have leeks grow from seed, and if they work this year using Coleman’s method, I’ll be a convert by a thousand-fold (if they fail but we have good general success with most of our other crops, I’ll hardly withhold my approval!).

Seed planting trays on shelves in window

This year we have also got to grips with how best to position our newly seeded blocks for the coming weeks: we now have simple shelves placed directly into two windows that sit on either side of a set of glass doors out to our back garden. This way they are out of the way and get the best possible sun exposure from these south-facing windows. It would be nice to have glass shelves here some day, but the scrap wood was no-cost and does the trick just fine. Now we water, watch and wait (and organize our other seeds for direct sowing once the ground has fully warmed up, as well as our plans for succession planting).

11 thoughts on “The wisdom of planting seeds in soil blocks

  1. Great post; thanks. We’ve had mixed results with the commercial soil blocks, but the method you are using seems much more successful. Like Coleman, we covered ours, but only for a couple of days until they germinated, and then off came the covers. We love your window set-up…we just use the kitchen counter!

    1. Crossing our fingers and we’ll certainly share how we do with this. Remembering to keep these sweeties moist all the time will be more challenging, as you know how they are more prone to drying out, but I think it seems worth the extra TLC. I like the sound of the kitchen counter – I could never forget in that scenario! Have the dogs ever interfered with them?!

      1. The dogs never interfere, but last summer Alexander the cat ate two entire trays of seedlings. Now, we put up a barrier to keep him out.

  2. The little shelves in your window are the best thing I’ve ever seen. I MAY have to steal that idea from you to get some of my little plants a bit more light than they are currently getting in my apartment.

    1. I would be so flattered if you did take this idea and run with it for your own place – I’m wishing we’d thought of it sooner! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. We had a veggie share one summer from a farm east of Ottawa. We got to go out and visit and make the soil cubes! It was incredible to “play” with the dirt and figure out the right consistency and then plant a seed in each cube! That blocker contraption is so much fun!

    1. I had no idea – that makes me laugh, as we’re hardly experts! The multi-seed soil blocking has been pretty good overall, though there are some crops where we find we prefer a small container, particularly tomatoes (the blocks don’t provide the support needed by plants that can get somewhat leggy before going into the ground). The leeks? Sadly, I still have had absolutely zero success with leeks. I didn’t bother trying last year, feeling quite put out, but I cook with leeks so much that I must try again. What methods do you prefer for your seedlings?

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