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Tomatoes: Soil Block Saga

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

March 30, 2010
2:35 PM

Post #7667736

I promised, in http://davesgarden.com/community/forums/t/1081858/, to document using soil blocks this year instead of so much plastic.

So . . . here it begins.

1. Sifting

I don't have a lot of time today, but I want to get my seeds started by the weekend.

For making the micro-blocks (which are approximately 3/4-inch cubes), it's recommended that the mix be sifted through a 1/4-inch screen. This is to remove any pieces of material large enough to keep the little blocks from compacting properly. (If they don't compress correctly, it seems that they'll more easily fall apart.) Fortunately, I have both 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch sieves for my soil sifter.

It's a nice day, the warmest we've had so far this year (76 degrees at 4:21 PM), but it's windy--10 to 15 mph from the south, gusting to 30. The potting shed is 75 feet west and hasn't been made ready for the season yet, so I set up a "sifting station" up close to the southwest corner of the house. The garage helps break the wind.

I want 900 of those little blocks. The math says that, allowing for compacting by 2-1/2 to 3 times, I'll need between 1/2 to 2/3 cubic foot of mix. Since the unused stuff can always go back in the bag, I'll go for about a cubic foot. If I fill one of the green tubs about 7 to 8 inches deep, that should be enough.

Sifting takes less time than setting up to do it. I use the plastic coffee container as a scoop.

The Pro-Mix has a very fine texture. The only thing left behind on the screen are clumps, soft little clods up to about an inch in diameter, and they break up easily into very fine mix, but it's faster just to shake the sifter and dump the clods in the other tub before returning them to the bag. With this mix, at least, the sifting step can probably be skipped.

Tomorrow:

Adding water and playing in the mud to make the micro-blocks!

This message was edited Apr 21, 2010 7:28 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

March 31, 2010
4:08 PM

Post #7670297

"Houston, we've had a problem"

I thought I'd be playing in the mud today, making oodles of micro-blocks, but . . . where the heck am I going to put them? Diagnosis: Cart before the horse.

2. Preparing some trays for micro-blocks

I want gentle heat for germination, the ability to bottom-water, and to use my Perma-Nest trays.

Putting a Perma-Nest tray on top of a Hydrofarm heat mat doesn't work. I tried it in my shop: The long "ribs" and six "feet" on the bottom of the tray raise most of its bottom surface 1/4 inch above the mat, largely defeating the mat's purpose. Aha!--I'll put the mat inside the tray! But what about water? The Hydrofarm web site says the mats are "waterproof", but the mats themselves are imprinted with dire warnings: "Place the mat on a well drained surface (without standing water)"; "Do not place mat inside tray or cover directly with soil or growing medium. . . . DO NOT IMMERSE IN WATER."

A call to Hydrofarm technical support doesn't help much. Yes, I'm told, the mats are "waterproof", meaning you can spill water on them and it won't hurt them. (C'mon, guys, there is a difference between "waterproof" and "water-resistant".) I don't have time to test "waterproof-ness", but I have plenty of mats, so what the heck.

First, I arranged the mat's cord so it wouldn't lift or shift the mat. A relief loop and duct tape on the bottom of the tray accomplish this. (I believe that even the Titanic could have been saved if they'd had duct tape.) Then I slipped the heat mat into a thin plastic bag and folded the excess bag over and tucked it under.

Then I added a 3/8-inch layer of clean, fine sand, about 5 cups for each tray. The sand should make the heat distribution more even and allow water to move through the interstices to be wicked up by the blocks.

Three prepared trays (named "X", "Y", and "Z") are on the garage workbench with the heat mats plugged in. I'll check them periodically, measure the temperature, and even add some water.

With luck, tomorrow I'll start making the blocks.

(Yes, 900 micro-blocks will fit in three trays, with some room to spare at the water/relief loop end of each.)

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

March 31, 2010
7:09 PM

Post #7670718

russ

I'm kinda with ya on your thinking of the heat mat being underneath... but oh so worried... I hope these won't be in your house just in case...

Looking forward to hearing how it goes with making the 900. so if you water in bottom what will keep the blocks from crumbling..?

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

March 31, 2010
10:06 PM

Post #7671101

meadowyck wrote:I hope these won't be in your house just in case. . . . so if you water in bottom what will keep the blocks from crumbling..?

Not to worry, Janet; they're in the garage for testing. Seed-starting got kicked out of the guest room after last year, so it's the garage and my portable greenhouse.

The most common way to water micro-blocks appears to be by misting. With the growing medium so highly compressed, I don't think they can crumble if they don't dry out--at least, that's what I've read and been told. But this is also a good trial run before bottom-watering the 2-inch blocks I'll be using next.

This message was edited Apr 5, 2010 3:24 PM

meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 1, 2010
6:26 AM

Post #7671513

Will be watching with a lot of interest and hope all trials go well for you.

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 1, 2010
6:06 PM

Post #7673075

Don't you hate it when work interferes with your hobbies?

Once again, I expected to make my micro-blocks today . . . but a client had a technical emergency, so there went most of the day. It's been said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans."

It's not an entire loss, though. In fact, I'll take advantage of it.

2a. Testing the heat mats in the trays

As of when the photograph was made, the heat mats in all three prepared trays have been running for about 28 hours. The sand is palpably warmer to the touch and is now nicely dry. It feels as if it will provide a good pediment for the blocks. The mats are intended to keep the temperature about 10 to 20 degrees above ambient.

But . . . it was warm (high 70s) yesterday and warmer (low 80s) today. It's supposed to be a lot cooler tomorrow (mid 50s). I'll go ahead and let everything run until tomorrow afternoon and measure the dry sand temperatures two or three times after this evening.

Update, April 2

It's not quite noon. Outside, it's 57 degrees and trying to rain. It's 60 in the garage. The sandy surface in the trays measures anywhere from 79 to 83 degrees.

This message was edited Apr 2, 2010 11:34 AM

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 2, 2010
12:44 PM

Post #7674674

looking forward to reading about your trials...

Janet

RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 2, 2010
3:12 PM

Post #7674992

For early April, it's a nice March day: Partly cloudy, breezy (ENE 8 mph, gusting to 28), mid 60s, about 0.04 inch of rain this morning. But the forecast is for lows in the mid 30s for the next couple nights.

Playing in the mud (or playing in the wet soilless medium, which doesn't sound as fun) . . .

3. Making micro-blocks

As you see in the photograph, I put everything on a large, black plastic tray that once was part of a dog kennel (crate). I save odd things . . .

There's the big green tub of sifted mix from 1 above, some plastic bags, 2-quart measure graduated in half-cups, small pink washpan (probably from a hospital visit), one-pound loaf pan filled with water, large tweezers, wooden spoon, the blocker (red trim), a scraper (actually the bottom from the kitchen box grater--you could use a 4- or 6-inch scraper from the hardware store), and a prepared tray.

In that partly-filled tray, along with 200 blocks, there is also one lone block next to a shiny new penny for scale.

First, I must wet the mix. The consistency recommended is of "cooked oatmeal" or of "peanut butter", which to me don't seem the same. But I'll not take time out to make oatmeal, nor shall I reach into the peanut butter jar, be it smooth or chunky.

I start with 3 quarts (12 cups) of mix and, mostly by guess, add 1 quart (4 cups) of warm water, then mix it with the spoon. A suggested test is squeezing a handful of wet mix to see if the resulting clod holds its shape. It does, but it seems to fall apart easily, so I add another cup of water, bringing the water up to 5 cups. This sticks together and, in my hand, "feels" about right.

In some articles, the wet mix is called "slurry"; in others, just "slur". Since I know the difference between the nouns slurry and slur, I'll go with slurry. Civil engineers, mining engineers, and petroleum engineers will likely agree.

I try the blocker. Press, press, press into the slurry, each time in a different place (watching to see that water is squeezed out of the top of the blocker's cells), scrape the bottom of the blocker, then eject the blocks. Hey, not bad--nifty, even! I rinse the blocker in the loaf pan and do a couple more. It seems to work best if the slurry is 3 or 4 times the depth of the blocker's sides.

But sometimes blocks are missing! I look in the pan of slurry and, sure enough, a few get left behind, stuck in place when the blocker is lifted out. Solution: After each press, turn (rotate) the blocker slightly (just a few degrees) before lifting--no more "lost" blocks.

The sand in the trays has dried out as a result of testing the trays with the heat mats. Since I don't want dry sand sucking the moisture back out of the blocks, I moisten the sand.

So the procedure is: (1) press, twist, and lift three times to load or "charge" the blocker; (2) scrape the bottom of the blocker; (3) eject the blocks; (4) rinse the blocker and scraper; (5) level the slurry; and repeat as necessary, 20 cute little "blocklets" at a time. This is both faster and easier than it sounds.

The first batch of slurry makes 240 blocks. By a happy coincidence, the loaf pan, three-fourths filled, holds the next 5 cups of ("dirty") water.

Because of the water squeezed out and left behind each time the blocker is charged, each successive batch of slurry mixed is a bit wetter, so at some point, successive batches can begin to be made with only 4 cups of water.

Since I won't be sowing the blocks until tomorrow at the soonest, I keep them from drying out by slipping each entire tray into a plastic bag and taping the end.

From start to finish--collecting all the implements, setting up, experimenting, making 900 blocks, taking notes and photographs, then cleaning up--less than 3 hours, and that included two cigarette breaks.

Side note 1: There is something off, either with my math or my assumptions or the information I was given: I used only about 0.4 cubic foot of the dry, sifted mix, not even the half-cubic-foot minimum I expected. I'll consider this and report back.

Side note 2: Although the blocks seem for now to hold together adequately, I think the mix might benefit from a fractional addition of some kind of longer fiber--perhaps coir?

This message was edited Apr 6, 2010 5:12 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 3, 2010
10:34 AM

Post #7676992

Addressing side note 1:

(You can skip this part without missing much.)

Okay, let's review the math.

One block is about 0.675 inch square at the base, 0.635 inch square at the top, and 0.750 inches tall, so it's not a perfect cube. The cross-section is a trapezoid. It will have the same volume as a shape 0.655 inch square and 0.750 inch tall. 0.655 x 0.655 x 0.750 = 0.322 cubic inch.

For 900 blocks, we'd need 900 x 0.322 = 290 cubic inches or 290 / 1728 = 0.168 cubic foot. (A cubic foot is 1728 cubic inches.)

But the mix is dry and sort of fluffy to start with. We wet it, then compress it three times, squeezing excess water out. If the compression is 2-1/2 times, we'd need 2.5 x 290 = 725 cubic inches or 725 / 1728 = 0.420 cubic foot. If the compression is 3 times, the numbers become 3 x 290 = 870 cubic inches or 870 / 1728 = 0.503 cubic foot.

By my measurement, I actually used about 713 cubic inches of dry mix, about 0.413 cubic foot. Doing the math backwards, that means 713 / 290 = 2.46 compression.

Okay, guess there was nothing wrong with the math after all. 2.46 is close enough to 2-1/2.

Variables:

Material. The type of mix and how moist it already is surely will affect the compression obtained. My first experiments in the garage some weeks back were with Miracle Gro "potting mix" from Home Depot that I had laying around from last year.

Human factor. Pressing harder or not as hard on one or more of the three presses to charge the blocker will affect the apparent compression obtained.

So the most definitive thing that can be said is that a compression of 2.5 is about right for the Pro-Mix that I'm using and for my personal technique in charging the blocker. A rule-of-thumb compression of at least 3 is probably good for planning how much dry mix will be needed, even if it isn't all used, because there will be a point where there is slurry left but not enough to properly charge the blocker because the wet mixture isn't deep enough.

This message was edited Apr 5, 2010 12:42 PM
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 3, 2010
12:34 PM

Post #7677189

4. Labeling the seedlings

Since the micro-blocks are far too small for any conventional labeling method, a different strategy is called for: A "map" for each tray.

I'm using sheets with a primary grid (solid lines) of 3 x 5 = 15 major divisions, each of which is subdivided by a 4 x 5 = 20 secondary grid (dashed lines). 15 x 20 =300 blocks per tray. 300 x 3 trays = 900 blocks.

Working from my color-coded list, I mark off which seeds will be placed where. Mostly, I go alphabetically from front to back, then left to right. Tomatoes go first, filling 2-1/3 trays. The remaining 2/3 of the third tray is peppers (hot, then ornamental, then sweet) and one lonely octet of eggplants.

Obviously, it's important that the trays themselves be labeled and that the front of each tray be marked. Were I really compulsive, I'd label each tray at both ends, then mark "front" and "back". But I'll label just one end and that will always be "front".

I'm not starting identical numbers of all varieties because I need a few more of some, others are comparisons of the same variety's seeds from two or more vendors/trades, and, in a couple cases, I'm starting old seeds.

That took about an hour. Another cup of coffee, a cigarette, and I'll be ready to sow seeds!

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 3, 2010
6:49 PM

Post #7677966

and I thought I was anal about my seed planting...

I love the in depth info on how much pro mix it was going to take... I've done that with mine as well to figure my total cost per plant. Although I will say I believe you are more analytical than I. LOL

I do see that the pressure will most certainly change the compaction of each set of cubes. You can well think you are pressing the same but you never will. That is due to be human and not machine...

I like you color coding idea as I've only been using hang tags for what seed type in what rows.

Thanks for such great detailed info..

can you take a closer picture of the block next to the penny or just even a closer look at the group of blocks together?

Janet
mom2goldens
Carmel, IN
(Zone 5b)

April 3, 2010
8:22 PM

Post #7678217

WOW! Thank you for this detailed account. I've been wondering about soil blocks for some time now, and this answers a lot of my questions. Can't wait to follow your results.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 3, 2010
11:06 PM

Post #7678499

meadowyck wrote: . . . and I thought I was anal about my seed planting . . . Can you take a closer picture of the block next to the penny or just even a closer look at the group of blocks together?

Janet

Janet, I'm an engineer. It's not just something I do, it's something I am!

And, as Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, "If it can't be expressed with mathematics, it's not fact; it's opinion."

I'll do a couple more photos tomorrow, one of a coin or coins with a single block, and one of a group of 20 blocks.

Russ

This message was edited Apr 5, 2010 3:23 PM
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 4, 2010
12:20 AM

Post #7678533

The plastic bag over each tray collected condensation. When I slid a tray out of its bag, everything was nice and moist and smelled wonderfully "earthy", even if no real soil was involved.

5. Sowing to the blocks

In the photograph, you see the work station set up in the garage. It's close to the prepared trays. That way, I didn't have to schlep them down and up the basement stairs. (I was certain that I couldn't get away with using the dining table as I did for 4 above!)

In the background, you see trays Y and Z, still in their moisture-retaining plastic-bag "tents", as well as a hand-pumped spray bottle that I've used only for misting. (I have a different setup for spraying.)

On the table in the foreground, I'm almost halfway through the first tray, X. Tools are: Small, shallow, white, opaque dish so I can see the seeds easily; Landware Pro-Seeder (the thing with the green bulb); seed packet; lamp; stapler and transparent tape for re-closing packets and re-attaching them to their information sheets; the "map" for the tray from 4 above; mechanical pencil; pocketknife (used as staple remover, seed envelope opener, and for emergency seed retrieval); and the soil sieve, used as the "in" basket for the seeds before they're sown. (The "out" box, for after, is out of the photograph on a shelf on the right.)

Following the chart, I work from bottom to top, first on the left four columns, then the middle four, then the right four. As I do, I add notes to the chart given vendor/source and a tick mark to show that I've finished a given variety.

The two little objects on the right and front edges of the tray are common binder clips, available at any office supply. I move them to help me keep track of where I am in the tray, in case I'm interrupted (which happened several times).

The Landware Pro-Seeder is one of the best little gadgets I've encountered. Learning to use it takes only a few minutes of hands-on practice. More about it here: http://www.groworganic.com/item_GSE500_Landware_Pro_Seeder.html?welcome=T&theses=7071926
It's very similar to an expensive little tool in my shop that I use for picking up and placing tiny surface-mount electronic parts.

Using the largest tip (0.5 millimeter), I squeeze the bulb, touch the tip to a seed, and partially release the bulb. The seed is sucked up against the tip. Hold the seed over the dimple in a micro-block, squeeze a little, and the seed drops right into place. The seed needs to be dry, though, and once it is dropped onto a block, the moisture on the surface of the block holds it, so picking the seed back up with the device is harder. But for seed removal and relocation, the point of a pocketknife blade is easier and faster. A small spatulate tweezers might be even better.

Excluding interruptions, it took me 4 hours 15 minutes to sow 700 tomato seeds, 192 pepper seeds, and 8 eggplant seeds. That averages to 17 seconds per seed, which seems (and is) ridiculous, but a large part of the time was spent (1) removing the seed packet from the file sheet, (2) opening the packet, (3) putting unused seeds back in the packet, (4) sealing the packet, and (5) stapling it back onto its file sheet. What this suggests is that I need a different and better kind of seed filing system, but I'll work on that later.

The actual average time needed just to pick up a seed and put it on a block was less than 3 seconds, so I actually spent only about 45 minutes--approximately 17 percent of the total time--placing the seeds; the rest was handling the packets and paper.

After I finished a tray, I misted it thorougly. When all three were seeded, each was misted again. The heat mats were plugged in, a plastic bag supported by meter sticks was draped over them. (Before the month is out, I'll order some humidity domes for the Perma-Nest trays to use next year.) A1500-watt heater was placed on the floor to keep the temperature in the garage above 60 degrees.

Typically, micro-blocks are watered three times daily by misting. To start, I'll do that, but I'll also begin adding water to the tray and see how well the sand contributes to bottom watering.

What's next?

I can't rest too much nor admire my work for too long. I'll need to pot up (actually, to "block up") in not many days, so I must start preparing the 2-inch blocks--576 of them (16 trays of 36 blocks each).

By odd coincidence, it was also on 03 April last year that I started seeds.

This message was edited Apr 6, 2010 5:17 PM

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rutholive
Tonasket, WA
(Zone 5a)

April 5, 2010
5:10 AM

Post #7680839

Russ very well written and explained. Will be watching to see your seed family as they germinate and grow. thanks for all the info and pictures.

Donna

meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 5, 2010
7:23 AM

Post #7681103

Russ

the way to cut down paper, seed packet time is to plant all of the seeds in the packet...teee heeee

Great job, nice detail as always.

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 5, 2010
10:05 AM

Post #7681507

meadowyck wrote: . . . can you take a closer picture of the block next to the penny or just even a closer look at the group of blocks together?

Janet

For Janet and others interested:

3a. Here, in close-up view looking down, is a 4 by 5 group of micro-blocks (20) straight from the blocker and a single block, with both penny and inch rule for scale.

This message was edited Apr 5, 2010 3:23 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 5, 2010
10:38 AM

Post #7681578

Since I had the camera and the camera stand out anyway:

5a. This is a close look down at the front right corner of tray X about 48 hours after tomato seeds were sown to the micro-blocks.

Note: As I set the 20-block groups in the trays, I staggered them left and right by rows. This was intentional for two reasons: First, to make it easier to see where I was sowing in the tray compared to the chart and, second, to provide additional clearance near the top right corner of the tray where the heat mat joins its power cord. It's a somewhat bulky interface and can't easily be covered by the uniform layer of sand; best (and easy) to avoid it.

This message was edited Apr 5, 2010 2:37 PM

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 5, 2010
12:33 PM

Post #7681812

great shots, oh my goodness no bigger a penny, and from the second picture I see that the seeds are just laying on top... is that how you planted the others as well...

I'm thinking I guess you can't push the seeds in or the block would crumble???

This is very interesting and I hope you will keep us posted as they start to germinate as well as when you start to transplant them? what will you be transplanting them into?

sorry for all the questions but this is very interesting thread.

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 5, 2010
12:36 PM

Post #7681819

. . . and as long as the camera is handy:

5b. This is the "seed starting station", a temporary set-up to be sure.

Three scraps of 1x2 hold the plastic off of the trays so it doesn't sag under the weight of condensation and lay on the blocks. Two scraps of 2x2 hold the plastic in place. It's lifted at both ends of each tray to provide relief for air circulation.

The small, black device with red numbers showing is the thermostat control for the heat mats. Although it controls all three mats, it is sensing the temperature in the sand only in the front right corner of tray Y. That's not the best place to measure it and reading only one tray isn't ideal; from an engineering standpoint, both conditions offend me. I'll deal with that later.

Meanwhile, I've ordered some humidity domes that fit Perma-Nest trays--not the twice-as-expensive tall ones with sliding vents, just the regular ones. They will need to be modified: Ventilation holes, rear relief for the heat mat's power cord, and front relief for the cord to the temperature sensor. They should arrive in three days.

Observation: If the condensation collecting on the underside of the plastic bags is a reliable indicator, I'll not have mist the trays very often. The blocks and sand are staying nicely moist without interference by me.

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 5, 2010
12:39 PM

Post #7681826

Incredible...

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 5, 2010
1:14 PM

Post #7681920

meadowyck wrote: . . . sorry for all the questions . . .

Janet

Janet, I'm glad for your questions; they identify things you and other people want to know. Since I intend to compile all of my posts into one reference document at the end of the experiment, it should include as much relevant information as possible.

Quoting: . . . from the second picture I see that the seeds are just laying on top. Is that how you planted the others as well?

Yes, I put all of them on top, in the shallow, depressed "dimples" left by the built-in dibbles in the blocker. Since both the blocks and the air are moist, it's really not much different than laying seeds on a moist paper towel inside a plastic sandwich bag.

Quoting: . . . I guess you can't push the seeds in or the block would crumble?

No, I was able to press a seed into a block with the tip of the seeding tool, and the block did not crumble or collapse. I'm not convinced that inserting the seed into the mix is essential, but we'll know for sure in another day or two. I also could have sprinkled a little dry mix over them, but I'm seeking to eliminate rather than create unnecessary steps.

Quoting:I hope you will keep us posted as they start to germinate as well as when you start to transplant them. What will you be transplanting them into?

I intend to document this entire adventure, all the way through placing the seedlings into the garden or into containers, because I'll be transplanting them into 2x2 soil blocks. The blocker(s) for those have optional cube-shaped dibbles that create the right-sized space into which micro-blocks can be placed, as shown in the photo (very small; not one of mine).

This message was edited Apr 5, 2010 10:30 PM

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 5, 2010
1:42 PM

Post #7681977

I see said the blind woman to the deaf man...

I was just wondering how that blocks were going to fit into another, never thought about the larger block having a hole that the smaller one fit into... so when they arrive at that stage is there another larger block that they go into or is that when they will be transplanted into the garden or a container?

Janet
mom2goldens
Carmel, IN
(Zone 5b)

April 5, 2010
2:14 PM

Post #7682048

Wow--this is amazing. Russ, thank you for your detailed documentation; this is a process I knew very little about, but thought it had great potential. I'm so excited you're sharing your results with us.

I have a couple of questions, but I'm going to go back and re-read everything first to make sure you haven't already answered them somewhere.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 5, 2010
2:42 PM

Post #7682109

meadowyck wrote: . . . so when they arrive at that stage is there another larger block that they go into or is that when they will be transplanted into the garden or a container?

Janet

There is yet a larger block, a 4-inch block, that a 2-inch block can go into. The 4-inch block, properly compressed, is said to contain much more planting medium (three to four times more!) than a 6-inch diameter round pot. See the photo (again small, not very good, and not mine).

So . . . let's check out that claim, with measurements and more math:

I measured a sample each of two different 6-inch plastic nursery pots I have. Measuring to the fill line, one has a volume of 39.5 cubic inches; the other, 41.9 cubic inches. The 4-inch blocker is 4.1 inches square at the base, 3.5 inches at the top, and 4 inches high, giving a volume of 58.1 cubic inches. With compression of 2.5, this yields 145 cubic inches of mix in a 4-inch block (including the volume of the 2-inch block).

I also measured one of the 3-inch square plastic pots that I used over 300 of last year. The volume to the fill line is 25.2 cubic inches. The 2-inch blocks actually measure 1.8 by 1.9 inches at the base and top and are 1.7 inches high, giving a volume of 5.8 cubic inches; when compressed 2.5 times, this yields 14.5 cubic inches. Yes, less than the 3-inch pot, but the block takes up only 44 percent of the surface space. Put another way, in the same space occupied by 100 of those plastic pots, I can have over twice as many plants in blocks.

But I'll not be using the 4-inch blocker except to try it and demonstrate the results, because the 2-inch blocks should provide ample growing space for the maximum 6 or 7 weeks after blocking up the seedlings. (We'll know for sure in about 9 weeks.) That's all the time I expect to need before the young plants find homes in either my containers and garden or those of adoptive gardeners.

This message was edited Apr 12, 2011 1:51 PM

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dreaves

dreaves
Hutto, TX
(Zone 8b)

April 5, 2010
3:00 PM

Post #7682143

Russ,

So why not just start with 2-inch blocks? Is there anything that won't be transplanted from the 3/4" blocks? At this point, the only reason I see for using the tiny blocks is to put as many blocks as possible on the heat mats for initial germination. Is that the case?

I know that this is the tomato forum, but do you know or suspect that the blocks would be useful for starting & transplanting typically direct-sown seeds (like corn, beans, peas, squash, etc.)? It would eliminate over-sowing and thinning if the tiny blocks were used to start seeds, then quickly plant once they had germinated. It would be easy to space correctly from the initial planting.

David
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 5, 2010
8:13 PM

Post #7683018

dreaves wrote:So why not just start with 2-inch blocks? Is there anything that won't be transplanted from the 3/4" blocks? At this point, the only reason I see for using the tiny blocks is to put as many blocks as possible on the heat mats for initial germination. Is that the case?

David

David, that's an excellent question; I'm glad you asked! There are probably more answers than I can think of, offhand. I'll present my opinions based on received information and my own empirical data.

(Everyone reading this thread, please remember, I'm not a soil block maven, truly. But surely, before long--if not already--someone is going to wonder if I'm a Ladbrooke stockholder or if I'm retailing the blockers myself, or at least a shill for another retailer. I'll short-circuit that: The answer in all instances is, emphatically, "No!"--hey, folks, I'm just an engineer who's also a gardener; I'm learning as I go. Think of it as a grown-up equivalent of a school science fair project!)

Permit me first to digress: The same company (Ladbrooke, in England) also offers two blockers that make 1-1/2 inch soil blocks (either 5 or 20 at a time), but these can't be used with the 3/4-inch cubic dibbles because the remaining 3/8-inch wall is too thin; it would collapse at a mean look. Ladbrooke also makes another blocker that produces larger (about 2-1/2 by 3 inch) blocks, but those aren't compatible with "blocking up" to the 4-inch blocker.

If you wanted to skip the 3/4-inch blocks, the best choice--depending on the plant to be started--might be the 1-1/2 inch blocks.

That aside, I'm starting 900 seeds (700 tomato, 192 pepper, and 8 eggplant) in 3 trays and less than 6 square feet of space. To do so with 2x2 blocks, I'd need 25 square feet, over four times as much, and to do it with 2x2 blocks in 12x23 Perma-Nest trays, I'd need almost 50 square feet, not to mention 25 trays.

With 100 percent germination, sowing directly to the 2x2 blocks would be ideal--but I can't expect 100 percent germination on all of 70 different tomatoes, 23 different peppers, and 1 eggplant, from a cumulative 20 different sources. It's certain that some of those 3/4-inch blocks will be nulls. Any unproductive block will have to be discarded.

For discussion, let's assume 75 percent germination. In that instance, I'd end up tossing 25 percent of the blocks. I'll certainly prefer to give up 238 cubic inches (about 1/8 cubic foot) of plain mix than 4500 cubic inches (just over 2-1/2 cubic feet) of expensively augmented mix.

Quoting: . . . do you know or suspect that the blocks would be useful for starting & transplanting typically direct-sown seeds (like corn, beans, peas, squash, etc.)? It would eliminate over-sowing and thinning if the tiny blocks were used to start seeds, then quickly plant once they had germinated. It would be easy to space correctly from the initial planting.

Suspect, yes; but, being an empiricist, I don't know it yet. Large seeds like those you mention almost certainly require the large(r) block. I'm not just a tomatohead; I'll try some beans, squash, and cucumbers after this experiment is finished. I'd also like to play with greens and herbs--things that have really tiny seeds (like Osaka Purple Mustard).

The elegance I see in using soil blocks, aside from eliminating unnecessary handling ("therbligs") and materials, is versatility. In engineering terms, the soil block approach is both horizontally and vertically integrated.

This message was edited Apr 6, 2010 5:24 PM
DonShirer
Westbrook, CT
(Zone 6a)

April 6, 2010
5:47 AM

Post #7683582

Russ, you are giving us a very useful and informative discussion of soil blocking; thanks for your hard work and dedication.

I have one question about moving the small blocks to the larger one. Does this count as transplanting, since the entire root and its surrounding soil is moved together and would not disturb the roots as much as regular transplanting? Our famous and beloved Dr. Carolyn says:
          "OK, why is it so important to transplant? Because it shocks the plant and
          retards foliage growth so that root growth can occur. If you don't do it you
          get huge leggy stupid seedlings that flop all over the place and are a
          disgrace to the genus Lycopersicon. That's why. LOL "

I have been starting my tomato seeds in those shallow 20-row trays which only have about a half-inch depth, yet when I tease the seedlings out to transplant them, the roots are often much longer than this. I then put them in 1.5 inch holes poked into 2" (or more) deep pots to sink them up to their leaves so the stem can grow more roots. It would seem that the 3/4 inch depressions the block makers put in your 2 inch blocks would not allow this. Is there any way to make deeper impressions in your larger blocks, since many experts advise setting the transplants deeper?

meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 6, 2010
9:26 AM

Post #7684110

Don...
I like your thinking here in your question about the transplanting now allowing for the new seedling to be buried up to its leafs.

Unless by the time it goes into the second block and has it 2nd set of leafs (the true ones) it would be time to transplant to a pot or the garden.

By the way Russ, I don't recall you saying what you are going to do with all of those plants?

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 6, 2010
1:15 PM

Post #7684582

DonShirer wrote:Does this count as transplanting, since the entire root and its surrounding soil is moved together and would not disturb the roots as much as regular transplanting? . . . It would seem that the 3/4 inch depressions the block makers put in your 2 inch blocks would not allow [planting seedlings up to their leaves]. Is there any way to make deeper impressions in your larger blocks, since many experts advise setting the transplants deeper?

Two good questions, Don. I'm not sure that I am yet qualified to give even an opinion, much less provide a competent answer from my own knowledge or experience.

I'll defer to David Tresemer and his booklet, Transplants in Soil Blocks, a relevant excerpt from which is attached. According to him, yes, blocking up counts as transplanting; and, no, the plants thus transplanted do not suffer root insult ("shock"). In fact, avoiding the shock is stated as a benefit of using soil blocks.

This discussion may provide some food for thought: http://tomatoville.com/showthread.php?p=40201

Apparent to me is this: I need to run an A-B test, with a 72-cell flat and the 3-inch pots (I have plenty left over from last year) as control for comparison, to see which method produces those "huge leggy stupid seedlings".

Ladbrooke does not offer anything to create a deeper space. From a physical standpoint, it appears that it would not be difficult. I could certainly fashion something from wood, or even cast something with acrylic resin. I'll put that on the "future projects" list.

meadowyck wrote:By the way Russ, I don't recall you saying what you are going to do with all of those plants.

Janet, some go to my garden (of course!), and rather a lot go to people who've requested I start plants for them. The remainder will be offered at the Benson Farmers Market. Those still unsold on June 5 will on June 6 be donated to parishioners at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church.

This message was edited Apr 6, 2010 5:32 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 6, 2010
2:07 PM

Post #7684712

1.4 inches of rain in the wee hours this morning.

Okay, it's time for a little more arithmetic.

6a. Planning for the 2-inch blocks

I intend 4 x 9 = 36 of these blocks per tray and a total of 16 trays. 36 x 16 = 572 blocks.

Each tray gets a 5-cup sand pediment, so that's 5 x 16 = 80 cups. That's really not much; 80 cups / 119.7 cups per cubic foot = 0.67, about 2/3 cubic foot.

The blocks aren't exact 2-inch cubes; they are in fact 1.8 by 1.9 inches at both base and top and 1.7 inches high. 1.7 x 1.8 x 1.9 = 5.8 cubic inches. Using the compression factor of 2.5, I'll need 5.8 x 2.5 x 572 = 8294 cubic inches of mix. That's 8294 / 1728 = 4.8 cubic feet.

To simplify things, I'll just call it 5 cubic feet.

For these blocks, I'm going to try a blend of 8 parts Pro-Mix, 1 part 100% vegetable compost, and 1 part worm castings. That translates to 4 cubic feet of Pro-Mix and 1/2 cubic foot each of the compost and the worm castings.

The compost may need to be sifted with the 1/4-inch sieve.

We're expecting rain after midnight and into tomorrow morning, so mixing the growing medium will wait at least until tomorrow afternoon, possibly even until Thursday.

This message was edited Apr 7, 2010 5:13 PM
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 7, 2010
3:18 PM

Post #7687465

0.20 inch more rain this morning.

Yes, we have germination!

This is the upper left part of tray X (rotated left 90 degrees) at 4 days. The red ellipse shows what happens when an extra seed is dropped between blocks and not retrieved.

On April 5, I wrote:I'm not convinced that inserting the seed into the mix is essential, but we'll know for sure in another day or two. I also could have sprinkled a little dry mix over them, but I'm seeking to eliminate rather than create unnecessary steps.

One thing I see: For at least a few seeds, as the radicle makes its way out of the seed coat to become a root, it can actually push the seed to the edge of the block, and even over the edge to fall in between blocks.

I'm able to rescue the few that do this, but I now think that the small extra step of pressing the seed into the block, perhaps with an orangewood stick, would be a good idea. I also observed that, in a few cases, the little root grows across the surface of the top and down the side.

This message was edited Apr 7, 2010 9:23 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 7, 2010
3:27 PM

Post #7687481

Small changes:

The boards weren't doing the best job of holding the pastic up, especially when it became weighted with condensation.

I reduced the number of boards to 2 and secured the plastic in place with binder clips. I'm looking forward to having the plastic domes, which should arrive tomorrow.

Update on domes, April 9: Well, they aren't arriving Thursday, or even Friday, after all. Although promised to ship on April 6, they didn't ship until April 8. By the time they get here (April 13, according to the tracking information), I won't need them for the tomatoes, only the fewer peppers. Sigh.

While the heat mats are obviously working, the distribution of the heat seems both uneven and generally poor. Then it occurred to me that the same problem that impedes using the heat mats under Perma-Nest trays might bear on this problem, too: The ribs and feet on the tray bottoms raise the trays and allow air circulation beneath them, carrying off at least some useful heat.

The first attempted remedy: A length of glass wool insulation beneath the trays.

I also moved the temperature sensor from the right front corner of tray Y to the middle of the right side. Using an electronically-compensated K-type bead thermocouple, I measured the temperature in a few blocks and at different points in the sand pediment.

This message was edited Apr 9, 2010 7:22 PM

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mom2goldens
Carmel, IN
(Zone 5b)

April 7, 2010
4:46 PM

Post #7687636

Russ: Just a thought on the heat issue--I recently purchased a heat mat/seedling tray unit at a local big box store. The heat mat sits inside of the outer tray (neat little opening just large enough to run cord through); flat with cell-packs sits on top of heat mat with clear plastic dome. Any possibility you can find a shallow container just slightly larger than your Permanest trays to recreate something similar? This particular heat mat set-up has really performed better than my heat mats sitting on my shelf with trays on top; I'm sure it's because the heat is not getting lost into the atmosphere.

meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 7, 2010
8:47 PM

Post #7688315



Russ

I have several survives that fell between my pellets and after they germinated I just planted them... I love that tool you have for the tiny seeds, I have always seen it but didn't know if it would really work.




mom

that is a great observation about the heat being lost when on the shelves.

I'm going tomorrow night when I get home from work, find something to put my heat mat in then the tray on top to see if I can get faster germination.

I've only got a month before our garden club plant sale, and I've got to get seeds going big time... so If I can get germination with a few days then they can come off and the new ones on.

thanks so much for posting your observation.

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 9, 2010
2:22 PM

Post #7692692

What a great day! Sunny, low 70s, light breeze.

From setting up to cleaning up including the obligatory photos and note-taking, what follows takes about 3 hours.

6b. Mixing the medium

I'm still suspicious of the compression factor, since I worked by volume last time, so I'm going to make a little extra: 5-3/4 cubic feet (allowing for x3 compression) instead of just 5 cubic feet. This time, I'm going to calculate by weight rather than volume because I'm dealing with three different things: Pro-Mix, vegetable compost, and worm castings.

Weighing will be done with the humble bathroom scale seen just in front of the Pro-Mix bags. I check the scale by weighing 6 pounds of peanut butter; it's close enough.

This particular Pro-Mix weighs 14.3 pounds per cubic foot. The vegetable compost is 30 pounds per cubic foot; the worm castings, 40 pounds per cubic foot. I will need about 66 pounds of Pro-Mix (4.6 cubic feet), as well as 17 pounds of compost and 23 pounds of worm castings (about 0.57 cubic feet each). 4.6 + 0.57 + 0.57 = 5.74 cubic feet. And I'll need something in which to mix all of this--a child's wading pool should do nicely.

The compost is nice and fine, but with occasional small twigs and pieces of bark. I try sifting it with the 1/4-inch sieve, which proves largely ineffective; the twigs and bark pieces simply go through the screen endwise. Okay, I'll skip the rest of the sifting and keep my fingers crossed.

Everything is mixed together by stirring with a hoe, turning with a shovel, and repeating the process until I'm bored with it. But it looks and feels nicely homogeneous and smells wonderful.

This message was edited Apr 9, 2010 7:24 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 9, 2010
2:51 PM

Post #7692765

6c. Making 2-inch blocks

I don't want to wet the whole 5-3/4 cubic feet of medium at the same time, so I'll use the wheelbarrow.

3:1 of mix to water was a good starting point for making micro-blocks, so I'll start with that but on a larger scale: 15 measures of dry mix, add 5 measures of water, stir, let sit for a few minutes, then stir again and dump the slurry onto the big tray.

I try the 4-block hand blocker first. It works nicely; I make a dozen blocks, then toss them back into the slurry and test the stand-up 12-block device. Good results the first time out. I make another two dozen and throw them back. I think I'll use the stand-up blocker.

My technique isn't refined yet; my lack of finesse shows up about once in every three dozen blocks: For one or two blocks, a corner or side of the wall is broken.

The procedure is nearly the same as for the micro-blocks: (1) press, twist, and lift three times to load or "charge" the blocker; (2) scrape the bottom of the blocker; (3) eject the blocks; (4) rinse the blocker; (5) level the slurry (the hoe is good for doing this); and repeat as necessary,

Getting the right proportion of water is important: Too much, and the blocks slip and fall right back out of the blocker; too little and the top walls break or crumble when the blocks are ejected. With the stand-up blocker, learning to eject the blocks correctly is also important: Make sure the bottom is level and sitting on the surface receiving the blocks, then eject, release, eject again and, while holding the handle down, lift the blocker away from the blocks.

Once I got used to the feel and rhythm of the process, the only damage to the walls of the blocks occurred if I failed to rinse the blocker.

After each Perma-Nest tray is filled with 36 blocks (three sets of 12), I slip it into one of those ubiquitous plastic bags and set it in the rack.

Next: "Blocking up" the seedlings. None have the first true leaves yet, so it may be another day or three.

This message was edited Apr 9, 2010 7:20 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 9, 2010
2:54 PM

Post #7692771

This is my third tray of 2-inch blocks.

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 9, 2010
2:56 PM

Post #7692775

. . . and I promised everyone I'd make at least one 4-inch block, just for show. Here it is, with a 2-inch block and a 6-inch rule for comparison.

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 19, 2010
8:17 PM

Post #7719880

10 days since the last post; it's time to bring things up to date.

You've heard of The Ides of March? The next installment begins with The Ides of April (also known as "Income Tax Day"):

7. "Blocking up" the seedlings

Seeds started on 03 April are definitely seedlings on 15 April.

12 days is probably too long for the micro-blocks. Despite the only light being a 60-watt CFL in the ceiling several feet away, the seedlings are gangly. A few even are floppy. There is no sign yet, of course, of any true leaves. (They barely start to appear in about 3 more days.) I may have left the heat mats on too long.

During that period, I needed to mist the seedlings lightly only every second day.

I'll give the peppers a couple of extra days; some have just barely germinated.

In the photo, the seedlings in Tray X have been "blocked up". After doing this, each tray of seedlings in large blocks was misted before being racked. But I should not have left the plastic off of Trays Y and Z; while attending to Tray X, the other two trays dried out enough that some seedlings began to droop.

This message was edited Apr 22, 2010 12:21 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 19, 2010
8:43 PM

Post #7719941

7. "Blocking up" the seedlings (continued)

Moving micro-blocks with seedlings into the 2-inch block helps me conclude that 12 days is definitely too long. In most cases, as much as 1/2 to 3/4 inch of root protrudes from the bottom of the micro-block. Fortunately, in 99.5 (calculated) percent of instances, the root slides easily out of the wet sand pediment. In other words, I lost 2 seedlings out of 428 because the root broke when the block was lifted.

On April 5, I wrote:I'm not convinced that inserting the seed into the mix is essential, but we'll know for sure in another day or two.

I was wrong. I now am convinced that sowing the seeds uncovered on top of the micro-blocks is not a good idea. They should be pressed into the surface, probably about 1/8 inch--maybe even 1/4 inch. Otherwise, the fragile junction of stem and root is unsupported and the seedling wants to fall over.

My initial solution was to use moist medium from discarded micro-blocks and press a little "hill" around the base of any seedling that needed support, a time-consuming chore that I abandoned after the first 20 or so. A better solution was to gently pinch the top of each micro-block so that it looks kind of like one of those little houses from the Monopoly board game.

I also reconsidered David's 05 April question:

dreaves wrote:So why not just start with 2-inch blocks?

Since this entire project is inherently experimental, I'm going to investigate that possibility. Into each of four unused blocks in Tray M, I've dropped 3 seeds into the cubical space and covered them with about 1/8 inch of medium. My thinking here is that, after they germinate and the stems are taller than the holes they are in, I can thin to 1 seedling and (gently) fill in the space around the stem. I'll likely try this with more blocks, since I'm sure to have a few left over after the peppers are blocked up.

The photo shows seedlings from Tray Y being blocked up.

The clipboard on the left holds the "maps" of the micro-block trays; the one on the right has the maps of the trays holding the larger blocks.

This message was edited Apr 24, 2010 4:46 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 19, 2010
8:47 PM

Post #7719947

By Saturday, only two days later, those seedlings that were droopy have begun to straighten up toward the lights.

On Sunday, I noticed the tiniest of true leaves beginning to appear on many of the seedlings.

Sunday was also the day I finished the automatic drip-watering system. A while back, I'd bought four Proven Winners brand WaterWise container watering kits ([HYPERLINK@shop.provenwinners.com]) on clearance at a local nursery and never got around to using them for their intended project, so I had enough parts on hand to do this type of setup about three times over.

This message was edited Apr 20, 2010 12:29 AM

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 19, 2010
9:08 PM

Post #7719989

thanks so much for the update...

I like your set up and the auto watering is great.

I'll be back to read better what you are saying as it is late and I just couldn't resist looking in.

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 21, 2010
1:22 PM

Post #7724797

Yesterday, I blocked up the 140 pepper and 4 eggplant seedlings. I thought I'd have a few empty blocks but that didn't happen, so my experiment seeding directly to the cubic space is limited to the 4 blocks I prepared on 19 April.

As with the tomatoes, the peppers and eggplants probably should have been blocked up a few days sooner. Just now, I'd say 6 days for the tomatoes and 12 days for the peppers would be about right, but that's with the seeds sown on top of the micro-blocks, which I'll not do again.

The pepper seedlings, though smaller, were much less delicate than the tomato seedlings.

I'm tinkering with the timing for the automatic watering. Right now, it's set for 6 minutes, twice a day (noon and midnight). That gives each tray about 6 to 7 ounces every 12 hours. I may change that to 3 minutes, four times a day. The durations of course will need to be increased as the seedlings grow. What I must prevent is the blocks getting too dry. The 4 corner blocks in each tray dry faster (3 exposed surfaces) than the 18 along the sides (2 exposed surfaces), while the "inner" 14 dry most slowly, having only one exposed surface, the top.

We're sometimes still hitting mid- to high 40s at night here (soil temperature in the garden is finally a smidge above 50 degrees), so I have a 1500-watt heater set to keep the garage at 55 degrees if the temperature dips below that. It's the Great Plains, folks; temperatures of freezing and below are still possible!

Here's a photo of some of the happy little tomato seedlings, 6 days after blocking up. All are showing their first true leaves.

This message was edited Apr 23, 2010 10:27 AM

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critterologist
Frederick, MD
(Zone 6b)

April 21, 2010
2:04 PM

Post #7724940

I just found this and am fascinated! Thanks for letting us follow along.

Re. using heat mats... I've used them *under* my permanest trays for several years, with excellent results. I use a thermostat with a probe, and since the heat does turn on and off (off when the probe says the soil in the pot is warm enough), I know the potting mix is getting heat like it should.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 21, 2010
5:40 PM

Post #7725468

I was asked by a visitor a little while ago what the little "scales" on the rack's uprights are for. (One of them is visible just right of center in the previous photograph.)

These are adhesive rulers intended to be attached to fishing poles so anglers can quickly measure fish.

I use them to help me quickly set the height of the lights. They also allow me to quickly "eyeball" how tall a seedling is.

This message was edited Apr 23, 2010 10:22 AM

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 23, 2010
8:00 AM

Post #7729822

Russ

Now that is showing your background for sure (measuring the height for lights...LOL)

You seedlings look just like mind did at that stage which makes me feel better as I thought I had done something wrong (cause I thought they were too leggy). Mine are still rather leggy as I don't have room to have them under lights so it is just the light coming in the bacony door. I do take mine out in the afternoon, (we are still rather cool up here) for filtered sun and the breezes.

This has been a very interesting thread and I appreciate you sharing with us your new seeding process.

So now that you have done this type will you always do it this way or go back to what you did before (by the way how did you raise seeds before?).

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 23, 2010
9:59 AM

Post #7730131

meadowyck wrote:So now that you have done this type will you always do it this way or go back to what you did before . . . ?

I don't know, Janet; I'm still learning and working out the kinks. I think it likely I'll do it again next year, with some strategic changes in approach.

She also wrote: . . . (by the way how did you raise seeds before?)

I started them in 72-cell plastic flats (photo), then transplanted to 3-inch square plastic pots. I used an economy-variety 2-tube, 4-foot fluorescent "shop light" suspended from a homemade A-frame rack over a 2x4-foot folding table. That arrangement enabled starting 288 plants. Each cell got two seeds, culled in favor of the stronger seedling about 2 weeks out.

Before that, I just bought plants.

This message was edited Apr 24, 2010 4:52 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 23, 2010
10:54 AM

Post #7730267

This photo shows about 40 percent of last year's potted-up plants.
 

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 23, 2010
11:17 AM

Post #7730309

Earlier today, I wrote:I don't know, Janet; I'm still learning and working out the kinks. Before that, I just bought plants.

One of the "kinks" is an act that continues to haunt me: Having sown the seeds to the tops of the micro-blocks.

Just as I thought everything was going swimmingly, I discovered a problem here and there in the trays. As the seedlings grow, they get increasingly top-heavy. Some of them begin leaning over farther . . . and farther . . . (Were I misting the plants rather than bottom-watering, this would be even worse because of the added weight of the water droplets on the leaves.)

So now a few of them are each getting a little "crutch" cut from some leftover plant markers. Without doubt: Next season, seeds must be pressed into the tops of the micro-blocks and the seedlings must be blocked up much sooner.

This message was edited Apr 24, 2010 5:50 PM

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meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 23, 2010
12:12 PM

Post #7730416

Ok, let me see if I understand something.

Your mister is located at on end of the tray, is there only one per tray and is its purpose to make the sand wet which then the soil block with wick up the water from the sand? If that is the case then why wouldn't all block take up the water the same or pretty close to the same... But I'm thinking if you only have one mister per tray and at one end, that the other end block would stay drier than the end blocks next to the mister?

I didn't right it very well, but then I'm trying to do too many things right at the moment...LOL

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 23, 2010
2:01 PM

Post #7730674

meadowyck wrote:Ok, let me see if I understand something. Your mister is located at on end of the tray, is there only one per tray and is its purpose to make the sand wet which then the soil block with wick up the water from the sand? If that is the case then why wouldn't all block take up the water the same or pretty close to the same... But I'm thinking if you only have one mister per tray and at one end, that the other end block would stay drier than the end blocks next to the mister?

There is one 64-ounce-per-hour drip head per tray.

The water moves evenly through the interstices (spaces between grains) of the sand pediment by "wicking" (capillary action), the same mode by which it moves from the sand up into the blocks. As long as the rack and trays are fairly level, everything works fine.

In fact, the only problem I see is uneven distribution to the drip heads despite a pressure regulator, so I'm going to try adding a pressure-compensating loop to the other end of the four branches.

Update: On April 24, I added the pressure-compensating loop.

This message was edited Apr 24, 2010 5:52 PM
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 24, 2010
3:42 PM

Post #7733545

On April 3, about 4. Labeling the seedlings, I wrote:Since the micro-blocks are far too small for any conventional labeling method, a different strategy is called for: A "map" for each tray.

Without thinking about it, I carried the "map" approach forward to the 2-inch blocks. While a chart for each tray is still a good idea, I overlooked the obvious labeling strategy by over-thinking the problem (the engineer's curse).

My concern was that pushing any kind of conventional marker into a compressed 2-inch block would damage it enough to promote breaking the wall around the space into which the micro-block would go.

Silly me!

It wasn't until after I'd made and installed a couple of yesterday's little "crutches" that I realized the simple solution.

The plastic markers resemble collar stays and are about 3/8 by 3 inches. And they slip smoothly into the "seam" between the micro-block and its larger host block. Virtually no growing medium is displaced.

Too late to do it this season, but something I'll remember!

This message was edited Apr 24, 2010 5:48 PM

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 25, 2010
1:45 PM

Post #7736015

"Air pruning" at work

One aspect of using soils blocks is "air pruning" of the roots. When a root pokes itself out the side of the block, it turns around and goes back into the medium. (See especially the circled area in the photo.)

But, in this project, my first attempt with blocks, I didn't set the 2-inch blocks far enough apart for air pruning to work effectively on every block. The distance should probably be at least 1/8 inch; where they are closer together, I can see a few roots growing across the space into an adjacent block.

Across the width of the tray, there's plenty of room to do this, since it would add only 3/8 inch to the space occupied by the blocks; but along the length, I'd need to reduce the number of blocks in the tray from 36 (4x9) to 32 (4x8) because I'd be adding 7/8 inch to the length taken up by the blocks--and I don't want the last 4 blocks to be too close to the drip head. This would mean that one rack could maintain only 512 plants (32 blocks times 16 trays) rather than 576 plants (36 blocks times 16 trays).
 

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RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 27, 2010
2:29 PM

Post #7742920

On April 19, I wrote:Since this entire project is inherently experimental, I'm going to investigate [just starting with 2-inch blocks]. Into each of four unused blocks in Tray M, I've dropped 3 seeds into the cubical space and covered them with about 1/8 inch of medium. My thinking here is that, after they germinate and the stems are taller than the holes they are in, I can thin to 1 seedling and (gently) fill in the space around the stem.

Three seeds per block: San Marzano in the left two, Brandywine Platfoot in the other two. I'll give them a few more days, then proceed as indicated.
 

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Niere
Chepachet, RI
(Zone 5b)

April 28, 2010
5:53 AM

Post #7744637

Hi Russ--just found this thread and I'm really enjoying it! I've been starting my plants in blocks for three years now and love it. I don't start with the tiny soil blocks, I start exclusively with the two inch blocks. As of right now I have thirty-five different trays of blocked seedlings going, with 32 blocks per tray. I put my blocks in black trays that have ridges at the bottom and bottom water them nearly exclusively--I do also mist the pepper and tomato seedlings, just to keep the seed coat soft. For my soiless mixture I use any good quality seed starting mix and mix two parts of that to two or three parts of good quality peat moss. I find that the peat moss helps give the blocks more body and makes them a tad more sturdy.

I've started nearly everything in the two-inch blocks--some things need to be potted up sooner, but that's a given with anything. I find that the root development that occurs in blocks is superior to other methods. I usually need to pot up tomatoes at around five weeks if memory serves me correctly--I don't have the larger block maker as they are incredibly expensive and I've found that potting up to quart-size pots has served me in good stead.

I've not used heating mats for tomatoes under the trays--I'm able to start mine in a warm south-facing window and I've never had a problem. Currently I'm starting six trays this way. I do use two heating mats under the trays for the peppers--all I did was place some saran wrap over the blocks until the seed started to germinate--you'd be surprised how just that little bit of saran wrap contained the heat!

Again--thanks so much for sharing your experience. Glad to see someone else using soil blocks!

meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

April 30, 2010
9:10 AM

Post #7751163

Welcome Niere to this forum Russ has been very kind to share his experiment with us and it is good to see someone else with the same experience.

Niere you said you " I find that the root development that occurs in blocks is superior to other methods." Would you please explain a little more. This is my first year attempting the volume of seeds that I'm doing, and I'm very interested why you think this? Is it because the soil isn't compacted the same as say the pellet ones? I started out using the pellet ones and now I'm experimenting with just straight coir fibers for starting the seeds. I really like the coir fiber so far as the seed germinated much faster and the seedlings were much easier to transplant to the potting soil. Meaning: I let the coir dry for 1 day and then I can just gently lift the seedling out of the plug tray and pot up with no ill effects so far.

Russ I would never be able to cut the others as I want every plant (provided it is a good one) as that is more money for me down the road. I did a few tomato seeds in the pellets where I had 5 seeds to a pellet and then divided out when transplanting them. That was great. Got the idea to tray that many from the NCTomatoman, he has done as many at 20 seeds to a cell (not plug) and watching him transplant them made me scared at first to try but after watching his utube I finally gave it a try and all plants are doing well... Of course I only did 5 seeds at the most...

Janet
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

May 2, 2010
2:09 PM

Post #7757614

On April 27, I wrote:I'll give them a few more days, then proceed as indicated.

I think I may be on to something here. In each block (all sown on April 19), I put 3 seeds. I had two or three seedlings in each. They all had developed the first pair of true leaves, so I thinned each block to one and added medium to the level of the top of the block. I intended to add water to the dry medium I had added, but it wicked in moisture so quickly that additional watering seemed unnecessary.

This message was edited May 2, 2010 11:10 PM

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beclu727

beclu727
Dacula, GA
(Zone 7b)

May 2, 2010
6:30 PM

Post #7758408

Those are looking very good. Sturdy stems and not leggy at all.
rutholive
Tonasket, WA
(Zone 5a)

May 3, 2010
7:41 AM

Post #7759803

Russ, I have enjoyed your tomato block sage. Very interesting. And your new plantings look great.

My tomatoes are ready to go out into the garden if it ever gets warm enough. The weatherman predicts a serious weather wind watch for all day. It is very windy now from the south. He predicts wind gusts to 50 -60 mph. I have been out for a bit trying to be sure that light weight things are somewhat secure. My tomatoes, the ones I am planting in my garden, 25 varieties, are in the nursery size 1 gal square pots and too heavy for me to move more than a few at a time. So I am going to hope for the best and leave them outside, on south-east side of my garage. I wanted to take a picture and of course just then the camera said charge or change batteries.

Donna
kbirbeck
Pittsboro, NC
(Zone 7a)

May 4, 2010
10:56 AM

Post #7763460

I am also enjoying this very much. I tried starting tomatoes from seeds for the first time this year and may have made every mistake in the book. I am planning to post my "adventures" in a minute.

Thank you for keeping up with the progress.

My question: Are you adding any aggitation - fan or hand - to move the plants to strengthen the stems?

meadowyck

meadowyck
Brooksville, FL
(Zone 9a)

May 6, 2010
8:37 AM

Post #7769248

These stems look wonderful, what variety of tomato are they?

Also, did you keep all and just replant to another large block as I think you said at one point about you were just going to clip out the others?

Janet
Niere
Chepachet, RI
(Zone 5b)

May 6, 2010
9:44 AM

Post #7769409

Hi Meadow--sorry it's taken me a while to get back to you. You know how crazy this time of year is!

I tried starting tomatoes once in one of those Jiffy seed-starting kits--not sure exactly what the medium was, it had one of those pellets that you add water too and it expands. The seedlings did okay, not great. A friend of mine starts his in cell packs and it's very obvious the difference between his plants and mine--he's convinced it's because of starting the seeds in the blocks. I purchased a block maker for him as a gift and he's been trying his hand at it--he's still getting the hang of making the blocks, so we'll see how it goes for him. I've given him some extra plants before and he always says "look at those roots!" He's gardened and farmed for longer than I, so I take him at his word.

I originally came across the block-making method in Eliot Coleman's book "The New Organic Grower.". He goes into great detail about block making and the benefits of starting seeds using this method. Since he says it better than I, I'll simply quote Mr. Coleman:

"A soil block is pretty much what the name implies--a block made out of lightly compressed potting soil. It serves as both the container and the growing medium for a transplant seedling. The blocks are composed entirely of potting soil and have no walls as such. Because they are pressed out by a form rather than filled into a form, air spaces proved the walls. Instead of the roots circling as they do upon reaching the wall of a container, they fill the block to the edges and wait. The air spaces between the blocks and the slight wall glazing caused by the block form keep the roots from frowing from one block to another. The edge roots remain poised for rapid outward growth. When transplanted to the field, the seedling quickly becomes established."

I hope that explains things a bit--if you're interested in trying it, I know Johnny's carries the block makers and you can probably pick up Mr. Coleman's book at the library. He also discusses multiple seeding in soil blocks, a method I've used for onions and it's worked very, very well for me. This year I'm trying it on beets. :)
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

May 10, 2010
8:17 AM

Post #7780093

Niere wrote: [quoting Coleman] "A soil block is pretty much what the name implies--a block made out of lightly compressed potting soil.  . . . "

I'm not sure I would say "lightly compressed", since the recommended compression seems to be 2-1/2 or 3 to 1.

Niere also wrote: . . . if you're interested in trying it, I know Johnny's carries the block makers . . .

I got mine from http://www.pottingblocks.com/. There appear to be a few other sources on line.

Be sure to get the ones made by Ladbrooke in England. Although I've not yet run across them, I've been told that there are some less-expensive and cheaply-constructed knockoffs out there.

This message was edited May 10, 2010 10:18 AM
Niere
Chepachet, RI
(Zone 5b)

May 10, 2010
10:16 AM

Post #7780483

I purchased my block maker from Johnny's and it is the Ladbrooke product. Russ, I can't comment on your compression numbers--all I know is that I fill up the blocks with the moist growing medium mixture, give them a good press or two and then pop them out. It seems to work for me. :)

Speaking of which, I need to start potting up some of my tomato seedlings. Russ, I hope you post more pictures, your seedlings look wonderful. :)
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

May 24, 2010
9:26 PM

Post #7824770

A couple of suggestions have been passed to me that bear investigation:

1. Using black plastic bags over the trays when starting seeds in the 3/4-inch micro-blocks.

(One of the reasons my seedlings were too floppy, I'm sure, was that there was a little residual light in the garage from a high, frosted window.)

2. Rotating the micro-blocks 90 or even 180 degrees when placing them into the "wells" on the 2-inch blocks.

(This would have the effect of putting the stem deeper into the larger block.)
Niere
Chepachet, RI
(Zone 5b)

May 25, 2010
10:59 AM

Post #7826208

So Russ, I'm sure you have your tomato seedlings potted up by now--what did you think of the soil block experience? What differences did you notice between the soil block method and other methods you have tried? I love soil blocks, but that's me. :)
Niere
Chepachet, RI
(Zone 5b)

August 8, 2010
5:24 AM

Post #8026207

Russ if you are still around I'd enjoy hearing how your plants started in blocks have been making out. :)
mom2goldens
Carmel, IN
(Zone 5b)

September 8, 2010
7:09 PM

Post #8088158

Bumping this up--would love an update on how your tomato plants did, Russ.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

October 5, 2010
11:44 PM

Post #8140463

Now that things are slowing down, I'll try to do a wrap-up and summary before the end of the month.

But, yes, I'll definitely be using blocks from now on!

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

January 9, 2011
10:58 PM

Post #8301776



I just found this thread, and loved it! I always appreciate "I did this and saw this happen" much more than "everyone should always do it my way".


Engineers rule! There can be no excess in the pursuit of Detail!

1.
For speeding up seed and pkt handling: I suggest plastic Zip-locks. Contrary to popular belief, they DO allow humidity and oxygen to diffuse slowly right through the plastic material, and also through the zip closure. As the original ad for metal zippers boasted: "ZIP it's open, ZIP its closed!"

I print pkt labels double-sided in 10-point font. Plenty of room for detail and still fit in a 2"x2" or 2"x3" baggie.


2.
I love your idea of staggering the 4x5 arrays of blocks! I usually use a plastic pointer to remind me how far I've gotten with small, dark seeds.

Instead of, or in addition to the maps, you could use labeled mini-venetian blind slats, dropped into the slits between blocks.

3.
I find that the corners of my outdoor raised beds dry out faster than the dges or centers. Now I line the corners with heavy plastic film.

You might tuck some Saran Wrap around your corners, if that does not prevent air pruning.


4.
In my opinion, thermal managment is 30% insulation, 25% location of sensors, 25% controlled air circulation, 10% thermal inertia, and 10% adding heat. As you found, insulation is usually key!

I suggest that anyone using a heat mat add insulation underneath, somehow contain heat loss out the sides (as with a bigger enclosing tray or sheets of cardboard). If the room is cold, maybe drape plastic film over the plastic dome(s).

If heat loss is reduced, temperature cycling can probably be reduced, and a less-powerfull pad can warm a larger tray in a colder, draftier room.



4.
Here's a nerd's daydream. Most of this is tongue-in-cheek, but if I had enough time and budget ...

Practical gardeners seem able to get by without Rube Goldberg, but where's the fun in that? I don't think anything below is PRACTICAL, at least not for any installation with fewer than 100 trays.

. . .

If space and time permit, and you embrace complexity and don't mind non-recurring effort, there are elaborate ways to get very uniform heating over a large area even if ambient temperatures and wind vary a lot.

I would try to heat a shallow air chamber UNDER the trays, insulated everywhere except straight up. This chamber should be sealed, or at least venting minimized and directed upwards.

Separate the wet trays from the electricity in the air chamber with a 4 mil plastic sheet or perhaps a sheet metal tray.

A small DC fan from a PC would keep the air chamber VERY uniform, except for the heaters cycling on and off.

This air chamber would let you use ANY heaters and several of them, instead of an expensive one-element area heater like a water-resistant mat.

- Recycled coffee pot warmers.
- A kitchen stove element or hot plate.
- A dis-assembled toaster, if the air chamber were dry enough.

(Two or three of these should be wired in series, to bring the power level down to 50-100 W. Pulse width modulation, predictive power levels and variable set points with a micro- contoller would be "nice" but not necessary. I thought of ways to wire three resistors and a few relays so that you could get a range of power levels that varied by 9X. Without even using PWM!)

Maybe an old hair dryer, to combine heater and fan in one pre-fab module! (But PC fans use less power, and you don't need as much volume or speed as a hair dryer puts out, until you build the 100 square foot version.)

The fan could be replaced by a pierced metal baffle or spreader between the heat sources and tray bottoms. Two air gaps: between heaters and baffle, and between baffle and trays. But nothing is as uniform as moving air.

(A high-tech, major-effort, large-area approach would be a DIY "mat": Nichrome wires from a toaster or cloths dryer, potted in something truly waterproof, heat-resistant and thermally conductive, with some thermal inertia. That would eliminate any need for an air chamber or spreading baffles. A concrete pad would be fairly conductive of heat, but it is permeable to water. Maybe concrete with a thick layer of waterproof paint? Maybe spray epoxy over the nichrome wires, then glue them to the underside of a metal tray, then spray more epoxy and sit it on a glass wool mat.)

If the air chamber is used, I would be inclined to have two control loops.

One control loop would keep the air chamber (or metal baffle, or concrete pad, or metal tray) at a known maximum temperature, say 80 F.

The SET POINT of the air chamber could be adjusted by the second control loop, for maximum smoothness.

Or the second loop could drive the first loop "bang-bang", turning heaters but not fan off when the soil was warm enough. However, that might produce too much cycling since the soil probably has a lot of thermal inertia. If so, the air chamber needs some low-power heaters that stay on most of the time, and one higher-power heater that cycles on demand.

(I like adjusting the air chamber set point ("power level control") better than "bang-bang" control, but that might require an EE to join the design team, or adding a little micro-controller and a software engineer. Is this now complex enough that we need a Systems guy as well?)

A microcontroller would manage multiple sensors and power levels nifty-keen! It would make it easier to integrate multiple sensors and average them, or work off max and min measurements. Sensing the shed air temperature would let it do some predictive adjustments to further reduce temperature swings despite thermal inertia and very different night and day control regimes.

I think we can get by with nothing more complex than fuzzy logic, but the Systems guy might suggest something elaborate. Actually, all we need to do is tune the power level to the ambient temperature, but that depends on many variables.

I think a micro-controller could also eliminate the need for the 1500 W room heater to control ambient temps. Just put the whole array of trays under one big hood, and bleed some air from the air chamber into the hood when needed. That way, you can control both soil and leaf temperature, with less power wasted heating the shed.

And of course the micro-controller could add humidity control by opening and closing flaps on the hood.

What am I saying? It should mist the blocks on a timer, or under control of a soil conductivity sensor. Maybe a weight-based sensor.

Maybe play soothing or stimulating music to the seedlings, depending on time of day or phase of moon.

As I think about it, a Systems guy would be a big plus when we apply for the government grant. And we'll need a lawyer for patent protection.

Or, perhaps, all we need is a psychiatrist specializing in Severe Nerd Syndrome. (For me, not Russ)

Corey

dreaves

dreaves
Hutto, TX
(Zone 8b)

January 10, 2011
5:30 AM

Post #8301971

Corey--very nice!
evelyn_inthegarden
Sierra Foothills, CA
(Zone 8a)

January 10, 2011
1:30 PM

Post #8302949

[quote="RickCorey_WA"]

I just found this thread, and loved it! I always appreciate "I did this and saw this happen" much more than "everyone should always do it my way".


Engineers rule! There can be no excess in the pursuit of Detail!

1. For speeding up seed and pkt handling: I suggest plastic Zip-locks.
a.I print pkt labels double-sided in 10-point font. Plenty of room for detail and still fit in a 2"x2" or 2"x3" baggie.


2. I love your idea of staggering the 4x5 arrays of blocks! I usually use a plastic pointer to remind me how far I've gotten with small, dark seeds.
a. Instead of, or in addition to the maps, you could use labeled mini-venetian blind slats, dropped into the slits between blocks.

3.I find that the corners of my outdoor raised beds dry out faster than the edges or centers. Now I line the corners with heavy plastic film.

4.I suggest that anyone using a heat mat add insulation underneath, somehow contain heat loss out the sides (as with a bigger enclosing tray or sheets of cardboard). If the room is cold, maybe drape plastic film over the plastic dome(s).

(In my opinion, thermal managment is 30% insulation, 25% location of sensors, 25% controlled air circulation, 10% thermal inertia, and 10% adding heat. As you found, insulation is usually key!
If heat loss is reduced, temperature cycling can probably be reduced, and a less-powerfull pad can warm a larger tray in a colder, draftier room.)

OK, that is enough to read. (Your editor!) ...to be continued...

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

January 10, 2011
1:46 PM

Post #8302975

Yes, I DO need an editor!

Sometimes, in email, when I type 20 paragraphs of nonsense, I will indent it and reduce the font size.

Such section could be sub-titled "best skipped".

However, last night vision of heating elements danced throguh my head.

The "air chamber" is undesirable becuase it reduces coupling and slows response time. The heaters should be in contact with the tray holding the soil. hence it must be a diffuse planar heat source.

Glue some nichrome wire in a serpentine pattern onto a sheet of gypsum drywall (heat and electrical insulator). Space the wires 1/2" to 1" apart, VERY UNIFORMLY. Somewhere around 2-5 Ohms per foot and 10-15 strands of wire per 11" width would give the power levels desired (around 50 Watts per 11"x21").

Then some THIN electrical insulator / heat conductor like heat-resistant plastic goes on top of the wires. The thckker and more conductive this layer is, the more widely you can space the resistance wires. Perhaps it would be best to run 22 or 44 strands at 1/4" to 1/2" spacing.

OR ... buy a heating mat with a thermostat.

But where's the fun in that?

Corey
evelyn_inthegarden
Sierra Foothills, CA
(Zone 8a)

January 10, 2011
3:29 PM

Post #8303141

RickCorey_WA wrote:


Here's a nerd's daydream.

Most of this is tongue-in-cheek, but if I had enough time and budget ...
Practical gardeners seem able to get by without Rube Goldberg, but where's the fun in that? I don't think anything below is PRACTICAL, at least not for any installation with fewer than 100 trays.
. . .

If space and time permit, and you embrace complexity and don't mind non-recurring effort, there are elaborate ways to get very uniform heating over a large area even if ambient temperatures and wind vary a lot.

I would try to heat a shallow air chamber UNDER the trays, insulated everywhere except straight up. This chamber should be sealed, or at least venting minimized and directed upwards.

Separate the wet trays from the electricity in the air chamber with a 4 mil plastic sheet or perhaps a sheet metal tray.

A small DC fan from a PC would keep the air chamber VERY uniform, except for the heaters cycling on and off.

This air chamber would let you use ANY heaters and several of them, instead of an expensive one-element area heater like a water-resistant mat.

- Recycled coffee pot warmers.
- A kitchen stove element or hot plate.
- A dis-assembled toaster, if the air chamber were dry enough.

(Two or three of these should be wired in series, to bring the power level down to 50-100 W. Pulse width modulation, predictive power levels and variable set points with a micro- contoller would be "nice" but not necessary. I thought of ways to wire three resistors and a few relays so that you could get a range of power levels that varied by 9X. Without even using PWM!)

Maybe an old hair dryer, to combine heater and fan in one pre-fab module! (But PC fans use less power, and you don't need as much volume or speed as a hair dryer puts out, until you build the 100 square foot version.)

The fan could be replaced by a pierced metal baffle or spreader between the heat sources and tray bottoms. Two air gaps: between heaters and baffle, and between baffle and trays. But nothing is as uniform as moving air.

(A high-tech, major-effort, large-area approach would be a DIY "mat": Nichrome wires from a toaster or cloths dryer, potted in something truly waterproof, heat-resistant and thermally conductive, with some thermal inertia. That would eliminate any need for an air chamber or spreading baffles. A concrete pad would be fairly conductive of heat, but it is permeable to water. Maybe concrete with a thick layer of waterproof paint? Maybe spray epoxy over the nichrome wires, then glue them to the underside of a metal tray, then spray more epoxy and sit it on a glass wool mat.)

If the air chamber is used, I would be inclined to have two control loops.

One control loop would keep the air chamber (or metal baffle, or concrete pad, or metal tray) at a known maximum temperature, say 80 F.

The SET POINT of the air chamber could be adjusted by the second control loop, for maximum smoothness.

Or the second loop could drive the first loop "bang-bang", turning heaters but not fan off when the soil was warm enough. However, that might produce too much cycling since the soil probably has a lot of thermal inertia. If so, the air chamber needs some low-power heaters that stay on most of the time, and one higher-power heater that cycles on demand.

(I like adjusting the air chamber set point ("power level control") better than "bang-bang" control, but that might require an EE to join the design team, or adding a little micro-controller and a software engineer. Is this now complex enough that we need a Systems guy as well?)

A microcontroller would manage multiple sensors and power levels nifty-keen! It would make it easier to integrate multiple sensors and average them, or work off max and min measurements. Sensing the shed air temperature would let it do some predictive adjustments to further reduce temperature swings despite thermal inertia and very different night and day control regimes.

I think we can get by with nothing more complex than fuzzy logic, but the Systems guy might suggest something elaborate. Actually, all we need to do is tune the power level to the ambient temperature, but that depends on many variables.

I think a micro-controller could also eliminate the need for the 1500 W room heater to control ambient temps. Just put the whole array of trays under one big hood, and bleed some air from the air chamber into the hood when needed. That way, you can control both soil and leaf temperature, with less power wasted heating the shed.

And of course the micro-controller could add humidity control by opening and closing flaps on the hood.

What am I saying? It should mist the blocks on a timer, or under control of a soil conductivity sensor. Maybe a weight-based sensor.

Maybe play soothing or stimulating music to the seedlings, depending on time of day or phase of moon.

As I think about it, a Systems guy would be a big plus when we apply for the government grant. And we'll need a lawyer for patent protection.

Or, perhaps, all we need is a psychiatrist specializing in Severe Nerd Syndrome. (For me, not Russ)

Corey


Love all those details, Corey - just, for me a bit too much for my pea-size brain to assimilate in all one sitting! I hope that I did not mess up the intent of this thread or hurt your feelings. That was not my intention. I suppose not all of us are as bright as you and Russ. So please excuse me if I tried to pare it down to make it easier to read. I did nothing to the second post. I just thought it was a bit too lengthy for us ADD folks. I had to skip over Russ' math details as well or I would still be there trying to understand it.

(Edited for spelling) Even the editor needs to be edited! LOL!

This message was edited Jan 10, 2011 4:33 PM

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

January 10, 2011
4:01 PM

Post #8303216

I hoped that anyone who saw "nerd's daydream", and then the looney techno-gibberish would skip the rest if they weren't already amused.

No offense taken, I know I'm verbose and late-night rambles are ectra-verbose.

Also, I used to live in New Jersey! :-)

Corey
evelyn_inthegarden
Sierra Foothills, CA
(Zone 8a)

January 10, 2011
5:17 PM

Post #8303389

OK, Corey - what does New Jersey have to do with anything?

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

January 10, 2011
6:30 PM

Post #8303534

>> I hope that I did not ... hurt your feelings.

In New Jersey, spoken or writenn words hqave little power to hurt anyone's feelings. That requries an over-30-MPH collision.

The state bird is an extended middle finger.

"F U" or "Get F ...'d" are jocular ways to greet a friend. I used to greet one friend I worked with with "Good F-ing Morning, G-- D-- it!"

"Hurt feelings"?

(Checking for bullet holes)
(Broken legs? TWO broken legs would be unfriendly way to send a message.)
(Fire bombs?)
(Air let out of tires?)
(Cut off in traffic?)

Nope!

Corey
evelyn_inthegarden
Sierra Foothills, CA
(Zone 8a)

January 10, 2011
7:37 PM

Post #8303651

Corey ~ How long did you live in New Jersey? (Thanks for the explanation!)

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

January 11, 2011
10:35 AM

Post #8304663

Around ten years. Long enoguh to appreciate the predictability of the drivers. No matter what the traffic sotuiation is, you always know what they are going to do.

Put their pedal to the metal, and cut you off.

The only unpredicatble part is how they curse, and which hand they use to give you the finger.

Corey
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

March 14, 2011
11:37 PM

Post #8427766

Corey, I appreciated your technical ramblings and musings rather a lot!

I've thought of some technie innovations myself, one being a uP-based board that simply hangs on the rack of 16 trays and manages everything--heat, light, watering and anything else I can tack into the system. Since I do a lot of work with uPs anyway (I'm a Microchip Certified Design Partner), this wouldn't be tough . . . it's finding the time!

And I'll be posting some of this season's soil blocking steps with additions, changes, and perhaps experiments.

Russ

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

March 15, 2011
12:15 AM

Post #8427777

I've been doing embedded control for some decades, and think hard real-time control is the most fun kind of software there is!

I was just put on a project where the customer provides an API to every hardware resource, schedules each part of our SW as threads that HE controls. We don't even have interrupts! Most humiliating of all, we are so protected from every interssting challenge that we don't even need to block interupts to protect critical sections. We can't even GET AT anything that would need to be protected.

Where's the fun in that?!?

I was thinking of a cold-frame-manager that interfaced via blue tooth to a cell phone (or would call you at work or in bed if it overheated or cooled beyond its ability to correct). My comm experience is CANbus, BitBus, Rs-this-and-that and SPI, butI know the workld has gone to USB and wireless - clearly a garden app should be wireless.

It would drive a few stepper motors to open vents or lit the lid.
Maybe drive a set of vertical blinds to provide shade (or reflect more sun in).
How about two big rollers, that could pull a big blanket over the cold frame, then unroll in the morning until only a few ropes draped over it?
It could drive a relay to apply electric heat (or burn your house down, depending on how good your wiring and water-proofing was.

That's just a warm-up project. What I REALLY want to do is a robotic slug-zapper.
I've seen a YouTube video of tingling them with just a 9-V battery, so imagine what we could do with stepped-up AC!

Perhaps this would be extensible to voles, but by then the DoD would classify our work. And voles cry out for lasers or particle beams, anyway.

An impossibly-diffcult challenge would be a solar-powered pollinator. Dream on!

But you have identified the most limitng resource of all: OUR TIME!

And retiring won't solve the problem:
Even with a job, there never seems enough budget for the garden.
If retiring provides more time, it will mean much less money and probably less energy!

Corey
evelyn_inthegarden
Sierra Foothills, CA
(Zone 8a)

March 15, 2011
9:42 PM

Post #8429649

If you retire with good health, mental and physical, you should have plenty of energy and time, though your resources may be limited. If you start a special retirement fund for your garden projects along with a proposed budget, taking into account the ever-increasing prices and inflation, you might have an interesting project waiting for you.

You will have the time, and maybe the money. If you think that for some reason the money will not be there, or for some reason may not be enough, save your seeds. That will be an investment no one can take away from you.

(Musings from a confessed seed-aholic...)

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

March 16, 2011
7:57 PM

Post #8431538

>> If you retire with good health, mental and physical ...

I'm starting 'way too late for that, especially if I hoped for mental health ... ;-)

Corey
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 4, 2011
12:14 AM

Post #8470413

Okay, folks, we're back for more fun with soil blocking.

I'm running a bit later than I intended this year, but I don't think the plants will care. I don't set them in the ground until Memorial Day weekend anyway.

I started everything very much as I did last year.

Two experimental changes:

(1) I used some coir (side note 2, April 2, 2010), rehydrated and combined 1:4 with ProMix; and

(2) I added a packet of unflavored gelatin to each gallon of water (including the water to rehydrate the coir, and probably not needed with tiny cubes, but I'll be trying gelatin with the larger ones, too).

I must have learned something last year; this year it took just short of 2 hours (instead of the "less than 3 hours" reported on March 31 last year) to prepare 3 trays of 300 micro-blocks each--a total of 900 micro-blocks--and that still included two smoke breaks. When I state "prepare 3 trays", I mean get out all the tools, wrap the heat mats, smooth the sand, make the blocks, and clean up.

This was in some respects a "speed run"--I didn't rinse the blocker between charges.

NOTE: You can take my micro-blocker from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!


This message was edited Apr 4, 2011 1:19 AM

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

April 4, 2011
7:17 PM

Post #8472544

I've heard in a few places that coir ofte comes with some salt absorbed, and if you use much of it, you might want to flush it first (with squeezing).

I put mine in a wheelbarrow and filled it with water, let it sit for a day, dumped the water, repeated several times. But I'm still only planning to use a little in pots, none for seedlings.

Hopefully coir distributers will start selling "rinsed" coir, or "salinity guaranteed to be below XXX".

Corey
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 8, 2011
10:58 PM

Post #8482029

RickCorey_WA wrote:I've heard in a few places that coir ofte comes with some salt absorbed, and if you use much of it, you might want to flush it first (with squeezing).


I've not heard that, but it's good to know about.

The coir I tried comes compressed into a fairly small "brick", so I have to assume that it has been thoroughly wet at least once, then seriously sqeezed before drying.

When I rehydrate the next batch, I'll check conductivity.
mom2goldens
Carmel, IN
(Zone 5b)

April 9, 2011
6:11 AM

Post #8482325

Russ--I've not heard of using gelatin before with seedlings. Can you explain why it is used?

Thanks!
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 10, 2011
9:09 AM

Post #8484971

mom2goldens wrote:I've not heard of using gelatin before with seedlings. Can you explain why it is used?


It's something I'm trying (based on a suggestion) to increase the "handlability" of the micro-blocks, which are about the size of sugar cubes. I'll likely also try it with the 2-inch blocks.

So it's just an experiment (like the coir) and nothing to get excited about. It has to do with the physical state of the soil blocks and little or nothing to do with germination and/or plant health.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 10, 2011
9:15 AM

Post #8484979

I noticed, in two of three trays of micro-blocks, one block each that had developed a white, wispy mold with little threads, possibly not unlike that reported in http://davesgarden.com/community/forums/t/1169445/.

Conditions this year compared to last year are very similar. The only significant difference is the addition of coir, so it may be that the mold spores came in with that. I used medium left over from last year, so it could have picked up the spores, too.

This message was edited Apr 15, 2011 6:17 PM to add:

Improved air circulation made the mold disappear quickly.

This message was edited Apr 15, 2011 6:19 PM
mraider3
Helena, MT

April 10, 2011
3:14 PM

Post #8485606

Russ, I have been watching your progress here and I would offer a suggestion on the mold or even dampening off. I use grated, spent worm media (formerly peat moss) as my germination media, and I use to have the same problems. Now I initially bottom water the 3.5-inch peat pots I typically use for starting tomato and pepper seeds with a 1:32 dilution of 3% hydrogen peroxide to water. I can also mist with this same solution several times per day. The concentration of hydrogen peroxide can be doubled in the mister to treat the mold spores once the problem develops. Also a small fan can be of assistance.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 15, 2011
5:23 PM

Post #8498602

mraider3 wrote:I would offer a suggestion on the mold . . . I initially bottom water . . . with a 1:32 dilution of 3% hydrogen peroxide to water. I can also mist with this same solution several times per day. The concentration of hydrogen peroxide can be doubled in the mister to treat the mold spores once the problem develops. Also a small fan can be of assistance.


I used dilute H2O2 two years ago when I was still working with plastic pots but didn't need it last year with the blocks. If the problem recurs (ventilation has solved it, so far), I'll try it again.
mraider3
Helena, MT

April 17, 2011
3:14 AM

Post #8501196

Sounds like you have it under control then Russ. Quick question for you Russ about something here which has been nagging me: I plan to make some cubes today for starting some peas and beans as an experimental transplanting project. When I read through your procedure you have gone to great lengths to quantify the solid volume vs. water for your media mix, however when you make several successive presses you do this within the mixture if I read your procedure correctly. After a series of making these cubes it would appear that the ratio of solids to water changes significantly. If I am reading this correctly then what effect does this change make on the compression process and does it become more difficult to make consistent blocks as you proceed through the mixture?
Niere
Chepachet, RI
(Zone 5b)

April 21, 2011
9:19 AM

Post #8511064

Just thought I'd pop in here--I've been enjoying reading Russ' experiments with the blocks. Go Russ! :)

The only thing I'd like to add is that, depending on your situation, it's not altogether necessary to be precise about everything for soil blocks to work. I've been making blocks for a few years now and for me, if it's not simple and somewhat forgiving, forget it. If anyone is interested, this is what I do:

Get a nice large wheelbarrow. In that, mix about two parts seed starter mix (like Pro-Mix or what have you) to one part sphagnum peat moss. Spend a little extra on the peat--cheap peat will have lots of big twigs in it, for a few dollars more you avoid that hassle. Trust me, it's worth it. Mix the peat and the soiless mix and then add water until the entire mix has a good moist but not over-runny consistency. If it's a little too wet no big deal, just add a little bit more of the mix.

After this I usually put a board across my wheelbarrow along with one of my seed trays. Then I just get out my soil block maker--I start with the two-inch block maker--and fill the blocker with the mix. I try to make sure each block is good and full, add a little more or wipe off any excess, and then press the blocker down onto the board. I squeeze the compressor usually two or three times to get most of the water out and make sure the blocks are good and compressed and then voila! lift the press and there are four nice blocks. :)

A note about the trays I use--I use non-draining trays, which allow me to bottom water which I find works very well for me and *thus far* I've not had any problems using this method. The down-side to those is that once I get them outside I have to make sure they stay out of the rain, so until I get things potted up I find myself moving trays in and out a lot. :) Right now I have fourteen trays started (no tomatoes yet, that'll be next week) but so far so good. I've attached a picture of my onions just starting to come up.

I'm not saying my technique is the "right way" or that anyone else's is "the wrong way"--I'm just saying that we all have differing methods and strategies that work best for us, our personalities and our gardening situations. :D I'm so glad that Russ started this thread--I'm a big fan of the blocks and they've worked great for me. :)

Thumbnail by Niere
Click the image for an enlarged view.

RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 21, 2011
11:09 PM

Post #8512730

mraider3 wrote:When I read through your procedure you have gone to great lengths to quantify the solid volume vs. water for your media mix, however when you make several successive presses you do this within the mixture if I read your procedure correctly. After a series of making these cubes it would appear that the ratio of solids to water changes significantly. If I am reading this correctly then what effect does this change make on the compression process and does it become more difficult to make consistent blocks as you proceed through the mixture?


As I noted else where in the thread, I am an engineer; it's my nature to quantify. One reason I've done so is to make the process dependably repeatable from one year to the next, rather than relying on my memory.

The answer to your question is both "yes" and "no".

Yes, the consistency of the pile of mud in front of you becomes increasingly thin and watery as you take out solids, squeezing excess water from them. No, it isn't difficult to make consistent blocks if you add dry (or drier) mix to the watery mess you're blocking from.

This year, I laid my tray so that I was working at one end and the excess water drained to the other, then over the lip and out of the tray.

RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 21, 2011
11:37 PM

Post #8512751

The photograph shows the arrangement I described in my previous post.

Thumbnail by RussMartin4154
Click the image for an enlarged view.

6aseeder
Arlington, MA
(Zone 6a)

January 6, 2012
6:38 PM

Post #8957431

about to try soil blocks for the 1st time, and i appreciate your input here, and all your enginuity [sic], russ. did you ever test the conductivity of the re-hydrated coir ?

thanks for all who have added to the conversation,
donna
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

January 8, 2012
10:13 PM

Post #8960046

6aseeder wrote: . . . Russ. did you ever test the conductivity of the re-hydrated coir ?


No, I never tested the conductivity, although i suspect it would essentially measure the same as whatever water was used.

I doubt that I'll use coir again, certainly not for the microblocks.
6aseeder
Arlington, MA
(Zone 6a)

February 3, 2012
2:14 PM

Post #8993579

what was wrong with coir?
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

March 16, 2012
3:48 PM

Post #9045288

6aseeder wrote:what was wrong with coir?


Nothing was wrong with the coir per se. Some of the little fibers interconnect the blocks when they are pressed. The blocks then need to be cut apart with a knife; pulling the blocks apart to separate them pulls on the fibers and causes the blocks in which they are embedded to come apart.

This wasn't a problem with the larger (2-inch) blocks, so I may reconsider and use coir in only those.


This message was edited Mar 16, 2012 4:50 PM
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 7, 2012
12:59 PM

Post #9073235

RussMartin4154 wrote:

1. Sifting

* * *

For making the micro-blocks (which are approximately 3/4-inch cubes), it's recommended that the mix be sifted through a 1/4-inch screen. This is to remove any pieces of material large enough to keep the little blocks from compacting properly. (If they don't compress correctly, it seems that they'll more easily fall apart.) Fortunately, I have both 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch sieves for my soil sifter.

* * *

The Pro-Mix has a very fine texture. The only thing left behind on the screen are clumps, soft little clods up to about an inch in diameter, and they break up easily into very fine mix, but it's faster just to shake the sifter and dump the clods in the other tub before returning them to the bag. With this mix, at least, the sifting step can probably be skipped.



I wrote the above two years ago. Last year, I indeed skipped the sifting step with the Pro-Mix and had no problems.

This year, what a difference!

As I prepared the microblocks, I discovered lots and lots of pieces that kept them from holding together. The worst microblocks I tossed into the mix for making the 2-inch blocks.

It just doesn't take that long to sift the mix for the microblocks because it doesn't take that much mix to make a tray of 300, and I only make up 3 trays of microblocks. At best, I would have discovered, immediately, that this batch of Pro-Mix was different in consistency and texture from that of 2011 and 2010.


RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 9, 2012
4:34 PM

Post #9076109

This year, the 2-inch blocks are going directly into paper pots.

Thumbnail by RussMartin4154   Thumbnail by RussMartin4154
Click an image for an enlarged view.

6aseeder
Arlington, MA
(Zone 6a)

April 9, 2012
5:17 PM

Post #9076165

still in mass production, i see.

then do the paper pots go into the final destination? previously, did you do 4" blocks or pots?
1lisac
Liberty Hill, TX
(Zone 8a)

April 10, 2012
11:44 AM

Post #9077169

When you plant out do you just put the whole thing, paper and all, in the ground? If so there is a thread on Beg. Veggies that could use your input.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 25, 2012
9:15 PM

Post #9098053

6aseeder wrote:Then do the paper pots go into the final destination? Previously, did you do 4" blocks or pots?


Except for the novelty of them, I've never seriously used the 4-inch blocks, although I may try it this season with some mustards and herbs that I'll be keeping here. I've read of others who have grown lettuces and cabbages, for example, in 4-inch blocks that never go into the ground . . .

Previously, I've rolled paper pots for the customers right on the spot, when they buy the plants. Basically, I'm trying this strategy as a time-saving one.


RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 25, 2012
9:19 PM

Post #9098057

1lisac wrote:When you plant out do you just put the whole thing, paper and all, in the ground?


Yes, the plant in its paper pot goes directly into the ground. As long as the paper is above ground, it stays intact even when wet; once in the soil, it breaks down quickly. Even before it does, young roots penetrate it easily.

I'm referring, of course, to newspaper. Regular printer/copier paper also makes good pots (fold once, lengthwise) but I don't know if it breaks down as rapidly.


6aseeder
Arlington, MA
(Zone 6a)

April 26, 2012
6:26 AM

Post #9098367

what a great idea to roll paper pots for customers on the spot.
RussMartin4154
Omaha, NE
(Zone 5b)

April 28, 2012
7:38 AM

Post #9101080

6aseeder wrote:What a great idea to roll paper pots for customers on the spot.


For those interested, the system I use for the paper pots was developed by a "neighbor" of mine (well, about a mile away). It is by far the best system I've come across, far better than the otherwise-cute wooden forms. His website is http://www.potterfactory.com/ and he offers these only by on-line order.

Last June, when one of my grandsons was visiting, he learned to make paper pots with this system in minutes only, then gave demonstrations for the gardening club at the local magnet school.


This message was edited Apr 28, 2012 8:39 AM

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

April 30, 2012
7:59 PM

Post #9104822

I was saving paper coffee cups so I would have give-away pots for neighbors.

But it looks like his scheme would work with a short length of 3-4" PVC pipe plus a plunger.

gretagreenthumb
Wichita Falls, TX

May 28, 2012
8:59 PM

Post #9142597

Wow! Very interesting. And to think I sat here tonight and read most of this ( I had to skim past some of the engineering talk -- sorry). Years ago I did the small micro blocks with good success. Now I'm anxious to check out the 2" block, but will have to wait for next year. Most of my stuff is already in my garden. Tomato bushes are 4 and 5 feet tall, started from seed. Such fun -- gardening is. Just hoping I get a few tomatoes before triple digits set in, which will come much too soon! Come to think of it -- I have gotten a few tomatoes! YUM!

Thanks for sharing your experiences -- all of you!

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