It gets expensive purchasing vegetable transplants from your local store. Especially when you are farming on a larger scale. In addition, there really isn’t a great assortment of vegetables when purchased in that form.
We grow Organic, mostly Heirloom vegetable varieties that you can only purchase by seed. Organic for the health value and Heirloom for the amazing flavor! So we grow our plants from seed indoors.
At first we bought plastic trays and plastic pots and found it to be too much plastic for our environmental view. It was also bulky and took a lot space. We had 4 shelves full of trays with heat pads, and lights overhead on each shelf.
We quickly found just reusing a few trays with small soil blocks and no plastic pots was a way to save money, time, electricity and it uses less seedling starting mix. It also results in less plastic in the landfill. We saved the pots we already purchased in case we have a streak of bad weather and have no choice but to repot the soil blocks into the bigger pots.
You can buy soil block makers in a variety of sizes. We bought the smallest one. The larger ones allow the smaller blocks to fit inside the new, larger block the next size up. So you could theoretically start with the smallest blocks then transplant them twice into larger blocks until you have quart size plant.
We only grow our starts for 3 weeks which seems to be exactly when the roots of the seedling fills the small block. We plant outside at that time. If the weather is bad, we transplant the seedlings to small pots, which we had to do this year with our basil.
Best of all we are able to plant almost twice as many seedlings in a tray. We get close to 80 plants out of one tray now.
See how we make our soil blocks on the farm’s YouTube Channel:
Because of our short growing season, there are some plants that will not mature fast enough to produce anything within before the snow comes. Those are the plants we grow inside and transplant outside. Those include herbs, celery, tomatoes, peppers and our newest try, Luffa.
We started the luffa almost 8 weeks in advance because they need well over 200 days of growing season. They grew so big we had to transplant them twice into larger pots. Now they are in quart size containers and in order to acclimate them to outside they get a wagon ride outside and back inside every day.
The tomatoes and peppers are still tiny but after 3-4 weeks they will be ready to go into the ground. Covered in a tunnel of course. Continuing with the plan to extend the season!
There are a lot of seeds in the ground already too. They are starting to pop through the surface! Get a look at the seedlings on the farm’s YouTube Channel:
We immediately planted all the seeds once the beds were ready. We did not want to lose any time since we have such a short growing season. The picture shows a new tactic we’re taking to prevent the birds from eating the peas this year. We hooped some fencing over the planted area as a deterrent. It would require a desperate bird to work it’s way through the fence to even realize what type of plants they are. There is plenty of greener plants around to peak their interest. Spoiler alert….it worked!
Next, the lettuce seedlings came up quickly. Since we never use weed block fabric on the lettuce rows it’s also the beginning of weed pulling! Be honest. Take a look at this picture. Can you tell me which are weeds and which are the lettuce? No? And this is why the woman of the house is stuck weeding the lettuce and root vegetables until they are 2 inches tall!
Beets and carrots take longer to surface. We hand water the carrots in particular as soil dries quickly here, seeds are shallow and they seem to take forever to take a hold and leaf out. Unfortunately they initially look like blades of thin grass. Another reason the man of the house will never weed the carrots this young. Bean seeds come up quickly and we can use weed block since they grow farther apart. Luckily another reduction of manual labor. We try to minimize it as much as possible. In the next few weeks we will be able to bring out the transplants we have been growing inside. Until then we have hand watering and weeding to do!
Finally the winter is over so we are ready to plant! Some of the transplants we had inside for weeks were starting to get too big and leggy. We had already been acclimating them to the weather by taking them outside and bringing them in when it got too cold. We are so happy we didn’t take a risk and plant them before Memorial Day when we experienced a late freeze. It would have been devastating to lose almost 1000 seedlings! You can almost depend on a snow storm in late May every year. It’s just hard to predict when the last one will be. Next year we are going to do row covers to allow us to plant earlier, hopefully.
The last seedlings planted were cucumbers you see in the picture. They are the perfect size and should do well. The expansion requires so many more plants it’s going to take a lot more time. So armed with gloves, a shovel, a knee pad and a bag of compost, we spent 3 days planting seedling. We always grow extra because not all transplants will survive. When one dies you plant a spare. We found the black fabric absorbed so much heat that we lost more transplants than usual.
The only transplant that did not do well was the beans. They were too leggy and fell over in the first rain. Luckily we had plenty of seeds and re-planted, a little late but they came up quickly and did just fine.
Due to the drought and the heat absorbing black fabric, we had to hand water the seedlings until their roots grew long enough to reach the subsurface drip tape. It was an added step but once they reached their water source they grew quickly.
I can’t wait to see how much produce we get out of this new expansion!
One of the things that has always bothered us is how much plastic we use when growing seedlings. We usually grow in the standard 72 cell 6 pack trays. What if you could plant your seedlings without using all that plastic? Well, you can with a tool called a soil block maker. This year we decided to buy one, and just reuse our trays to hold the blocks and stop using the plastic 6 packs. Although our original intent was environmental and cost, we were surprised to find a few added benefits.
There are multiple soil block makers out there. They are basically molds you fill with very moist soil to form planting cell without the plastic to hold the sides together. It also leaves an indentation to place your seed. After you place your seeds in the indentation, you sprinkle a little soil on top and water. I’ve heard you can also use the soil right out of your garden. This is supposed to result in less of a shock to the plant on transplant since the medium is the same. Not purchasing seed starting soil can also save you money if you are on a small budget.
We were planting tomatoes at the time of transitioning between our last 6 pack insert and the first tray of soil blocks. The last tomato tray was planted 3 days before we started planting in the soil blocks so those plants had a 3 day head start. The first benefit we found was we could fit more plants in the trays, and the seedlings have more soil than the 6 packs allowed. The second benefit was the soil blocks germinated faster and at higher rate. Every soil block germinated. They are also growing faster than the ones in the inserts regardless of the 3 day head start! I took a picture of the side by side comparison.
The only downsides to this new method we’ve been able to see so far is you have to get the consistency of the soil just right or the block will break apart. You also have to water very carefully so you don’t erode the soil. A lesser issue…I like to plant multiple varieties in a single tray while I’m testing which varieties sell best. Without plastic walls there is no way to keep a plant marker standing upright in the tray. Not a big problem but it annoys me.
All in all I’m excited to see the end results on transplanting. I’ll give you an update then!
See a demonstration of the soil block maker starting our first tray on the 5280 Artisan Farm YouTube Channel: